10 Top Secrets of the Chrysler Building

 
 

The story of Chrysler Building blends stories of the auto industry with the contributions that Walter P. Chrysler, as well as the Chrysler Corporation made on different aspects of Americana. You are about to know the 15 top secret stories of an American icon.

chrysler building from the empire state building observatory. photo: lucas compan

During a time of competition among industrial corporate titans and an evolving landscape in architecture, Walter P. Chrysler guided the design and construction of one of the most stunning buildings in the NYC skyline. This story gives access to a Chrysler experience that connects the style of the era as well as the lifestyle of Walter P. Chrysler. The story of the Chrysler Building offers insights into the family legacy that Walter P. Chrysler desired to leave. It also recognizes the significance of the building as a symbol of unique art deco American architecture that has captured the attention of designers, architects, tourists, entrepreneurs and others who appreciate the art deco effects that only welded steel and gargoyles against a setting of ornate murals and intricate designs can convey.

The Chrysler Building was completed on May 28th, 1930. The Building was designed by architect William Van Alen, but it really was industrialist Walter P. Chrysler that pushed the building to what it became. Chrysler saw an opportunity for the area to grow substantially, but mainly he wanted the building to be a personal monument to himself.

 

The Chrysler Building is an example of a building caught up in the quest to become the tallest in the world, which it obtained briefly for 11 months before it was surpassed by the Empire State Building.  But because of its iconic and beautiful design, the height of the building never really mattered. A classic example of Art Deco architecture, the Chrysler Building is considered by many contemporary architects to be one of the finest buildings in the world.  In 2005, New York's Skyscraper Museum asked one hundred architects, builders, critics, engineers and historians to choose their 10 favorite New York towers.  The Chrysler Building came in first place with 90% of people ranking it #1.

What stories would be hidden within the walls of The Chrysler Building? We asked ourselves this question. And started to dig deep into the history of this iconic landmark. Here is a list of 15 top secrets that are not usually known:


10. There Was Once a Water Bottling Plant in the Basement


Image: library of congress

 

In the lower level (basement) of the Chrysler Building, there was a water bottling plant. In the book The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon Day by Day, there is an old film negative labeled as the “hydro zone water bottling” unit. Author David Stravitz says, “Tap water was filtered through an intricate system and then bottled for water coolers to be distributed to tenants in the building. The large room was magnificent, with fabulous tiling throughout. Quite exotic for some space most people never saw.”

Tenants could cross under Lexington Avenue directly to the Lexington Avenue subway system. This was designed for convenience to avoid traffic, rain, snow, etc., when coming and going to and from the subway.


9.  It’s Made of Nearly Four Million Bricks


chrysler building. photo: lucas compan

 

The nearly four million bricks that compose the Chrysler Building were all laid out by hand. To be more exact, 3,286,000 bricks, 29.961 tons of steel, 5,100 windows (Source: New York Architecture). Several of its elements were also designed at Chrysler’s automobile empire. Parts of the building are composed of hubcaps, fenders, and radiator caps. The building’s famous gargoyles even resemble an old Chrysler hood ornament. The building is also decked out with 3,862 windows from which to gaze at the city.


8. The Top of the Chrysler Building is NOT Made From Hubcaps


 

There is a popular urban myth that Chrysler Building spire is made from actual hubcaps but it’s actually of stainless steel. According to Stravitz, the material was "produced in sheet stock called Enduro KA-2 from Germany. It was then hand-fabricated on site from two upper floors in the building. Imagine the precision on those intricate compound angles."

 

Diagram of the Chrysler Building Spire assemblage. Popular Science Monthly, August 1930

 
The spire was Walter P. Chrysler idea, and it’s made of special stainless steel. It shines so intensively, that it can be seen from miles by ships at sea.
 

chrysler building. photo: courtesy chrysler building


7. The Chrysler Building Was a Customized Building, Hand Crafted in Sheet Metal Shops on the 65th and 66th Floor


 

Below the 61st floor, the Chrysler Building was a fairly conventional office tower, with a shape that followed the setback formula required by the city's zoning law. Above the last setback and the stainless steel eagle-head gargoyles, though, both the program of the interior spaces and the architectural ornament entered the realm of the eccentric.

 

imAGE: NYPL

 

On floors 66 to 68, below the public observation deck (the second level of triangular windows), was the Cloud Club, a private dining and lounge space for executives who paid a $300 annual fee for membership to enjoy either the double-height dining room with Art Deco details or a more cozy Tudor lounge and “Old English” bar and grill. Walter Chrysler kept a private dining room with black etched-glass panels that looked north to Central Park. His offices in the tower, though, were outfitted in a baronial style of wood paneling and upholstered furniture.


