The Silver Spire

How two men's dreams changed the skyline of New York



On a mild October day in 1929, the architect William Van Alen stood at the corner of Fifth Av­enue and Forty-second Street, shaking with fear as he stared at a spot a few blocks east and very high up. Nearly eighty stories in the air, from out of a dense web of steel, the tip of a needle gleamed and began to climb; Van Alen later wrote that the spire of the Chrysler Building had emerged that day "like a butterfly from its cocoon." But the butterfly stood a hundred and eighty ­five feet tall and weighed twenty-seven tons, and nothing like the operation of securing such an object at such an altitude had ever been attempted before. Van Alen reported that he went on shaking whenever he thought about the possible danger to people on the street, who had received no warning of the archi­tectural coup taking place above their heads.  The previous week, the Times had announced that the Chrys­ler Building's framework was complete, after less than a year of construction, and that the building had reached its full height of eight hundred and eight feet, or sixty-eight stories, a figure that allowed Walter Chrysler's competitors to sit back on their foundations and gloat: he had, with remarkable docility, ceded his goal to build the tallest building in the world. Although the newspapers had been fol­lowing the skyward contest almost foot by foot, there were no reporters or pho­tographers on hand to share Van Alen's anxious vigil. The spire, a triumph of nerve as much as of ingenuity and steel, was meant to take the city by surprise. The highest thing on the Manhattan sky­line rose into view in ninety minutes flat.

The Chrysler Building's observatory

But the exquisite execution of this insane plan was kept so secret that the newspapers failed to report it at all, and historians have never known exactly what day or even what month the renowned event took place. The eminently practical Christopher Gray, in a brief introduction to a new volume of rediscovered photo­graphs, "The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day" (Prince­ton Architectural Press; $45), scoffs at the notion that the spire's emergence actually came as a surprise - how many workmen had to be in on the plan? - but he allows only that it must have been erected sometime in Oc­tober or November; that is, after Chrysler's long­ standing rival, the Bank of the Manhattan Company, down at 40 Wall Street, had gone as high as it could go. One of the many grip­ping photographs that fol­low, however, catches the drama nearly in the act. 

According to the book's catalogue, the negative is dated October 23rd. The photograph shows a small celebratory flag - a sure sign that a building has just "topped out" - flying like an exclamation point above the triumphant obelisk­-shaped spire, which thrusts up from the skeletal ovoid ridges of the dome. Both structures are in their raw steel state. In fact, the inef­fably metaphorical Chrys­ler dome had only recently taken its final form. The quintessential jazz baby of buildings turns out to have been, in several vital aspects, an improvisation: a riff on height and speed which kept altering shape as dares and provocations forced it higher, the perfect symbol of an age of endless pos­sibilities. How eerily apt that the last risky upward rush seems to have taken place on the eve of Black Thursday - Octo­ber 24th, when the stock market brought the boundless world that the Chrysler Building represented crashing down. 

These photographs are themselves a remarkable souvenir.  Large in format, nearly tactile in detail, they have been printed from a cache of negatives, many on flammable silver-nitrate film, found in the crumbling office of an elderly photographer who was going out of busi­ness. In another week, their rescuer, David Stravitz, writes, they would have been sold off and converted into silver. This magic, mercurial aura suits the subject well. Still, these are utilitarian pictures, most of them taken by a commercial firm for the pur­pose of getting the contractor paid. The majority are dated in bold white print at the corner of the plate, and some bear inscriptions such as "Boiler Room Vault Wall."  Noone intended these as works of art. Yet, from the moment that the site is blasted down to bedrock, in November, 1928, to the slow striptease of scaffolding in 1930, from workers straddling the ma­jestic eagle gargoyles to taxicabs the size of pumpkin coaches lined up in front of Schrafft's below, these coolly objective records can inspire intense emotion.

