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product no. 1046

race for the sky: how the chrysler building became the tallest brick building in the world

Architect William Van Alen had a grand structure in mind when he set out to design a skyscraper that would help revitalize a tired section of Manhattan in the 1920s. But it wasn’t until automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler stepped up as financier that the race was on to build the world's tallest building. Van Alen and Chrysler found themselves pitted against one of Van Alen’s former partners, who was in the process of constructing the Manhattan Bank Building (now Trump Tower) with the aim of claiming the “world’s tallest” title. Here’s how Chrysler and Van Alen managed to hoodwink the competition—and the entire city of New York—to win the day.

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At the heart of the skyscraper wars of the '20s and '30s was the bravado of the industrial age—the quest to be the first, the biggest, the smartest, the best. In communicating to Van Alen the scope of what he wanted for their project, Chrysler demanded nothing less than “a bold structure, declaring the glories of the modern age.” Another of Chrysler's demands was a top-floor office suite and exquisite apartments for himself.

To make it so, Chrysler financed the construction entirely with his own money, intent on making the building a legacy for his children to inherit. Van Alen and Chrysler set out to create a grand structure informed by French Art Deco…and the automobile. This included ornamentation on the exterior of the building fashioned after the hood ornament and radiator cap of the 1929 Chrysler Plymouth.

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On paper, the Manhattan Bank project at 40 Wall Street, with its 60-foot spire, looked to stand 85 feet taller than the Chrysler Building. The latter was expected to ring in at 925 feet.

But Chrysler and Van Alen were determined to claim the tallest-building title—so much so that they secretly constructed a spire for their own tower...and kept it hidden until the last moment. The 186-foot steel structure was built inside the Chrysler Building in four sections, then hoisted into place atop the building and riveted together all in a mere 90 minutes. From the ground to the top of its surprise peak, the final structure measured 1,046 feet, handily beating the Manhattan Bank Building.

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Unfortunately, their victory was short lived. The Empire State Building surpassed the Chrysler Building in height a mere 11 months later. However, the Chrysler Building is still, to this very day, the tallest brick building in the world. And though it may not remain the tallest of skyscrapers, its classic mix of machine age aesthetic with jazz age poetry makes it arguably one of the most beautiful and well-respected. In 2005, it was voted by 100 prominent New York architects, engineers and critics as their favorite tower of all time.

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In the end, some 21,000 tons of steel were used in the construction of the building’s framework, and the structure was clad in an astonishing 3.8 million bricks. For a more current statistic, fast forward to the year 2000, when renovations increased the building’s total rent-able area to an incredible 2,037,729 square feet.

Ironically, Walter P. Chrysler quickly set aside the choice square footage he'd originally designated for his own lavish apartments, utilizing it instead as Chrysler Corporation headquarters from 1930 to the mid-1950s. No matter how fantastic the digs were that drew him away, however, it's hard to imagine a more iconic address in Manhattan than the Chrysler Building.

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