6. There Used to Be A Three-Level Members Club and Speakeasy Near the Top


The romantically named Cloud Club was created partly at the behest of Texaco, or the Texas Company as it was called then, which before leasing 14 pricey floors in the new building, insisted that there be a suitable restaurant for its executives. The Cloud Club occupied the 66th, 67th and 68th floors of the Chrysler Building, and opened its padded leather doors in July 1930 to a membership of 300 movers and shakers, including E.F. Hutton, Condé Nast and the boxer Gene Tunney.

 
 

 The New York Times calls The Cloud Club “the inspiration for many of the others,” such as The Rockefeller Center Club, on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza; the Hemisphere Club and Tower Suite, on the 48th floor of the Time-Life Building; the Pinnacle Club, near the top of the 45-story Socony-Mobil Building; and the Sky Club, on the 56th floor of the Pan Am Building.

The Cloud Club had an eclectic mix of design, ranging from Futurist in the main dining room, Tudor for the lounge, and an Old English grill room. Perhaps because of its decor, or its original function, it never became hip and stylish like the Rainbow Room but it did have amenities like a barber shop and locker rooms that were used to hide alcohol during Prohibition. The club closed in the late 1970s, the spaces gutted for office tenants.


5. A Public Observatory on the 71st Floor is no Longer Accessible to the Public


In 1931 when the Chrysler Building opened, you could go up to the 71st-floor observatory (in the spire) and take in views of the city from all four sides for US0.50. The small triangular windows that were the result of the dome's design, however, created odd angles for viewing the city below. The Empire State Building, completed a year later, with its outdoor spaces and unobstructed vistas, became the more popular elevated experience, and the Chrysler Building's observatory continued to operate for just fourteen more years. 

 
 

The celestial-themed observation deck closed down in 1945 and according to Moses Gates in his book Hidden Cities, it's now occupied by a private company. However, the incredibly classic and beautiful Chrysler Building lobby is open to public visitation. More info at the footer of this story.


The Building Entrance lobby. image: finearts america

The Building Entrance lobby. photo: lucas compan


4. There Were A Couple of Apartments Hidden Inside The Building


Margaret Bourke-White stands on the scaffolding enclosing the under-construction Chrysler Building in New York, 1931. Photographer: Henri Cartier-Bresson.

 

On the top floor, Walter P. Chrysler had a private apartment and office and was said to boast of having the highest toilet in Manhattan. But LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White, well-known for her images on skyscrapers in the 1920s and 30s, lived in another apartment on the 61st floor. It was on this floor that Bourke-White herself was photographed atop one of the gargoyles in 1934. The lease was co-signed by Time, Inc. because the building wouldn’t rent it to a woman, despite her wealth and fame. She paid US$387.92 per month to live there, a good amount of money at the time. In today's money, it would be US$ 6,949.35.

 

This photo of Life Magazine’s photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White atop a steel gargoyle protruding from the 61st story of the Chrysler Building was taken by her dark room assistant Oscar Graubner in 1934.

 

According to The New York Times, Bourke-White hired her good friend, John Vassos, an industrial designer, to create an Art Moderne stylish interior, with extensive built-ins, subdued palette, woods and metals. There was a main sitting area, an alcove for her desk, stairs that go out to the terrace. The superintendent reminded Bourke-White that her lease did not include access to the terrace, and she wrote back, “Of course.” But she invited businessmen whom she wanted to befriend to have cocktails on the terrace.”

 

Walter P. chrysler

 

Another highly distinguished resident of Chrysler Building was Walter P. Chrysler. "He kept an office as well as an opulent huge private apartment on the top floor. The quarters had a lavish dining room, and at the time, he was proud to boast of having the highest toilet in Manhattan. It was his intention to have the Chrysler Building, at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, become headquarters for the car company, but that never did happen. In fact, he seldom visited the apartment and remained mostly in Chrysler’s headquarters in Detroit," tells David Stravitz.

 

A view of Walter P. Chrysler’s office in the Chrysler Building shows a combination of luxury and style but also attention to detail in every element of the office design.


3. There was a secret private bar during the Prohibition Era


 

During the Prohibition Era, The Cloud Club was also a speak-easy bar, available to its private member, equipped with secret coded-lockers to stash away their favorite liquors.


