A Hunch, Then a Demand


The heart of all the world am I!

A city, great, and grim and grand!

Man’s monument to mighty man!

Superb! Incomparable! Alone!

Greater than ancient Babylon,

The giant walled! Greater than Tyre,

Sea-Queen! Greater than Nineveh,

Pearl of the East! Greater than Rome,

Stupendous reared, Magnificent!

Greater than Paris, city fey!

Greater than London, fog-enmeshed!

Greater than Venice! Vienna!

Or Petrograd! Greater than these!

That I am! Mark my high towers!

—Arthur Crew Inman

The lobster shift returned home from a long night of pouring drinks, driving taxis, scrubbing floors, or walking the beat on the mad city streets. A few bands still shouted and hollered in Harlem speakeasies, their lawbreaking patrons eased back in their chairs, glad not to have gone to bed on the same day they got up—the Mayor Jimmy Walker way of living high in the era of Prohibition. Liner ships cut through the fog toward the island of Manhattan, arriving from Liverpool, Rotterdam, Genoa, and a dozen other cities. On the waterfront, dockworkers threw back their coffees and stamped out their Lucky Strikes, ready for the cargo hauls from North Africa, Sumatra, Capri, and Costa Rica.

Downtown, milkmen left crates of bottles for the army of office clerks to drink that day. In the gray of dawn, the clanking of ash cans echoed through the streets. A horse-drawn cart turned the corner. At the fish market, mongers spun and heaved three-hundred-pound barrels of flounder onto handtrucks and took them away. The morning chill bit their wet hands. Ferries and tugs shuttled across the harbor. Valets and maids prepared for their blueblood bosses to awake. The newsboys wiped the sleep from their eyes and shouted their first headlines: “Rothstein Shot . . . Hoover in a Landslide . . . Get your paper . . . Two cents . . . Just two cents.” It was November 5, the day before the 1928 presidential election between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover, for most New Yorkers simply another day in a decade gone mad.

In Fifth Avenue suites and tenement apartments across the city, alarm clocks rang a thousand rings. Time to chase another buck. Trains, buses, and cars approached the city; their passengers—perhaps today an actor from Poughkeepsie, a playwright from Chicago, a bank teller looking to hit it rich on Wall Street—bounced up and down on their seats as the sun struck gold on the Metropolitan Life Tower. A second later they shot underneath the Hudson River, the towers of New York lost to the darkness. As the sun lifted into the sky, a crowd, one thick swell of dissonant voices, headed for work. They slipped nickels into turnstile slots and waited for the IRT or BMT to come down the elevated rails or screech through the tunnel. Some rushed from ferries once they docked and the gates were pulled aside. One man passed an old friend, tipped his hat, and said “Good Morning” before hurrying on his way. No time to stop for a chat and catch-up. Got to move. Got to go. Hawkers hawked their wares. Dynamite blasted. The ground shook. The first rivet thundered. Reporter and raconteur Damon Runyon knew what he was talking about when he said, “The bravest thing in New York is a blade of grass. This is not prize grass, but it has moxie. You need plenty of moxie in this man’s town, or you’ll soon find yourself dispersed hither and yon.”

The morning sun slanted through the Prospect Park West apartment of William Van Alen in Brooklyn. Out his window the white oaks surrounding the Long Meadow were shedding their last leaves. Cars rumbled around Grand Army Plaza, some speeding despite the big round sign that read “Slow Up . . . What’s Your Hurry?” Bankers and lawyers rushed toward the subway, passing mothers heading into the park with their children. In the crisp late fall day a slight breeze blew in from the northwest. Van Alen put on a fine wool suit and cinched the knot on his tie. Leaving his wife, Elizabeth, he headed out the door. It was not just another day for Van Alen; it was a big day, perhaps the most important of his life.