The tower was clad in a revolutionary alloy that made it a beacon to ships at sea

Although the pictures were discovered more than twenty years ago, it seems clear why they are being published now: it is heartening to see images of a great build­ing going up. And if as seems inevitable with historical photographs, the sur­rounding cityscape evokes nostalgia for a New York unreservedly optimistic and in bud-a freshly painted ad for five-dollar shoes appears on a wall only briefly ex­posed by construction; a movie theatre offers Laurel without Hardy - these pic­tures are most valuable not in evoking what we have lost but in meticulously de­tailing what we have right before our eyes: the Art Deco wonder of the world, its ea­gles still fiercely guarding Lexington Av­enue against all incursions of reality. For nothing in the old carnival city appears quite as fantastic as William Van Alen's pulsing automobile-age vision, material­izing with all the cathedral-age crafts­manship that Walter Chrysler's money could buy.  "The fulfillment in metal and masonry of a one-man dream," a critic called the newly completed building, yet historians have had reason to disagree about which man's dream it represents, and whether its mythic symbols derive from German Expressionism or from Coney Island. By the time the elaborately inlaid elevators made their first run up to the splendiferous Cloud Club, in the summer of 1930, a new "tallest building in the world" was under construction down on Thirty-fourth Street, and Chrys­ler and Van Alen were at each other's throats. But in their own brief flight to­ward the clouds they had managed to perfect, as much as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington, the uniquely American style of the honky-tonk sublime.

The Chrysler Building would not look as it does if Dreamland had not burned down in 1911. Coney Island's white-towered Freudian fairway had been the brainchild of a real estate en­trepreneur named William H. Reynolds, whose reputation for public mayhem was such that when a short circuit in the "Hell Gate" exhibit set the entire blocks­long place ablaze, some newspapers as­sumed that it was just another stunt. Fi­nancially drained and cured of his taste for artificial fantasy, Reynolds turned his attention to the real-life fantasy of Manhattan, where he proposed to erect the tallest building in the world. Although the Woolworth Building beat him to the punch, in 1913, and the war slowed him down, by the time the late-twenties boom began he had got hold of a choice piece of land at the new city hub around Grand Central Terminal, and had hired William Van Alen to execute the design. 

As the association suggests, Van Alen had a reputation of his own as a show­man, albeit one in thrall to the most coolly modern materials and means. Scant rec­ord of his early life exists, but his begin­nings were apparently modest: a Brooklyn boy, born in 1882, he enrolled in night classes at the Pratt Institute after the sud­den death of his father, in 1897-Jacob Van Alen was struck by a locomotive while crossing the Long Island Rail Road tracks - and found work as an office boy in an architectural firm by day.  A few drafting and design jobs later, in 1908, he won the Paris Prize for his drawing of a grand opera house; in the three years that he spent getting wisdom at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the cafe Les Deux Mag­ots, he was transformed.  One architecture critic wrote that Van Alen was the only student to return from Paris without a boxful of books, and he went on to quote the young architect's credo (whether the indicated oddities of pronunciation were meant to reflect traces of France or Brook­lyn or sheer revolutionary intoxication we will never know); "No old stuff for me! No bestial copyings of arches and colyums and cornishes! Me, I'm new! Avanti!" 

There was no cornice on the first build­ing that Van Alen designed when he got back to New York - in 1915, this was a guerrilla tactic.  And he does not seem to have mellowed with age.  During the twenties, in partnership with H. Craig Severance, he designed a Madison Av­enue shoe shop that dispensed with the usual dully inanimate display of shoes; instead, in an enormous oval window two cobblers plied their trade.  The com­bination of glass and theatre was even more striking in a Childs restaurant on Fifth Avenue, where six stories of win­dow rounded a corner, and the multi­tiered display of ladies at lunch was ru­mored to have inspired Ziegfeld.  Van Alen's most radical design, however, was his original plan for the Reynolds sky­scraper, which featured a jewel-like glass dome and a base in which triple-height showroom windows were topped by a full dozen stories with glass-wrapped cor­ners, creating an impression that the massive tower above rested on air.  Noth­ing as artistically or technologically am­bitious had been attempted before-and it was not attempted now.  Had it been built, both Van Alen's career and the poker game of New York architecture would have played out very differently. 

