October 23: Spire and Spew

2016/10/23 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1929 the spire of the Chrysler Building was raised into place.

The spire of the Chrysler Building is not just an elegant tippy-top on one of the world’s great architecturally scaled crowns; it was also the greatest sneaky surprise ever used to foil a competitor in the centuries-old competitions for one-upmanship vis-à-vis building height that started, let’s say, at Giza.

The Chrysler Building was in direct competition with the Bank of Manhattan Building (never heard of it?  Well, here’s why), also under construction in 1929, racing to be the world’s tallest structure.  The race was pretty much neck-and-neck, with architects and engineers tweaking their designs to add just a few more feet to stretch just a bit higher–the architect’s version of that leaning-forward thing sprinters do at the photo finish.

Chrysler’s architect, William Van Alen (1883-1954) had an ace up his sleeve. Or, rather, a spire up his tower.  He planned for the spire in secret, sending out construction documents that did not indicate what the fabricators were putting together, even as it was assembled inside the building (from four different sections delivered to the site independently).  On October 23rd the 125-foot long spire was riveted together in just 90 minutes and swiftly raised into place.  The big narwhal tusk-like feature was game over for the height race, and the admittedly lovely Bank of Manhattan Building shrank into obscurity.

For all the secrecy and cleverness of Van Alen’s plan, one would expect him to be one smooth operator.  Quite the contrary, however; as the delicate operation was happening up in the sky, Van Alen stood on the ground far below, overcome by the drama and danger of it all, retching on the sidewalk.  (For more of this great story, read Neil Bascomb’s book Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City.)

Chrysler and Van Alen didn’t  have a lot of time to enjoy their building’s prestige; less than a year after it opened to the public (May 27, 1930) it was overshadowed by the even-taller Empire State Building.  Grand as that building is, it simply cannot compare in terms of costume potential, nor as an energy-collecting device for Norse gods.  Chrysler wins.

Image: 1930 (from this source)


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