An architect differed from other artists: a musician could jab out a few notes with his horn, hear the pitch and tempo; a painter could draw a brush stroke across the canvas and see what she had done; a writer could finish a page, pull it from the typewriter, and read his words. An architect needed more to realize his vision. Van Alen could sketch his designs, order his draftsmen to work out the elevation details in quarter-inch scale, and have blueprints of the same made on fine linen paper that would last for years. But without an owner to finance his plans, a builder to order the steel and brick, and workers to connect the columns and beams hundreds of feet in the air, Van Alen had little more than lines on a page. Without a patron, he was like a composer with a great score and no orchestra.

Over the past two years, Van Alen had drawn countless sketches for the site at Forty-second Street and Lexington Avenue, sketches for a grand skyscraper to tower over Grand Central Station and all of midtown. Three weeks before, William H. Reynolds, the real-estate speculator behind the project and the man to whom Van Alen was under contract, had sold the site to the automobile man Walter Chrysler. With the lease’s assignment, Reynolds informed Van Alen that his services were no longer required, neither to draft any more proposals nor to oversee the construction of a new building on the site. The architect insisted that he remained “ready, able, and willing” to continue the job, but this was now a decision for Chrysler, who owned the plans—to do with them (or not do with them) as he pleased. Regardless, Reynolds assured Van Alen that the new owner would honor the balance remaining on the hundred thousand dollars in fees due the architect.

Van Alen pressed for a meeting with Chrysler, motivated by something far greater than securing the remainder of the balance due him. The architect wanted his plans to be built in steel and stone, and Chrysler agreed to meet with him. Today was that day.

Chrysler was the kind of client architects fought over. He was rich, willing to break with tradition, and obviously had a point to prove. He would want a different design, something that distinguished his skyscraper from all the others sprouting up across the city. Although it was still unclear what kind of building would rise at 405 Lexington Avenue, the site teemed with activity. The tenants had moved out; the United Cigar store on the corner had shuttered its doors; and the wreckers had erected a fence around the building. Already demolition crews were tearing down the walls of the five-story office building there.

Anyone exiting Grand Central would hear the din of pneumatic hammers and foremen shouting, “All right, boys!” It wasn’t just 405 Lexington; all of Forty-second Street appeared to be under construction. Derricks lifted another tier of columns on the fifty-three-story Chanin Building going up across the street. Down the block, J. E. R. Carpenter, an architect Van Alen had promoted for membership in the Architectural League, had designs for his own skyscraper: great lumbering trucks threaded their way through traffic to deliver materials to the future Lincoln Building.

Two blocks from Chrysler’s site, Van Alen made his way toward his office on Madison Avenue, the same office he had occupied since the split with Severance four years before. When he arrived, the two ex–Vassar College shot-putters, as a visitor once described Van Alen’s secretaries, knew to keep away most callers. Sitting in his office before his meeting with Chrysler, the architect must have worried about what questions his potential client would ask. Was Van Alen willing to make significant changes to his original designs? Were he and his firm up to the task? Why shouldn’t a more established firm get this plum commission or at least serve in an advisory capacity? How long would the whole operation take? Or maybe he just wanted to meet Van Alen and get a feel for him. But what if Chrysler asked him if he drove one of his cars? Van Alen would have to tell him it was not a Chrysler. He drove a car built by E. L. Cord, even though he had trouble with the clutch and often ground the gears. Chrysler had to understand that Cord offered the latest in styling. Or maybe he wouldn’t understand. There was a reason Severance pitched all the clients when they were partners. Van Alen was too introspective and made a weak first impression.

Reynolds first hired Van Alen in 1921 when he was still working with Severance. The developer wanted a penthouse designed for the five-story building at 405 Lexington Avenue. Reynolds promised many improvements to the site, but carried few of them to completion. Despite a lack of results, Reynolds hired Van Alen yet again in March 1927, and again asked him to design something for 405 Lexington: this time, a forty-story hotel. Van Alen hired Chesley Bonestell, an illustrator who freelanced with a number of firms around town, to collaborate with him on the preliminary studies for the hotel. He fired up his factory of draftsmen to prepare for the detailed, scaled drawings they would make from his sketches. Several months later, however, Reynolds scrapped the hotel plans. He wanted an office building instead—a skyscraper.