2. There Used to Be An Auto Showroom on the First Two Floors


Chrysler show-room

 

While the original purpose of the building as the headquarters for Chrysler never materialized, an automobile showroom was located in the lobby of the building. The New York Times reported in 1997 that the showroom actually once occupied the first two floors of the lobby. The lobby, made with Moroccan marble walls, yellow marble floors, chrome steel ornamentation, was a tribute to the primacy of the automobile at the time.


1. The spire of the building has had serious waterproofing problems


the chrysler building spire

 

The structure at the top of the Chrysler Building has had serious waterproofing problems over the years. While the stainless steel looked great from below, it had it's fair share of water problems. In the past years, there's been some serious repairs to the ever-leaking problems. Finally, they got it under control. It should be noted that the stainless steel crown was custom fabricated from two sheet metal shops right inside the building. Every cut of the stainless steel was done by hand and nailed onto the structure, and over time they leaked. Correcting this required a huge undertaking. Tis masterpiece of design needed serious attention. In the end, it was worth it. (NYT).

How about a tour inside the building on the highest actual floor? Click on the video below and enjoy.

Exploring with Moses Gates author of Hidden Cities. Climbed and scaled to the top of the Chrysler Building Spire in NYC to a space no bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet. You can't go any higher.


Bonus secrets


.The Spire Was Installed in About 90 Minutes


To compete with 40 Wall Street, then also under construction, for the title of World's Tallest Building, the spire was constructed secretly inside the building. On October 23, 1929, four separate pieces of the spire were lifted onto the dome of the building and riveted to each other. The spire was a total of 197 feet (61 meters), and weight 300 tons.

the empire state building seen from a windon in the spire of the chrysler building


. Walter Chrysler insisted on having the highest bathroom in the world


This was the world's tallest bathroom until perhaps the early part of 1931. then, there was probably a higher bathroom in the empire state building ;-)

 

The Chrysler Building is a classic example of Art Deco architecture and considered by many contemporary architects to be one of the finest buildings in New York City. In 2007, it was ranked ninth on the List of America's Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.

Walter Chrysler succeed for six months. Was there a higher bathroom in the Empire State Building? Must have been. So for at least six months until perhaps the early part of 1931, his throne was the highest in the world. His throne was unseated (pun) after 15 minutes (six months) of fame.


. Meet The Dentist In The Sky


Dr. Charles M. Weiss was known as The Dentist in The Sky. He worked in his dentistry office, where he created innovations in dental implantology.  Dr. Charles Weiss was born in 1927, worked in the Chrysler Building since 1962, in the crown (on the 69º floor) since 1969, until 2012, when he died.

Just imagine sitting in a dental chair, being worked on and having a spectacular view of Manhattan. Just imagine sitting in a dental chair and having a fascinating view of Manhattan. That's the Tower Dental on the 69º floor at the Chrysler Building. To get there, you have to take the elevator to 67º floor. From there you either take another elevator to the 69º floor or go up using the staircase.

The office still there, in the sky, where Dr. Charles M. Weiss generously and eagerly shared his passion with generations of young dentists. Some of whom practiced with him in his Tower Dental suite – at the top of the Chrysler Building.  He authored innumerable articles in dentistry, and with his son Adam Weiss wrote the definitive textbook on dental implantology entitled "Principles And Practice of Implant Dentistry."


. The Chrysler Building exists because Dreamland burned down


Dreamland burning down (Image: NYPL)

Dreamland (Image: NYPL)

 

When Dreamland was decimated in a fire in 1911, its owner William Reynolds felt he needed a new, high-profile project to which he could dedicate his time. As a result, he entered the “Tallest Building in the World” race, and commissioned William Van Alen. When Reynolds defaulted on the lease, Walter P. Chrysler purchased the property and design for $2 million.


. Chrysler refused to pay Van Alen


Walter P. Chrysler, 1928 Man Of The Year. Image: LIFE

 

Van Alen, the architect of the Chrysler Building, was so keen on beating George L. Ohrstrom in the race for the tallest building that he never signed a contract with Walter P. Chrysler.

After the building was erected, Van Alen asked Chrysler for 6% of its $14 million cost, but Chrysler refused to pay him. He believed Van Alen was working with building contractors on shady financial arrangements, and refused to be a part of it. Van Alen sued.

He did eventually get his money, but not until after his reputation was tarnished. Basically, suing Time Magazine‘s “1928 Man of the Year” made it extremely difficult for Van Alen to win commissions.


Chrysler Building segment from "New York: A Documentary Film"

How did you like this visual story? To wrap this up, watch this incredible, fantastic video, where you can see details of the Chrysler Building construction:


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