10,000 Light Bulbs: The Story of the Chrysler Building

Updated on May 13, 2018

Background

The Chrysler building has stood in midtown New York at the corner of 42nd and Lexington for the past 88 years. Designed by architect Willian Van Alen, with its stainless-steel art deco flare, it is globally one of the most iconic buildings and was the tallest building in the world at the time of its completion on May 27th, 1930.

In the 1920s, skyscrapers were the new commodity in America, particularly in New York, which was the fastest rising US city at the time. This was due to port trade, finance and a booming population driven by work opportunities in the city.

A quarter of the major US corporations had offices in New York(1). Everyone wanted the most decadent office in the most prime location, and they didn’t care how much they paid to get it – after all, business was booming.

The desire for swanky offices was one a man by the name of Walter P. Chrysler was happy to fulfill.

Humble Beginnings

“The reason so many people never get anywhere in life is because when opportunity knocks, they are out in the backyard looking for four-leaf clovers” – Walter Chrysler(2)

The Chrysler Building’s creation was commissioned by its owner, Walter Chrysler, head of the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler had followed in the footsteps of his father, working as an engineer and mechanic most of his life. He often worked on the railroads but was restless and changed jobs frequently.

The automobile industry was becoming big business in the early 20th century and Chrysler became quite passionate about cars. However, his first career in the auto industry did not happen until 1911, when Chrysler was then 36 years old.

Chrysler owed this later-life career change to a man 12 years his senior by the name of Henry Ford.

How Ford Helped Chrysler

“I will build a motor car … so low in price that [nobody] making a good salary will be unable to own one” – Henry Ford(3)

Many technologies were becoming affordable household goods in the 1920s including the radio, microwaves, and of course, the automobile.

However, before Ford, automobiles were extravagantly priced. It was Ford’s ingeniously implementation of the mass production assembly-line that changed the game.

The mass production line meant that instead of each car having to be made individually by a team of mechanics and engineers, each part of the car could be worked on by separate groups one after another in a line.

The result was that the process was faster and more streamlining which reduced the cost of making cars by 50% and the labor by 90%(4).

All of this would come to benefit Walter Chrysler who entered the automobile industry at the right time to profit considerably from the sudden increase in car sales.

From Buick To Chrysler

Chrysler’s first automobile job was working as a production chief for Buick in 1911. He received an annual salary of $6,000. Already a skilled mechanic and engineer due to his time working on the railroads, he further honed his skills there.

By the time he left the company 8 years later, he was running Buick and had made over a million dollars.

Chrysler plowed the money and expertise he gained from Buick into creating his own automobile company.

In 1924, the first Chrysler car was rolled off the production line and in 1928 he had amassed the kind of wealth that enabled him to commission the creation of a brand-new skyscraper: The Chrysler Building.

The Competition

Walter Chrysler didn’t just want any skyscraper. Walter Chrysler wanted the tallest skyscraper in the world.

He hired the construction company Fred T. Ley & Co along with an architect called William Van Alen(5), who had more experience in building malls than skyscrapers, but was nevertheless up for the challenge.

However, Chrysler had some competition for the world’s tallest building. Over in downtown New York, at 40 Wall Street, a group of bankers commissioned construction of a new Bank of Manhattan building, and they were determined to beat Chrysler to the top!

Elevated To New Heights

Two recent inventions helped contribute to New York’s trend for skyscrapers in the 1920s: steel frameworks and elevators.

Before steel frame construction was invented, masonry construction was used instead. This meant that buildings had to have very thick walls for support, whereas steel frames were sturdy but flexible allowing for thinner walls, faster construction and taller buildings.

Invention of the elevator contributed enormously to the skyscraper boom because, before elevation technology, buildings were limited by how many flights of stairs a person could realistically be expected to walk.

With 200 flights of stairs(6), Chrysler’s high rise tenants would not have been too pleased if it hadn’t been for elevators!

Without these two technologies there would be no skyscrapers.

How Fast She Rose

The 1920s was one of the greatest eras for skyscrapers. Because New York City had an unquenchable thirst for high-rise buildings, workers – usually Irish immigrants - got a lot of practice!

Although it technically took two years to build the Chrysler Building (from 1928 to 1930), this was mainly due to design setbacks caused by building laws and the competition from the Bank of Manhattan.

Every time the Bank of Manhattan added more height, the Chrysler Building’s architect was under instructions to do the same! This caused Van Alen to continually return to the drawing board.

The bulk of the work was actually completed in just the tail-end of 1929. At its fastest, the Chrysler Building was increasing in height by four floors per week(7).

Skyscrapers today take at least as long as the Chrysler to build, if not longer, in part because modern-day building and safety regulations are far stricter than in the 1920s.

By comparison, China’s Global City Square, which exactly matches the height of the Chrysler Building, took 5 years to build in the 2010s. The current tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, also took 5 years to build(8).

The Chrysler Building's infamous stainless steel dome topped by the 185-foot spire
The Chrysler Building's infamous stainless steel dome topped by the 185-foot spire

In-Spired

It was difficult for the Chrysler Building to beat the Bank of Manhattan to the title of world’s tallest building because both the Chrysler team and the Bank of Manhattan team were watching each other so closely.

If the Chrysler team added more floors, Bank of Manhattan would match it, and vice versa.

However, having watched their competitors carefully, the Bank of Manhattan owners believed Chrysler would not go higher than 800 feet and they confidently set a final height for their building of 927 feet.