He called Van Alen, and the two revised their contract for the new structure. The skyscraper was not to exceed sixty stories and would contain “stores and other improvements as may be required, such as banking offices, cafeteria, grill room, subway connection and all the appurtenances that may be necessary.” Van Alen was to prepare the plans and specifications and confer with architect Robert Lyons on the initial sketches. The dry legal jargon fails to convey the opportunity this skyscraper presented to Van Alen, who wrote:

In designing a skyscraper there is no precedent to follow for the reason that we are using a new structural material, steel, which has been developed in America and is different in every way from the masonry construction of the past.

Structurally, and in their purpose, our tall buildings are wholly unlike any buildings of an earlier day. To apply to our tall office buildings, apartment houses and hotels the familiar architectural features characteristic of the comparatively low palaces, temples and churches that were built before the advent of steel as a building material, is not economical or practical, and it is artistically wrong since it is not truthful.

This skyscraper, described by Reynolds as “a fire-proof office building similar to such buildings as are competitive in the City of New York” was to be for Van Alen a statement of the truth. More importantly, he needed the commission, one that could catapult him to the top of his profession, as the Woolworth Building had Cass Gilbert.

Since severing his partnership with Craig Severance, Van Alen had floundered. Without his partner to score the big commissions, his designs of critical note were limited to a chain of Childs restaurants and a pair of show windows for stores. Meanwhile New York underwent a building boom the likes of which had never before been seen. Many of the architects Van Alen had known as draftsmen and studied with in Paris now enjoyed flourishing practices. Although the New Yorker would first say it several years hence, most in the architectural community knew already that “leading the New York modernists [are] Ralph Walker, Ely Jacques Kahn, and Raymond Hood. They are three little men who build tall buildings, and who probably rake into their offices more business than any other architects in the city . . . They eat and drink and lunch and confer constantly . . . They plan great projects. They lead the Architectural League . . . They are constantly publicized, interviewed, quoted. They dash to Boston. They race to Chicago. They have a glorious time.” It was these three that newspaper journalists visited when they needed a quote on the essentials of good architecture—not Van Alen.

Of course, Reynolds cared as much for Van Alen’s statement of truth and place in the architectural community as he did about the color of the architect’s tie. Reynolds was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of only one: the art of self-promotion. Employment as a real-estate developer was a good match. Born and raised in Brooklyn, his first job entailed clearing the plaster and debris from the houses his father worked on as a carpenter. Reynolds studied law, but left before finishing to make his initial investments in real estate. In his first year, he earned over forty thousand dollars, a king’s sum at the time. By his twenty-fourth birthday, Reynolds found himself elected to the state senate, the youngest member in Brooklyn history. Despite serving only a few years, he maintained the “senator” imprimatur throughout his life. He also worked as an oil promoter, copper mine owner, racetrack developer, amusement park operator, theatrical promoter, and proprietor of a trolley line and water company. Known for crooked dealings, true or purported, he was twice indicted by the courts, but never served any time in jail. The last charge, grand larceny, was overturned on appeal in March 1927.

Nearly bald, with eyebrows arched so perfectly they could have been painted, Reynolds was a tireless showman. His most notable achievement in real estate remained the 1903 development of Coney Island’s Dreamland Park, featuring a tower with a hundred thousand lights, the largest dancehall in the country, and spectacles with titles such as “Fire and Flames” and “Trip to the Moon.” In 1911 a few of the lightbulbs exploded on the Hell Gate attraction and eighteen hours later Dreamland Park smoldered in ashes. That same year Reynolds maneuvered his way into acquiring the lease on Lexington Avenue and Forty-second Street, which was owned by Cooper Union and had the benefit of being tax-exempt. Originally Reynolds signed a twenty-one-year lease with an annual payment of fifty-four thousand dollars a year in rent. Cooper Union approved of Reynold’s alterations to the building on the site, except to say that “the flourishes in the two gables” should be toned down and made simpler. After the construction in 1913 of Grand Central Terminal, Reynolds shrewdly returned to Cooper Union’s trustees to ask for an extension. Over the next fifteen years, Reynolds finagled revaluations, extensions, and options on the lease by pledging multimillion-dollar developments on the site, yet the showman’s promises for the site remained as empty as the air above the five-story building.