Reynolds evidently disapproved of this advanced and costly scheme. The official "Reynolds Building" design, pub­lished in August, 1928, was a far more conservative venture, with an Italianate dome that one critic said looked like Governor Al Smith's derby hat, and with a brickwork pattern on the upper stories which cleverly (and cheaply) mimicked comer windows, and which is a recog­nizable feature of the Chrysler Building today.  In fact, this design displays the central forms of the existing building exactly: tower, flanks, setbacks, window runs.  Yet it differs in everything that makes us think of the Chrysler as unique: the glittering fantasy that defied the aus­tere new modernist ethos (Lewis Mum­ford awarded the building a "Booby Prize" for 1930) by turning decorative de­tail into architectural essence.  The trans­formation began that October, when Reynolds defaulted on his lease and Wal­ter Chrysler was ready with the money, reportedly two million dollars, which got .him the property, the design, and the architect, too. 

The money came from a personal account.  Although Chrysler had been searching for a site for his business head­quarters since he'd set up his corporation, just three years earlier - during which time it had gone from thirty-second place among car manufacturers to third-this was not a corporate acquisition. Chrysler wanted the building as a project for his sons, who had suffered the misfortune of growing up rich, and whom he wished to feel "the wild incentive that burned in me from the time I first watched my father put his hand to the throttle of his engine."  Like his father, who had been a locomo­tive engineer on the Union Pacific, Wal­ter Chrysler was a hands-on mechanic for most of his life.  He had little formal education - he used to lie about graduat­ing from high school - but, as his biogra­pher Vincent Curcio shows, his feeling for machines was akin to genius. 

Born in Kansas in 1875, Chrysler started out at sixteen sweeping train sheds for ten cents an hour; at thirty­ two, he was master mechanic for the en­tire Chicago Great Western line. When he moved to the ailing Buick car com­pany, in 1911, he saved General Motors a fortune by replacing old wood-carriage techniques with methods suited to steel. He was earning a million dollars a year when he moved to New York in 1920 to take over the Willys-Overland motor company, and by the time his engineers were test-driving the first Chrysler car, in 1923 - "We had dreamed about it as if we had been its lovers," he wrote-he and his family were ensconced on a vast French Renaissance estate in Great Neck (not far from Scott and Zelda Fitzger­ald's), complete with a boathouse and pier on Long Island Sound; in good weather, he liked to sail his yacht to work. 

A real-life Gatsby, Chrysler had got rich enough fast enough to marry his beautiful Daisy, only to realize that the true love of his life was his car. As a young husband and father, he blew the family savings and went deep into debt to buy a brand-new Locomobile, whose ivory body he recalled for decades as his "siren's song."  He didn't long so much to drive it, though he waited three months for that - as to dissect it, working in his garage over every valve and knob until he could have built the vehicle from scratch.  "Had I been Aladdin," he wrote, "I'd have taken that old lamp apart to see if I could make another, better lamp."  His own better dream machine made its debut in January, 1924, at a show in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel; the first line of Chryslers came in a range of "King Tut" colors aimed at the average middle-range pharaoh: pyramid gray over desert sand was a popular combina­tion.  The distinctive winged cap of Mer­cury atop the hood served as a silvery pun - it was the radiator cap - but it was also a fair promise of speed: these cars were beating uphill racing records that summer.  Fortune later noted that Chrys­ler had produced the perfect car for the twenties, "a period when desires had supplanted needs" - what better defini­tion of being rich? - and it was not long before he determined to produce the per­fect building.  It might be taken as a sign that in 1928 a new model Chrysler was called the Silver Dome. 