In fact, because design on the Bank of Manhattan was faster (just 12 months from April 1929 to April 1930), they very briefly won the title of world’s tallest building while the Chrysler Building was still under construction.

Since construction was nearly complete on the Chrysler, it was not believed they could gain any additional height and everyone thought they would be relegated to second place.

How the Chrysler Building eventually won out was thanks to an ingenious plan by the architect, William Van Alen.

Van Alen decided a spire would be added to the top of the building. But, to keep the plan a secret from the competitors, it was actually constructed within a chamber inside the top of the building.

Thirty days after the Bank of Manhattan owners celebrated their victory, the Chrysler Building grew an astonishing 185-foot in just 90 minutes as the spire was hauled up from its hiding place just before the buildings completion(7).

It was too late for the Bank of Manhattan to do anything about it and so it was their building instead which was bumped down to second place.

Fact Sheet
The Chrysler Building is 1,046 feet (318.9 m) tall with 77 floors
Today it is the 6th tallest building in New York, but the 80th tallest in the world
It is over 43% taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza
The tallest building in the world before it was the Bank of Manhattan at 927 ft (283 m) and 72 floors
The Chrysler Building's record was broken by the Empire State Building in 1931 which rose to 1,454 ft (443.2 m) and 102 floors
A worker sat on the edge of the Empire State Building with the completed Chrysler Building in the background
A worker sat on the edge of the Empire State Building with the completed Chrysler Building in the background

Safety First

Along with setting a new height record, the Chrysler Building set a new standard for health and safety.

Deaths were common place, because skyscraper workers of the 1920s didn’t use safety harnesses and were often scaling steel frames like trees in a park.

“In those days, it was considered the norm for a building to have one death for every floor above the fifteenth floor," notes author, Vincent Curcio.(7)

The Chrysler Building had 3000 workers. With 77 floors it could have resulted in 62 fatalities.

But it had none.

By comparison, the Empire State Building’s construction caused 5 worker deaths and the original construction of the World Trade Center in the 1970s caused 60(9).

"Spare No Expense!"

Like many skyscrapers in New York, the Chrysler building was designed to house hundreds of expensive office buildings which would be leased out to wealthy tenants such as Time Inc and Texaco.

The building cost 15 million dollars to make – today, chump-change but in the 1920s, a considerable amount. Much like John Hammond, the extravagant business owner in the movie Jurassic Park, Walter P. Chrysler wanted to "spare no expense!"

The exterior of the building featured a striking art deco design complete with a dome, spire, eight stainless steep eagles and Chrysler car parts including hubcaps, fenders and replica hood ornaments.

The interior was decked out with the latest technology of the time including a digital clock and grandiose mural in the foyer(6). There were 32 uniquely designed elevators finished with mahogany and other wood brought in from all around the world.

The whole building had state of the art air conditioning (a luxury for the time) and was lit by 10,000 light bulbs.

"You Can Learn A Great Deal About America…"

On the second floor sat a Chrysler car showroom with the shiny, latest models on display, and an observatory on the 71st floor was designed with a space theme with intricate ornaments of planets.

It was here, in the 71st floor observatory that Walter Chrysler displayed his original mechanics toolbox with his initials etched into every spanner and wrench.

At the building’s grand opening, Chrysler told onlookers:

"You can stand on this observation platform and see 40 miles in all directions and learn a great deal about America. But you can learn a great deal more about America by gazing into that toolbox!"(7)

Short-Lived

Although the Chrysler Building’s main competition for world’s tallest building had come from the Bank of Manhattan, there was also a new kid on the block quietly observing the situation.

The plot of land for the Empire State Building had been purchased in 1929 and the building’s owner was determined to beat Chrysler.

The Bank of Manhattan building had enjoyed just a 30-day stint as the world’s tallest building and now it was Chrysler’s turn to give up the title.

It may have gotten a little longer than the Bank of Manhattan, but after just 11 months of being the world’s tallest building, the Chrysler was surpassed by the Empire State Building which was completed at 1,454 feet (408 feet taller) on April 11th, 1931.

In Before The Crash

The stock market was doing spectacularly well in the 1920s, but this was largely a mirage driven by the new fever for commercial goods and, in reality, the economy hadn’t actually recovered from the cost of World War I.

A horrific stock market crash occurred on October 29th, 1929, since known as “Black Tuesday”, and so began the Great Depression(10). It “brought the United States economy to its knees. The stock market collapsed [and] nearly half of the US banks failed”(11).

Because Walter Chrysler had secured high paying tenants on long contracts prior to the completion of the Chrysler Building and was in a prime location close to Grand Central Station, he was able to ride out the wave.

The Empire State Building, however, did not fare so well. Despite being only 11 months younger than the Chrysler Building, this small age gap put it solidly into the Great Depression era.

The inability to find tenants resulted in it being mockingly referred to as the Empty State Building in the 1930s and it took around 20 years before it became profitable(11).

So, while the Chrysler Building may have lost out to the Empire State Building for the title of world’s tallest building, Walter P. Chrysler had the last laugh.

Today

After Walter Chrysler passed away at the age of 65, just 10 years after the Chrysler Building’s completion, the building’s ownership changed hands many times.

Today it is mainly owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Council(12) who paid $800 million for 90% ownership in 2008.

The Chrysler Building has also had many interior and exterior refurbishments over the years. But it remains one of the most iconic buildings in the world and a legacy to Walter Chrysler and 1920s American Dream.

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