Regardless, Van Alen sketched, studied, and modeled a skyscraper. Reynolds helped pay his bills, and the opportunity was too big to pass on simply because of impatience. Early in 1928, Van Alen started a game of one-upmanship with the developer of the Lincoln Building and its architect, J. E. R. Carpenter. Carpenter announced he would build a fifty-five-story skyscraper at the old Lincoln warehouse site across from Grand Central. Fellow designer and critic Kenneth Murchison chronicled Van Alen’s next move in a leading architectural journal: “In a rich baritone voice, [he] sang something to the effect that only a block away he proposed putting up a fifty-six-story building! This, of course, made the Lincoln people perfectly furious so they proclaimed that they would probably make theirs sixty-three stories high, to which Mr. Van Alen said, ‘Hold, men, we will make ours SIXTY-FIVE stories high!’ ” Carpenter backed down and Van Alen finished plans for a skyscraper one story less than he boasted.

On April 7, 1928, Reynolds finalized a new sixty-seven-year leasehold—the longer the duration, the more valuable the lease. He was so pleased with the result that he offered to pay the legal fees that Cooper Union incurred from the long negotiations. They accepted his check for ten thousand dollars. Now Reynolds heated things up. On June 3 he called a meeting of the National Association of Building Owners and Managers to review Van Alen’s plans and specifications for his sixty-four-story skyscraper to rise eight hundred feet in the midtown skyline: the tallest office building in the world by eight feet. The association reviewed proposed buildings for their viability as income-producing investments. They would provide the seal of approval Reynolds needed to promote his skyscraper and cause a stir in the real-estate community. Over afternoons playing golf at his Lido Beach Golf Club and grand dinners back in the city, Reynolds wooed and coaxed the collection of engineers, building managers, and rental agents. He proclaimed the leasehold for the site had a value of $17 million. He carted out Van Alen to discuss his plans, as well as the contractors and structural engineer. He hosted a theatrical performance for the attendees. After three days of schmoozing, the inspectors heralded the building to the press, saying it would be a “successful addition to the skyscraper group of mid-Manhattan . . . [and] serve to revolutionize store values and the class of tenants in 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.”

In August Reynolds released Van Alen’s final rendered drawings for the skyscraper, which now stretched sixty-seven stories high. The American Architect credited Van Alen for his modern design and how he “has departed from certain of the old-time principles on which the skyscraper was developed . . . the design of the Reynolds Building is developed to be of interest throughout its entire height.” The first twelve floors would have corners wrapped in glass, and a giant glass dome to be lit from within would sit atop the skyscraper’s tower. Most important, the skyscraper had $7.5 million in financing from S. W. Strauss & Company. With nine hundred thousand square feet of rentable space, the building would generate over a million dollars in rent every year.

Van Alen had fulfilled his end of the deal, providing plans, specifications, models, large-scale and full-size detailed drawings as well as all blueprints for the building in its many forms. Reynolds accepted all of them, but by September 1928 he still delayed the beginning of construction. The architect shouldn’t have been surprised. As it turned out, Reynolds, who had financed his first real-estate investment from monies earned on the two percent commissions his father’s creditors paid him to collect on his delinquent debts, had no way to finance the completion bond, which meant no skyscraper. All of Van Alen’s designs and hopes were in jeopardy.

But with his well-crafted publicity campaign, Reynolds had baited the hook and thrown out his line. He owned a valuable lease on an extraordinary site. Now he only had to wait for a big fish to strike. This was the speculative builder’s modus operandi, landing millions in the sale of a lease “without turning a spadeful of earth,” as builder William Starrett said. Wasting Van Alen’s designs was just an unfortunate part of the business.