A skyscraper is a psychological phenomenon.  Economics have always supplied a justification, but in truth the added costs of building very high - ­deeper foundations, elevators taking up floor space - were often unrecoupable.  In 1929, the American Institute of Steel Construction released a study that re­ported diminishing returns above the sixty-third floor in midtown Manhattan; nevertheless, it was only the Crash that killed a host of plans for edging up toward where profit was near to nil.  The Chrysler dome begins at the building's sixty-sixth floor and officially rises to the seventy ­seventh, but all the spaces above seventy­ one are so cramped and contorted that these "floors" have not been rentable for anything but radio equipment; from the seventy-fifth level up, the jack-o'-lantern windows" are open to the winds.  Sky­scrapers are about power and longing for transcendence and, as everyone will tell you, about sex: the Empire State Building was known for a time as Al Smith's Last Erection.  But the great creators them­selves were concerned with an even more profoundly American drive: advertising.  And with seeing that the other guy didn't get there first - particularly if the other guy was somebody you knew. 

Walter Chrysler took over the building process quickly, and it seems that nothing was too fantastic to be consid­ered. In March, 1929, the press offered details of an "artistic dome" in the form of a giant star "with thirty points set up on end," to be surmounted by "a sculptured figure sixteen feet high" - whether of Walter Chrysler or some other deity was not specified.  And then, in July, the Bank of the Manhattan Company, designed by Van Alen's former partner H. Craig Severance and under construction at 40 Wall Street, announced that it was build­ing straight up to a tower of eight hun­dred and forty feet - more than thirty feet beyond the Chrysler Building (which went unmentioned) and therefore the tallest building in the world. Soon after that, on the thirtieth of August, Al Smith announced his first plans since losing the race for President: he was supervising the construction of a new office tower, to be known as the Empire State Building­, eighty stories tall, or exactly a thousand feet, and eat our dust.  And the man who had hired Smith and put the plan to­gether was John J. Raskob, a former finance chief at General Motors, who had helped Walter Chrysler get his corporation started, and who some believe had ex­pected more than he got in return. 

"The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day" is a strictly figurative title. Sadly, the book contains not a single picture from September, 1929, when all hell broke loose as plans for the top of the building were stretched upward, in response to the summer's bulletins, while construction forged steadily on. Van Alen noted mildly that "it was necessary to resort to the unusual" because of the "after­ consideration nature" of what he'd had to do.  A drawing published at the time shows that he had been planning a more reasonably compact form of the crown we know-six rounded tiers instead of seven, a lesser spire-but the change from stable semicircularity to elongated gothic tension, in one of the most complex geo­metric structures built before Frank Geh­ry's museum at Bilbao, supplied a shock that still registers on the eye. 

Tension was part of the process. A pho­tograph from August 30th shows open sky beyond the sixty-first floor.  Through September, curved beams akin to immense steel barrel staves were manufactured in a New Jersey shipyard and assembled into vaults on-site.  By October 7th, when the shutter clicked again, a dozen new floors sprout a crazy maze of steelwork, at the top of which, on October 14th, an enor­mous platform is mysteriously perched. It is indeed hard to imagine that anyone who could count believed the news that the building had topped off at sixty-eight stories; or failed to realize that something was, literally, up.  Still, it would have been difficult to predict the scale of the cloud­piercing "needle"-delivered in five un­assuming segments and assembled in the central airshaft-which brought the Chrysler Building to a title-clinching one thousand and forty-six feet four and three-quarter inches.  And not a possible quarter inch more -as Raskob and Smith were well aware when, a few weeks later, they announced that plans for the Empire State had been ratcheted up to a nose-thumbing thousand and fifty feet. 

