Art Deco In The Sky

The Chrysler Building

The Chrysler Building-New York City

Ground Breaking-September 19, 1928

Formally Opened-May 27, 1930

Number Of Floors-77

Officially the World’s Tallest Building for a period of 11 months when surpassed by the Empire State Building.

Currently stands as number 101 in the world

I had an awful realization recently.  I was thinking of subjects I have not written about here yet in the four plus years since I began writing here. For someone who comes from New York City it is a rather shameful realization as well.  Though they have popped up a few times in photos, I have not actually written about my love for skyscrapers which of course dominate the skyline of Manhattan.  From my earliest days coming into the city from the confines of the suburbs where I grew up these towering marvels fascinated me.

I remember a favorite ‘toy’ I had at one point- a building set which allowed one to build their own versions of skyscrapers and bridges, using replicas of steel girders, supports, and facades. It probably goes a long way into understanding why I have always been fascinated by both, and I remember experimenting with varying heights and shapes of the skyscrapers in particular. Last year I even got a Lego set of some of the landmark Manhattan towers and spent a rather enjoyable afternoon ‘building’ them which is something I hadn’t done since childhood.

I also remember a book I checked out from the library several times. A school class  had published a book that gave a child’s perspective on the start to finish of building a skyscraper and all the materials and methods used.  The building they chose was what became the Exxon Building on 6th Avenue in Manhattan. It is now sneeringly referred to as one of the XYZ buildings along with two neighboring buildings due to their rather bland and generic facades. It makes no matter to me however and whenever I walk by it these days, I still nod my head at the building in recognition of that book.

There are a number of beloved skyscrapers in full view practically anywhere you are in New York City- The Woolworth, the Empire State, Citigroup Center, and the Freedom Tower are just a handful of the buildings that continue to amaze people to when they see them for the first time.  And of course we still remember and miss the World Trade Center to this day for its dominating presence it held on the skyline. The one I now call my favorite is as you may have guessed, The Chrysler Building. Manhattan is defined by the skyscrapers, and new ones continue to be built even now. The reason why is fairly obvious but in case you did not know, the following exchange from  the TV adaptation of  P.G. Wodehouse’s wonderful Jeeves and Wooster stories might help.  Upon seeing the tall buildings of Manhattan for the first time (circa late 1920’s- 1930’s) the lovable but dimwitted Bertie Wooster questions Jeeves, his trusty valet/manservant/gentleman’s personal gentleman about them-

Bertie Wooster: Now, Jeeves, why do you think they built all these tall buildings?

Jeeves: Well, sir, it was partly because of the restricted size of Manhattan Island and partly because the island is solid granite and therefore capable of supporting such structures.

Bertie Wooster: Nothing to do with having got the plans sideways, then.

Jeeves: No, sir.

Bertie Wooster: That’s what Barmy told me.

Jeeves: You will pardon me for saying so, sir, but Mr. Fotheringay-Phipps is not noted for his architectural expertise.

When I realized that I wanted to write this post, I knew I wanted to spend some time taking photos of the Chrysler Building. A big part of the reason why I like it so much now is because of those Jeeves and Wooster stories. The books and short stories were driven by a hilarious assortment of characters. The TV series of the 1990’s made great use of vintage paraphernalia for the interior scenes, replete with 1920’s-30’s appropriate fashions, art, furniture, even vintage cocktail shakers. Or to put it more appropriately, they were very much inspired by  art deco. When it comes to art deco and skyscrapers, The Chrysler Building will always remain as the shining example. Thanks to the show, I have come to really appreciate art deco as well.

The Chrysler Building is not dark and foreboding like some medieval  cathedral. Far from it. The automotive touches provide a sense of whimsy-hubcaps and radiator inspired gargoyles.  Eagles soaring high above the street. Down below the lobby and doors have that classic old school New York vibe.   But most impressively in the shining concentric crown, windows and spire at the top which scream art deco.   If you really think about the era it was built, The Chrysler Building represents so much promise and ingenuity. A new way of providing ornamentation and design to a building. It is not garish at all. It shimmers and shines in the sun. Before being somewhat crowded out by neighboring buildings not designed with similar creativity it must have glistened like a diamond ring. Years later it remains dignified, classy and refined.

Though I am not much of a jazz aficionado, one does have to recognize the great practitioners of the form.  I knew I needed music that represented those same feelings of dignity and class The Chrysler Building exudes. I did not have to go too far into my limited jazz catalog to find In A Sentimental Mood by Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. It is a work of singular beauty and elegance. While listening to it again I started inevitably drifting into a sentimental mood of my own life. While looking at the photos I took history also started creeping into my mind in fleeting segments. I recognized that I was fighting a battle between sentimentality and imagination.

You see, all the things I have mentioned here-my own youth, art deco, architecture, and yes, even the Jeeves and Wooster stories all have a passage of time over them,  a faint sentimentality of the past. We recognize that we are in ‘the now’ and cannot set the clock back 80 years. Once we get to that realization, sentimentality goes away and imagination enters instead. We imagine what it was like hearing music by Duke Ellington and others at a  Prohibition era nightclub. We imagine being trapped in an imbroglio of romantic entanglements like the Jeeves and Wooster stories. We imagine seeing The Chrysler Building rising in the skyline while being constructed.

The good thing is that we HAVE these sorts of things still in our life as markers. We can read the old stories, listen to the music. And on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, we can still gaze up at The Chrysler Building, 86 years since it was completed and know that it is still there for all of us to think about however we choose.

Be sure to see a few more photos below

In A Sentimental Mood-Written By Duke Ellington

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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle


4 thoughts on “Art Deco In The Sky

  1. Pingback: Top Posts Of 2018 – Soundtrack Of A Photograph

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