In October 1928, as the Governor of New York ran for the presidency and the Yankees swept the favored St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, one of the biggest fish of all, Walter P. Chrysler, came biting. Reynolds landed over two million dollars in profit on the deal. All Van Alen got was a notice that his services were no longer needed.

Walter Chrysler was a bear of a man. Hard-driving at business, he had built one of the country’s leading automobile companies in the short span of four years. When he wanted something, he seized it. If a struggle ensued, all the better—Chrysler liked a good fight. If he saw a way to improve an engine, he donned his overalls and set about the task, no matter how dirty his hands became. He spoke plainly, didn’t suffer fools well, and had created an empire with his tireless energy and commitment to look twice before accepting the old way as the right way. Chrysler loved machines and thought that with science and invention the world could reach some sort of apotheosis. He was a modern individual in the most modern of times.

The builder of the Woolworth skyscraper, Louis Horowitz, once offered Chrysler a ride uptown after a board meeting they had attended in New York. Outside, Horowitz directed Chrysler toward his old Rolls-Royce. Seeing the car, Chrysler stopped cold.

“Where did you get this be-something-er-other ark?” he asked.

Horowitz urged Chrysler to get in the car so he could take him to his office. Chrysler acquiesced, but throughout the ride uptown he berated the old car, saying he expected to be carted out the door with a broken back.

“Tell you what,” Chrysler said as he opened the car door when they arrived at his office. “If you will take this thing and run it off a ferryboat into a deep place in the bay, I’ll give you a decent car.”

On November 5, 1928, Van Alen had his chance to go face-to-face with Chrysler himself. Little did the architect know when he was ushered into Chrysler’s office at 347 Madison Avenue that the automobile magnate was determined to change the city’s skyline in the same way he had the car industry in the last decade—forcefully. The previous year had been his most commanding yet. He had acquired the Dodge Brothers, a move that one observer compared to the minnow swallowing the whale. Next he had premiered the Plymouth: “A New Car . . . a New Car Style, a New Zenith of Low Priced Car-Luxury and Performance.” Ad slogans aside, Chrysler produced the Plymouth for one reason: to strike at Henry Ford’s new Model A. The day the first car rolled off the assembly line in June 1928, he drove it to Ford’s River Rouge plant. Ford inspected the car and said with his usual aplomb: “Walter, you’ll go broke trying to get in the low-price market. [We] have that market sewed up, and as sure as you try to step in, we’ll stop you.” In October Chrysler broke ground on the largest automobile plant ever built—covering 22.7 acres of ground under a single roof—to produce the Plymouth, whose sales were surpassing every expectation.

Chrysler dreamed of a building that would leap into the sky like a beacon, a reflection of the Chrysler Corporation’s leap to become one of the top three automobile companies. The New York World reported that the skyscraper would serve as the next “step in the campaign which Mr. Chrysler has planned against the General Motors Corporation for supremacy in the automobile world.” His competitor had recently opened a twenty-six-story skyscraper at Fifty-seventh Street and Broadway on New York’s Automobile Row. Nonetheless, Chrysler insisted that his purpose was a selfless one. When asked why he was financing the skyscraper out of his own pocket, the former railroad journeyman replied that his two sons needed a place to work. “I was well aware that a rich man’s sons are likely to be cheated of something. How could my boys ever know the wild incentive that burned in me from the time I first watched my father put his hand to the throttle of his engine? I could not give them that, but it was through this thinking that I conceived the idea of putting up a building.” Despite what its owner told the press, the Chrysler Building would be more than a place for his two sons to work.

Chrysler had wanted to build a great skyscraper in New York for years, and he’d had realty men looking for the perfect site for him. When Reynolds offered his lease on the land at Forty-second Street and Lexington Avenue, he attacked in negotiations led by his Harvard-trained lawyer Nicolas Kelley. Chrysler always hired the best. The deal took two and a half weeks in a series of nonstop meetings.