But as Louis Sullivan, pioneer of the skyscraper, showed, there is more than one way for a building to appear transcen­dently tall.  And, as Walter Chrysler knew, unlimited amounts of cash and glamour always help.  Although he had lost the race for supremacy in height, as an architec­tural patron Chrysler now managed to do what not even Louis XIV had done before him: he enlisted the sun as a worker in his atelier.  As construction on the Empire State Building began nearby - plans soon added another two hundred feet, and an airship-mooring mast was thrown in for dramatic effect - the Chrysler dome and spire, hidden under scaffolding, were clad in a revolutionary metal that looked like an alloy of steel and light.  The use of diamond-honed Enduro KA-2 steel, de­veloped by Krupp in Germany after the First World War and exhibited for the first time in 1926, was Chrysler's most signif­icant decision.  He had had it tested for months, to be sure that no amount of exposure would tarnish its almost metaphys­ical silver glow.  When the top of the build­ing was revealed, in 1930, critics marvelled at the incandescence that made it a bea­con even to ships far out at sea; not a sin­gle metal sheet has ever been replaced, and on clear days the Chrysler tower is still outshone only by the sun itself. 

But the first extensive architectural use of stainless chromium-nickel steel pro­vided more than a gleaming surface for Van Alen's design; it appears to have pro­vided an inspiration. Conjecture about the source and meaning of the Chrysler's majestically heaped-up arches and trian­gles has ranged from car wheels (with spokes) to a chorus girl's headdress (with feathers) to Angkor Wat.  In Van Alen's mind, the origins seem related to the imaginative leap from glass and brick to the possibilities of steel, as signified by the peculiar March announcement of an "ar­tistic dome" that would have been, in es­sence, a work of sculpture: a human figure standing on "a star with thirty points set up on end."  Luckily, the figure never made it off the drawing board.  But the giant star may still be seen, visibly trans­formed into architecture, in the silver dome's radiating burst of jagged, sharp ­cornered windows.  People will always make their own associations; that is part of the building's power.  But anyone who looks up and counts will find that there are exactly thirty triangular windows ­thirty star points set on end-per side. 

Also clad in the new metal's glow were the nine-foot-high pineapples and colos­sal radiator caps and fierce eagle heads that animate the building's corners like grotesques looming out from a medieval cathedral. It seems odd today that such extravagant fantasy was denounced at the time as being too commercial: "advertising architecture," Lewis Mumford sneered.  True, the Chrysler decorative scheme of­fered a newly overt kind of self-display: a brick frieze depicting hubcaps zipped around the thirtieth floor, punctuated by those imperial radiator caps with wing­spans of fifteen feet.  It was noted, by con­trast, that the Woolworth Building had not been covered in big nickels and dimes.  Yet so fixed has this notion of advertising become that the building's most magnif­icent ornaments, the glowering thrust­ necked eagles, are often presumed to derive from automobiles, although no eagle ever decorated a Chrysler.  In fact, the perfect model eagle glowers just a block away, thrusting its head straight out from behind the wing-capped god Mercury - who looks, under the circumstances, oddly like the radiator-capped god Mercury - on the monumental pediment over the main entrance of Grand Central Terminal. 

Like many railroad stations, the origi­nal Grand Central, built in the nineteenth century, was studded with sculpted eagles.  The pediment of the building that replaced it, in 1913, evokes this aquiline tradition, but the towering Chrysler eagles evoke the power that trains and steam and shrieking speed once had over the imagination - not sur­prisingly, considering that they were designed by a man whose father was killed by a locomotive for a man whose father was an engineer.  There is a boy's sense of scale and wonder in all the building's details and public spaces, whether they look backward to Kansas or forward to a sort of Emerald City, which a population of office work­ers entered every day through granite portals shaped like Egyptian tombs and flecked with mother-of-pearl. Yet, after passing through the lobby, with its rouge flamme marble walls, and riding up in el­evators styled like tiny Parisian drawing rooms, most people found themselves set down amid plain white walls and dull square windows-mere real life.  Van Alen did what he could to keep this sad phenomenon at bay, with elaborate radi­ator grilles and patterned doorknobs, but the economic reality of so many floors had to be conceded.  This was the ulti­mate distinction of Manhattan's Dream­land: even dreams came with a bill. 

