The Secret Feud That Made the Chrysler Building the World's Tallest

On May 26, 1930, the Chrysler Building officially opened, becoming the world's tallest building.

William Van Alen, Chrysler Building, H. Craig Severance

In a skyline full of distinct buildings, the Chrysler Building manages to be distinctive, even in New York City. Among those of us who hold favorites, it’s not uncommon to hear the Chrysler listed first and foremost. Its arched glass detailing and its reaching spire lend a dramatic break to the city’s air, but did you know that a years-long feud was the reason behind that very spire? Travel back to 1928 as we investigate the race to the top—literally.

The dawn of the 20th century was a good time to be an architect. The Industrial Revolution had encouraged innovation that allowed buildings to be taller, stronger, and stranger than ever. The building generally considered the world’s first skyscraper, Chicago’s 10-story Home Insurance Building, was built in 1885. Steel frames allowed buildings to rise far beyond what had been previously possible.

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As buildings grew higher, architects grew even more ambitious. Teaming up with prominent companies allowed their visions to be fulfilled—leading to the “Commercial” period of architecture, as urban skyscrapers became prominent first in Chicago, then cities around the country at the fin de siècle.

In the 1920s, New York City became the city with the most populous metropolitan area. As the Great Migration continued, black workers moved from the rural South to major metropolitans of the North like New York City. This migration pattern helped drive the city to over 10 million residents by the 1930s.

Its size made New York City the site of myriad technological and social advancements, as engineers, architects, city planners, and more figured out just how to stack millions of people living, working, eating, and playing within 300 square miles.

Men like Walter Chrysler realized that putting their names on the largest and most beautiful buildings in the city would ensure them decades of advertisement—and a living commemoration. Chrysler was just one of many who bankrolled a skyscraper, and, in fact, was the second man to take over the creation of what we now know as the Chrysler Building.

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Previously, the building had been the brainchild of New York State Senator William H. Reynolds. His vision soon outpaced his pockets—and his architectural abilities. Although by 1928, Reynolds had broken land for his building, he realized he would bankrupt himself attempting to complete it. Reynolds sold the land, his plans, and the services of his architect, William Van Alen (pictured left in topmost image), to Chrysler on October 15, less than a month after breaking the ground.

Reynolds’s plans had put his building at a height of 808 feet, with 67 floors. This would put the new scraper 16 feet higher than the Woolworth, the world's tallest building in the world in 1928. 

Walter Chrysler, namesake of Chrysler Building
  • Walter Chrysler in 1937.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By this time, banker George Ohrstrom had begun planning a 60-story office at 40 Wall Street: His original plans wouldn’t touch the height of even the Woolworth, but his ambitions soon rose. The architect for 40 Wall Street was one H. Craig Severance—Van Alen’s former partner (pictured right in topmost image).

Their firm had once been well-known for its ability to create stunning, multi-story buildings, but Van Alen’s introversion and Severance’s sociable personality soon came into conflict. They split up the firm after 13 years in 1924.

The former partners became rivals, striving for the same commissions. Van Alen, who had struggled to find meaningful commissions after the dissolution of their partnership, likely took his work on the Chrysler as his opportunity to show the world that he was not the lesser of the pair.

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In April 1929, Severance and Ohrstrom made an announcement—they had extended their plans, adding two floors that brought the building’s proposed height to 840 feet. 40 Wall Street would be taller than the Woolworth and the Chrysler.

Despite this one-upping, Severance was so sure that Van Alen would have more tricks up his sleeve that he applied for a permit for a giant lantern and a 50-foot flagpole. Of course, the entrance of the Empire State Building into “The Race in the Sky” may have lit a fire beneath him as well.

On November 13, 1929, 40 Wall Street was topped out, meaning that it had reached its highest height though interior work continued. Its final height, including lantern and flagpole, was 925 feet. When the building officially opened on May 26, 1930, it became the world’s tallest building for a brief moment.

Chrysler Building sketches
  • Stages of the Chrysler Building's design.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But Severance had been right to suspect that his former partner had additional tricks up his sleeve. In the fall, Van Alen had begun work on a 125-foot spire. Attempting to keep this from his former partner, Van Alen had the spire constructed inside the building’s facade.

In October 1929, the spire was unveiled and raised to the top of the Chrysler, raising its height to 1,048 feet. The quiet, introverted Van Alen had pulled it off.

Although the Chrysler too would be uncrowned, it would hold onto its laurels as the world’s tallest building from May 27, 1930 until the official opening of the Empire State Building 11 months later. 

By the time each of these buildings had been completed, the Great Depression was in full swing. The very stylings that make the Chrysler so iconic today—its extravagance, its Art Deco windows, its reach toward the stars—made it feel to many contemporary observers out-of-step and unnecessary.

Decades later, that feeling has shifted dramatically, and the seemingly petty feud to rise to the top goes mostly forgotten. But the Chrysler’s spire will reign tall amongst the city skylines for generations to come.

Sources: Living City Archive, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, The New York Times, Study.com 

Feature images via Wikimedia Commons, Alchetron.

Published on 26 May 2020