Posted in Observations

Art Deco Madness

Except for its number, 666 Third Avenue in Manhattan is not a particularly notable address. But if you work there, as I currently do, you’ll find it unique—it enjoys a connecting passageway to that 1930 riot of art deco on Lexington Avenue, the Chrysler Building.

I have the delight of walking through good old CB’s ground floor several times a day. The lobby is an experience—the decor of all the early sound films you’ve ever seen seems to spring to life in zigzags, diagonals and Broadway-lettered signs. Where else can you see elevator doors that look like this?

Or a clock like this?

Or gaze at this?

The building’s origins are just as gaudy as its appearance. The brainchild of Walter Chrysler of automobile fame, it represented his effort to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. Architect William Van Alen’s original design differed somewhat from the building we know today, and was in fact submitted to a previous client who turned it down as impractical. The project was sold to Chrysler, who wanted his building to sport the same type of exterior features he had on his automobiles—the hubcaps and hood ornaments that made his cars distinctive (Needless to say he got them, though he stiffed Van Alen on his fee, the curse of all licensed professionals). Ground was broken in 1928 and the race was on. Construction of the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building at 40 Wall Street was underway, and this promised to be the winner in the World’s Tallest category. Until, of course, Chrysler construction workers secretly assembled the famous spire inside the building and hoisted it through the roof, topping the structure off at 1,047 feet. This was the first man-made structure to exceed 1,000 feet in height.

Alas, the Chrysler Building’s reign only lasted 11 months, until the Empire State Building won the crown with a height of 1,454 feet (antenna included). However, unlike the Empire State, which was constructed from stock materials, the Chrysler Building was, according to David Stravitz, author of “The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon Day by Day,” hand-crafted—not just the elevator doors, but the stainless steel items, such as the spire, the building crown and the exterior ornaments, all of which were made in Manhattan sheet metal shops. King Kong may have made the Empire State famous, but only the Chrysler Building has gargoyles like these:

Other fun facts:

—The Chrysler Building once had an observatory on the 71st floor and a restaurant called the Cloud Club (how perfect is that?) which occupied Floors 66-68. This was created at tenant Texaco’s request, which wanted an exclusive luncheon club for its top-level executives. While the membership roster expanded slightly, it was in its heyday the epitome of corporate executive power—women were verboten. Ultimately it fell victim to the “tear down, don’t restore” syndrome of the 1960’s, but while it was around the Chrysler Room looked like this:

The main dining room:

—Walter Chrysler boasted of having “the highest throne in the world” since his bathroom occupied the top floor of the building. Unfortunately his plans to relocate Chrysler corporate headquarters to his namesake structure never happened, though the lobby did become a showroom for the latest in Chrysler–Dodge–DeSoto design.

It’s a privilege to experience this every day.

Update! Update! This morning I found the passageway from Grand Central Station to the Chrysler Building. The underground hall in CB has marble walls and boasts a shoeshine parlor (very spiffy) and a deli with a great neon sign. Winding stairways, also marble walled, take you right up to the lobby without having to brave the January cold on Lexington Avenue. Art deco bliss.

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