Only at the level of the Cloud Club did fantasy resume.  Occupying three linked stories at the base of the dome, this executives' lunch club (which dou­bled as a speakeasy in its early years) was a stylistic riot of Georgian lobby, Tudor lounge, and Bavarian bar.  The main din­ing room, however, was pure cosmopoli­tan "Cheek to Cheek": faceted blue mar­ble columns with white-ice sconces that melted into a vaulted ceiling painted with clouds. Not many people got to see these clouds; membership was reserved for the likes of E. F. Hutton and Conde Nast.  But for fifty cents anyone could go up to the observatory, on the seventy-first floor, where the steeply tilted walls reflected structural necessity masked as pure de­sign through a close look at Expression­ist film sets, principally the angular mad­house of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." (Such German movies had made a deep impression on architectural thought, if not very often on practice.)  The observa­tory was open for only a few years, but photographs reveal that its decor of painted sun rays and ringed ­Saturn lighting globes gave the glorious space an unlikely, naive sweetness - an opti­mism that seems to emanate from the prominent reliquary ­like case in which, there at the summit, Walter Chrysler en­shrined his first set of ma­chinist's tools.  But the room itself enshrined an essential characteristic of the Chrysler and Van Alen enterprise: the determined innocence that turned Krupp steel into a crown of stars, and revamped the geometry of angst into an Art Deco heaven for the workingman. 

A different characteristic of the enterprise was revealed in June, 1930, one month before the Cloud Club opened, when Van Alen placed a lien on the build­ing in order to receive the balance of his fee.  Although he eventually won his case, word that Walter Chrysler had accused him of taking bribes from subcontractors seems to have lost him his reputation. Lit­tle else explains the sudden end of his ca­reer.  The Depression, limited construc­tion, the war: all may account for even an eminent architect's failure to get many commissions.  But, aside from a few exper­iments with prefabricated housing - there is something heartbreaking about the shape of the great Chrysler portals being refitted for a shower stall - Van Alen, "the Ziegfeld of his profession," seems to have had no further jobs at all.  Walter Chrysler, writing his autobiography in 1937, failed to mention Van Alen's name, referring only to "architects" and to his own hand in the work.  In 1941, a year after Chrysler's death, a notice in the Times mentioned that Van Alen was working on plans for an underground-garage project.  And then si­lence, extending to his death, in 1954.  The Times ran no obituary.  He left his money to establish an architectural scholarship fund, and to care for his wife, Elizabeth Bloodgood, who by the time of her death, in 1970, seems to have thrown away what­ever papers or letters or drawings still ex­isted.  There were no children. And there are no biographies, no serious studies, no archives.  One of the few photographs we have shows Van Alen dressed up as the Chrysler Building at the Beaux-Arts Ball in 1931: encased in silver metal cloth trimmed with eagle epaulets, he peers out from under an immense tiered headdress that is fastened down below his ears, so that he appears to be caught partway through the painful metamorphosis in which he vanished, whole, into his work. 

The building has gone through its own vicissitudes.  By the time the Chrysler fam­ily sold it, in 1953, the sleek glass style of Van Alen's initial design had become the standard by which every building was judged; ornament was a crime, and the Chrysler Building was a major culprit.  Little loved and subject to a succession of sometimes ruthless owners, it went through years of degradation: the tower sprang leaks; garbage piled up.  An exodus of tenants during New York's darkest pe­riod brought occupancy down to a deathly seventeen per cent; foreclosure proceed­ings began in 1975.  But tastes were already changing: postmodernism and suburban burnout and maybe even Saul Steinberg's drawings played a part in making urban eccentricity beautiful again.  Landmark status came in 1978, and the current fizzy night lighting - said to be Van Alen's original neglected scheme - was switched on in 1981.  Today, the building stands proud: Tishman Speyer Properties, which took it over in 1997, has done a spectac­ular lobby restoration and some vital re­pairs.  The tenant roster boasts a new-era glamour - Senators Moynihan and Clin­ton have had offices there; the Saudi mission to the United Nations is head­quartered in Walter Chrysler's former private office - and a sense of loyalty so strong that even those who never knew the place in its prime are aggrieved by the destruction of the Cloud Club.

