Who Designed the Chrysler Building in New York?

The Chrysler Building is an icon of New York City, encapsulating the Art Deco era. We track down the people who brought it to life.

Feb 23, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

chrysler building skyscraper night view

 

The Chrysler Building is a true icon of the New York skyline, with its tell-tale Art Deco spire pointing towards heaven. It was completed in 1930 as the headquarters of the Chrysler corporation car manufactures, under the financial direction of Walter P. Chrysler. While it was only the tallest building in the world for a brief 11 months, the Chrysler has nonetheless become a unique emblem of New York due to the stunning beauty of its design. In fact, in 2005, a poll of architects, builders, critics and engineers voted the Chrysler as their favorite skyscraper in New York. We celebrate the magnificence of this enduring architectural masterpiece with a list of the key players who brought it to life. 

 

The Chrysler Building Architect: William Van Allen

chrysler building new york city
The Chrysler Building in New York

 

The chief architect who designed the Chrysler Building was William Van Allen. Initially the skyscraper was conceived by Van Allen and the contractor William H Reynolds. Van Allen’s original Art Deco design was fantastically elaborate, featuring a decorative glass crown, a triple-height showroom area on the ground floor, and 12 stories made from glass-wrapped corners that would appear to be floating mid-air. But Van Allen’s concept was too ambitious for Reynolds’ tastes, and he sold the design and lease to the more ambitiously minded industrialist Walter P Chrysler. Van Allen found in Chrysler an entirely different client – Chrysler believed he could completely reinvent the east 42nd district area with a dazzling new building, which he hoped would be the tallest and most significant construction in the world.

 

Under Chrysler’s guidance, Van Allen designed a monument that was a testament to the machine age, of the 1920s, featuring glossy metal, and a series of gargoyles and eagles resembling the hood ornaments of cars.

 

The Structural Engineer: Ralph Squire & Sons

chrysler building construction work
The Chrysler Building under construction

 

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The construction of the Chrysler Building was handled by Ralph Squire & Sons, run by the American structural Engineer William Ralph Squire. Working closely with Van Allen, Ralph Squire & Sons constructed the Chrysler Building with a base, a shaft, and an ornate capital on the top. They utilized the most advanced materials of their day, to create a beaming emblem of modernity. The crown at the peak of the building was made from silver austenitic stainless steel, manufactured in Germany. The sheer size, scale, and detail of the building was an enormous undertaking – it took them just under three years to complete their work. For almost a year, the Chrysler was the leader in the “race to the sky”, but it was pipped to the post just 11 months later by the Empire State Building. 

 

The Building Contractor: Fred T Ley & Co.

new york iconic architecture
Close up detail of the Chrysler Building

 

The building contractor who brought the Chrysler Building to life was Fred T. Ley, owner of Fred T. Ley & Co. At the time they were one of the most successful contractors in the United States, and the Chrysler Building was to become the defining pinnacle of their success so far. It was thanks to the hard work of Ley and his team that the Chrysler building’s steel frame, curtain wall construction could come to life, and remain securely in place. Ley was a practical builder who had steadily worked his way to the top of his industry, and his no nonsense expertise made Van Allen’s dreams of building an American icon a reality. Incredibly, they employed a team of around 3,000 workers to complete the Chrysler Building, who worked day and night with no safety harnesses. Unusually for the time, there were no fatalities during the construction work.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.