Kept from his wife, Kelley wrote to her about the furious pace of negotiations: October 5—“After a long harrowing day, we passed one stage”; October 9—“I went into a difficult meeting with lawyers who have been treating us as if we were rogues”; October 10—“The whirl still continues”; October 13—“Here it is five o’clock on the warmest, muggiest and most drizzling of Saturday afternoons. We are making progress with our land deal”; October 16—“We closed the Chrysler land business yesterday!”

There were two main issues. First, Gano Dunn, the lawyer who represented Cooper Union, had barely heard of Chrysler and only thawed after Kelley presented his own credentials as a member of the Century Club and the Downtown Association. Second, Dunn needed to be sure that Chrysler had the security to see the building to completion. Chrysler had many millions in his company stock and municipal bonds, but it was a question of what to put forward. Kelley pleaded with his boss to secure a larger amount up front rather than a lesser amount whose value he had to guarantee. Kelley warned him that if the market collapsed, as it had many times before, he would suffer a financial disaster. Chrysler finally agreed, and Cooper Union accepted the deal. Not at issue during these early stages was whether he intended to construct the tallest building in the world. Even Kelley’s young daughter knew, writing to her father on October 22 after he was given the position of vice president of the Chrysler Building Corporation. “I think it’s great—and the biggest building—gosh!”

On that fateful November 5 morning, Chrysler and Van Alen looked across at one another in the automobile man’s office. The architect was the taller of the two at over six feet, but he was awkward in his frame, as if not quite sure how to move about with so much leg. He had a great crown of a nose and a spare smile, one of a man uneasy around others. He seldom spoke unreservedly and when he did, it was quietly. When out in social situations, he let his wife carry the conversation for the both of them. His boldness came out in his designs, or when he spoke of them.

Seven years the architect’s senior, Chrysler offered a study in contrast. With a head shaped like a bullet and sharp blue eyes, the automobile man struck those he met as a man to follow. He shook a man’s hand hard and liked to settle back after a long day with a cigar, stiff drink, and ribald jokes among friends. He hunted, golfed, yachted, played the tuba, entertained well, and owned a Gatsbyesque estate in Long Island with a twenty-three-room mansion, eight-car garage, and 150-foot pier and boathouse. Although devoted to his wife and children, he enjoyed a taste for showgirls. When he arrived in New York one evening, word leaked that he had a girl with him for the overnight trip. Reporters peppered him with questions. Chrysler scoffed off the suggestion, but after stepping away from the scene with a colleague, he remarked, “Actually, I had two.”

Over the past month Chrysler had wavered on whether to use the plans as Van Alen had drawn them. As the meeting continued, Chrysler must have sensed in Van Alen the kindred spirit of a maverick. Obviously he knew his craft and liked to push the envelope. Chrysler had hired and fired legions of people, many times on projects that cost millions and whose success depended on such decisions. Once asked how he picked his people, he responded, “I don’t know. You just do it.” In that way, Chrysler decided Van Alen was the architect for him. Yet although he hired Van Alen, Chrysler didn’t intend to use the skyscraper designs presented to him. Van Alen was to abandon the plans he’d drawn for Reynolds.

Chrysler spoke plainly, “I want a taller building of a finer type of construction and it’s your job to give the best that’s in you.” He told Van Alen to travel, study buildings in Western cities, and examine their designs and use of materials. “Improve upon them to the best of your ability,” Chrysler said. “Spare no effort or time.” Van Alen could hire whomever he needed, spend whatever he needed, and unlike the deal with Reynolds, no consulting architects would have a say or veto power over his plans. As far as a fee, neither even pegged a figure, nor did they sign a contract.

Chrysler demanded that Van Alen give him his best. For Van Alen, whose best was often limited by a client’s budget, oversight, and absence of daring, this was the commission of a lifetime.

From the beginning it was clear that the two were ideally suited for one another. Their intention was the same: make a statement in steel and stone. Van Alen burned to innovate as much as Chrysler did. The architect had endured two years of false hopes and frustration thanks to Reynolds—and in nearly two decades as an architect he had never lived up to his early promise. Now was his chance.

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