 Astonishingly, the club kept its doors open until 1979, and after that remained more or less intact through an odd alliance of neglect and hope; tenant Christmas parties were held there through the late nineties.  Then, in March of 2000, the Art Deco Society of New York issued a bul­letin accusing Tishman Speyer of tearing the place apart.  Tishman has refused access to the press - invoking tenant privacy - ­but Christopher Gray assures us in this new book that the decor "partly survives."  Whom to believe?  A recent desperado visit by a reporter with a pounding heart reveals, alas: everything is gone, stripped down to the fireproofing on the columns where the white-ice sconces used to be, down to the brick on the inner side of the building's arches.  One tenant reports that dumpsters were piled with bits and pieces free for the taking.  This destruction was not illegal­ - only the facade and lobby have been land­marked.  And it was not smart.  The club's three floors remain unoccupied:  Dairnler ­Chrysler's plan to relocate its New York offices here apparently fell through when the dismal results of the merger quashed the upbeat symbolism of the move. But the greatest shame lies in the fact that for twenty years no one had the wit to find a use for what so abundantly existed.  And that the chance for any public space is gone; deprived of the smoke and mirrors and clouds, the fabled rooms appear merely inconvenient and startlingly small.

On May 1, 1931, at the opening cer­emony for the Empire State Build­ing, Mayor Jimmy Walker, cheerfully facing impeachment, congratulated the builders for providing "a place higher, fur­ther removed than any in the world, where some public official might like to come and hide."  AI Smith, in his derby hat, read a telegram from President Hoover, and Edmund Wilson recorded his impression that from these heights the Chrysler dome and spire appeared "now dwindled, a tinny-scaled armadillo ­tail ending in a stiff sting-like drill."  The following year, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the midst of a breakdown that seemed to mirror the country's own condition, went up to the Empire State observatory, on the hundred-and-second floor, to get his bearings.  And with a shock he felt that he understood it all: the delusions of the past, the present unbearable loss.  The re­alization came to him, he wrote, as it came to everyone who had looked out from this godlike height for the first awful time: New York had limits, the green-and-blue expanse into which it faded on all sides went on forever, but ­how could we have known? - New York "was a city after all and not a universe."

 The Chrysler observatory, monu­mentally overshadowed, had lost most of its business by then.  Decades later, when the World Trade Center was nearing completion, architects for the Empire State Building considered replacing its famous upper profile with a tower that would rise to a hundred and thirteen stories; two designs were published but shamefacedly withdrawn.  The issue of how tall our tall buildings ought to be has always vexed us.  Louis Sullivan thought that illusion was as important as actual size - "the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it" - while his student Frank Lloyd Wright, sworn enemy of the urban landscape, liked a strong cornice, to show that a building was, "emphatically, fin­ished!"  Le Corbusier argued that New York's skyscrapers were "much too small."  But William Van AIen, sworn enemy of the cornice, created a skyscraper that never visibly finishes at all. Anyone who looks up from the street will see.  The Chrysler spire rises to an impossible slenderness that disappears gradually, like a bird flying out of sight: it becomes increasingly difficult to follow, but that doesn't mean it isn't there; our senses merely fall behind.  This street-level vi­sion may provide some consolation against Fitzgerald's sense of loss: some­where in the empyrean, infinitely tall, the Chrysler Building is still going up.


By Claudia Roth Pierpont

This Article Appeared on November 18, 2002 in The New Yorker

Copyright 2001 The New Yorker