It’s de-lightful, it’s de-lovely, it’s Deco in New York

Ceiling mural in the lobby of the Chrysler Building

Cole Porter please forgive me for messing up your lyrics, but last month I had a kind of late 1920s, early 1930s week in New York. After seeing the Broadway revival of “Anything Goes,” I still can’t get Porter’s witty lyrics out of my head. And they meld so well with many of the city’s glorious Art Deco icons, the most glamorous of all, of course, is the Chrysler Building, designed by architect William Van Alen and completed in 1930. The race between the builders and the architects of the Chrysler Building, who were competing with the Empire State Building and the Bank of the Manhattan Co. at 40 Wall Street to build the world’s tallest skyscraper, is well-documented in the 2003 book “Higher” by Neal Bascomb, a great read.

Both the Chrysler and the Empire State still have their original stunning lobbies, that were part of the Roaring Twenties flamboyance, even though those happy, crazy times were nearing an end, unbeknownst to the architects and owners at the time.  The  Chrysler lobby has an immense ceiling mural by artist Edward Trumbull.  This shot is of only a small portion of the vast 97-by-110 foot ceiling mural, called “Energy, Result, Workmanship and Transportation.”  The mural was restored by EverGreene Painting Studios in New York in 1999, when the details of the ceiling were hidden by an aged polyurethane coating over the murals.

In July, 1930, The New York Times advised its readers in a story about an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, to visit the “ordinary vestibules” of two newly completed buildings, the Daily News Building and the Chrysler, to see some excellent art work.  On my visit this summer, in addition to seeing the ceiling mural, Moroccan red marble walls in the lobby, the famous clock and other details, I was able to get close to the elevator doors while I was visiting someone in the building.

Gorgeous Chrysler Building Elevator Door

The elevator doors have a veneer of exotic woods, fashioned into a stylized floral pattern or a fan. Up close they are truly stunning and according to the book, New York, 1930, they are made of Japanese ash, English gray harewood and Asian walnut. Inside the elevators, the cabs include American walnut, dye-ebonized wood, satinwood, Cuban plum-pudding wood and curly maple. The interiors of all the elevator cabs are different.

The tale of the career of architect William Van Alen, who was called the “Ziegfield of his profession” in American Architect in September, 1930, is a sad one. His career didn’t go much farther after the completion of the Chrysler Building, thanks in part to the Great Depression.

Chrysler Building from the New York Public Library

His career was also hurt by the fact hat he had to sue Walter Chrysler for the bulk of his fee. He famously dressed for the Beaux Arts Ball in New York wearing an imitation of the crown of his best-known building. Its steel-covered dome was made of chromium nickel sheet steel panels. The material, called Norosta, was made according to German methods for the first time in th U.S., and the bulk of the work was done in metal working shops set up on the 67th and 75th floors of the Chrysler Building, while it was under construction, according to an article Van Alen authored for The Architectural Forum in October, 1930. Sadly, Van Alen died in 1954 leaving a widow, but no children and his office records have never been found.
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One Response to “It’s de-lightful, it’s de-lovely, it’s Deco in New York”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    I read your Van Alen presentation with great interest. The Chrysler Bldg is one of my favorite structures. Any time a New York City resident is explaining something is pefect / beautiful / or the apex – they oft use the expression: “It’s just The Chrysler Building!”
    There was literally a race between the Van Alen crowd and the Empire State Bldg builders as to which structure would be tallest; for a brief pierod, the Chrysler held the title because they erected the top floors like a pre-fab all in one brief afternoon! The levels were bolted together and pushed upward from the inside much to the amazement of the crowd below on the streets.
    I authored the obits of Van Alen and his wife on FIND A GRAVE. I literally visited with a NYC Archictural group that preserves the history of the city’s famed buildings. Sadly, the reason Van Alen’s career records have not been located is because his wife destroyed them following her husband’s demise. The organization – showing great esteem for the man’s talents – have created an annual award and it is named in recognition the great architect.
    Also — with a bit more homework, you will find Van Alen did a few more bldgs in NYC. A couple are still as he designed them (not very impressive but kept funds flowing during the Depression) but alas, most of the rest of the collection today, have ‘false-faces’ attached or the like…
    I wish someone would author a book on just the CHRYSLER BLDG (Ooooh the detail is super) and VAN ALEN in particular — and invite me to help!

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