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New York's Chrysler Building Turns 75

Of all the iconic skyscrapers in New York City's iconic skyline, none is more recognizable or beloved than the 230-meter high Art Deco style Chrysler Building, with its sunburst-like pinnacle and soaring chrome-nickel-and-steel spire.

Ever since 1930, when the Chrysler Building opened its doors, almost every one of its nearly 185,000 square meters of office space has been devoted to the earthy business of making a profit for corporate shareholders.

Still, according to Thomas Mellins, a curator at the Museum of the City of New York, and the co-author of "New York 1930," something about the Chrysler Building tends to make New Yorkers feel just wonderful in a way that has nothing to do with money.

"It was designed by a classically trained architect, and yet it does embrace this sense of fun and sense of energy and fizz [effervescence]," he says. "It's swanky, it's swaggering. It's a reminder of the Jazz Age, and it's unabashed in all those things. It flaunts all of that. It makes people say 'wow!'"

Charles Weiss, the dentist who leases the top two floors of the Chrysler Building, has been saying "wow," since 1969, when he first moved into the angular aerie he still rents. He's proud to have what he considers to be the best view in the best building in the world's best city.

"I travel a lot," he says, "and you fly home from overseas and you come up the East River and you see the Chrysler Building, and you have something in your heart. You point from the sky and say 'gee that is where my dental chair is' and 'that's where I take care of patients.' It's just awesome. And you get to be known. 'Oh you're the guy in the Chrysler Building!'"

Indeed, in a city where one's business address can quickly convey one's social status, the Chrysler Building is the place to be. That's been the experience of Frank Campione, of Create Architecture Planning and Design, who rents an office in a space that once housed elevator machinery.

"It was a great address for a start-up company," says Mr. Campione. "When we started up nine years ago, it brought a lot of clout to the table when we handed out a business card. They'd go 'The Chrysler Building! You must do pretty darn good for yourself!'"

Mr. Campione, whose architectural firm specializes in designing buildings, restaurants and malls with a "theme," says the Chrysler building was one of the first "theme" buildings ever. It epitomizes an era when corporations wanted a place on the Manhattan skyline as giant advertisements for their product.

"Seventy-five years ago, Walter Chrysler wanted a building that represented what he was all about, which was cars and the automobile industry," Mr. Campione says. "When you look up and you see the eagle ornaments hanging off the 59th floor that represent the old [car] hood ornaments. If you look up the elevator, all the fans represent hubcaps and tires and everything about movement. And all the stainless steel happens to be about cars and chrome and (things) vehicular. So it's all tied into automobile in the late 20s early 30s."

In those early days of super-tall skyscrapers, there was a "Race for Height" among developers and CEOs. According to curator Thomas Mellins, "everyone wanted the tallest building in the world." Everyday New Yorkers followed these competitions as if they were sports.

"And in fact, the Chrysler Building was in a very fierce competition with a building downtown on Wall Street," says Mr. Mellins, "and it looked like the building downtown was going to win. And at the very last moment, the dome of the Chrysler Building opened up, and this enormous spire, which we see today, was lifted up. And within hours it became the tallest building in the world."

That distinction was taken back the very next year by the Empire State Building, and the pleasure New Yorkers took in the race for height was eclipsed by the Great Depression and World War II.

By the 1970s, the Chrysler Building had fallen into disrepair. However, the building's newest owners have spent millions of dollars restoring its spire, its exquisite inlaid elevators, and the building infrastructure to their former luster. Down at street level, a stockbroker named "Tie" who works in the building heartily approves.

"Hey! It's a beautiful building," he says. "Huge. Overpowering. You get a sense of what New York is about by looking at the building…. I see a lot of people breaking their necks trying to look at the top."