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Looking Down on the Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building once soared above its neighbors. No more.

With its graceful Art Deco spire and mighty eagle hood ornaments, the Chrysler Building has long outshone the taller Empire State Building in aesthetic allure. Designed by William Van Alen and nearing completion in 1930, the Chrysler stood neck-and-neck with its rival, the Manhattan Company Building, for tallest in the world.

(Photo is of photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White atop the Chrysler Building.  c. 1930)

Chrysler Building will no longer soar over its neighbors.

Chrysler Building reigning supreme in the supreme city, 1932.

The Manhattan, now known as the Trump Building, had the drop on the Chrysler until the latter suddenly burst from within a 125-foot spire. (The spire was assembled secretly inside the building.) Leaping to 1,046 feet, the Chrysler took the crown. Both skyscrapers were overtaken the following year by the Empire State.

The Chrysler Building to lose its crown, again

Today the Chrysler remains among the tallest buildings in New York City. But claimants to that crown seem to emerge every day. The city has seen a plethora of rivals completed or in stages of planning, abetted by a municipal goosing of zoning in Midtown to permit more height. One of the new towers nearest the Chrysler will be One Vanderbilt, across from Grand Central Terminal. At 1,401 feet, One Vanderbilt will top the Chrysler by almost 300 feet. Hence, a few dozen pair of executive and secretarial eyes will look down at the Chrysler. Bully for them.

The Chrysler Building used to soar over the city. Soon no more.

One Vanderbilt, soon to exceed Chrysler by 300 feet.

The city has seen a plethora of rivals completed or in stages of planning, abetted by a municipal goosing of zoning in Midtown to permit more height.

However many towers eventually join One Vanderbilt to crowd the Chrysler, it is fair to say that none will stack up to the Chrysler in looks. It will hold its head up in the air to grace the views from those towers. Some 15 blocks north, the newest megatower at 432 Park Ave. opened at the end of 2015. The 96-story tower was designed by Rafael Viñoly, who is said to have been inspired by a trash can.

432 Park, unloved and shunned

Its height more than its style has sparked a snarkfest of cultural managers eager declare 432 Park off the New York skyline. According to Matt Chaban’s “The Appraisal” column in the Times, the Empire State Building has barred 432 from the descriptive panels of views on its observation deck. The New York Mets have not include the megatower on its skyline logo. The NYPD has declared that it will not add 432  to the skyline on its officers’ badges. The producers of “The Tonight Show” are still mulling whether to add it to the skyline backdrop of Jimmy Fallon’s set.

Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, 432 Park can be seen from almost anywhere in Manhattan (and beyond). Will there be a famous novelist stepping forward to declare that he lives in 432 because that’s the only place in town from which it cannot be seen? Probably not. Few novelists make that much dough.

Of course, owners of the uppermost condos may only spend a few days a year there. Perhaps that’s because they are slow to notice that their apartments look out on the skanky rooftop HVAC systems of their neighbors, architectural features rarely seen from the sidewalk. You must snag a place pretty far up ensure that acres of HVAC systems do not blight the view.

‘Rear Window’ beats HVAC system

Being up high may not be all it’s cracked up to be. This reporter once managed to be the first on a list of those seeking units in an office building being rehabbed for residential in Providence. The top unit, seven stories high, had great views of the HVAC systems atop nearby buildings. So I chose the fifth story. The rent was less, and I enjoyed a view framed by the elegant cornices and mansards of City Hall (1878) to the left and the Old Journal Building (1906) to the right.

The Chrysler Building used to look down on its neighbors. No more.

The Chrysler Building, in all its grandeur

I could look down into City Hall offices and watch city employees putting papers into filing cabinets. Yawn! But voyeurism is already rampant in Manhattan. The Rear Window phenomenon makes investment in a fine pair of binoculars harder and harder to resist. Recall Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly monitoring lives (and concocting murders) in the apartments across the alley in his Village neighborhood. In a sardine can like Manhattan, life takes on more than a hint of Peyton Place. Each citizen is his own Hitchcock.

 

As more supertalls crowd the skyline, the secret lives of penthouse owners will double and treble the thrills available to the rest of us at more quotidian altitudes of the city. That’s part of the fun of life in New York. And when the shades across the way are pulled, there will always be the Chrysler to look at.

 

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David Brussat

David Brussat edits the Architecture Here and There blog (https://architecturehereandthere.com), promoting traditional and criticizing modernist work, mostly in architecture, but also in other arts. In 2002, he received the Arthur Ross Award for architectural writing, bestowed by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (then Classical America).