Book Review: The Men Who Designed and Built the Chrysler Building

Book Review: The Men Who Designed and Built the Chrysler Building

The tale of how the Chrysler Building became the tallest building in the world on October 23, 1929, namely by secretly assembling the 38-meter tall spire inside the frame of the building and pushing it on top of the building’s dome in just 90 minutes, is one of the tallest stories in the skyscraper world. This was a glorious time. Skyscrapers were popping up everywhere, and some were openly competing for the title of the world’s tallest. The spire-trick gave the Chrysler Building bragging rights for about eleven months.

The name that is most associated with the Chrysler Building is, of course, that of American automotive industry executive Walter Percy Chrysler. Open to third-party tenants, the building was named after himself, not his namesake auto company. Some of you may also be able to reproduce the name of the architect, William Van Alen. Both men are prominently featured in the book Higher by Neal Bascomb, which subtitle ‘A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City’ explains it all. This is the kind of story which deserves to be turned into a feature film.

lifting the famous spire of the Chrysler Building

Having said that, I’m quite confident no one knows the name of the man whose construction company built it, being Fred T. Ley. You’re excused though as the guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

George Kingston is a retired engineering research manager who resides near Springfield, Massachusetts. To his own surprise, one day he found out that the constructor of what was once the tallest building in the world was from the same area. This prompted him to do some research on Fred T. Ley & Co, Inc. which he started from scratch. Realizing that Ley’s relationship with the architect was crucial to the story, he dug into Van Alen’s professional life as well, only to learn that not a great deal was written about the man either. This called for a book, aptly named ‘William Van Alen, Fred T. Ley and the Chrysler Building’. According to the text on the back, ‘this book chronicles how they designed and constructed the Chrysler Building and how the experience affected the rest of their lives”.

In alternating chapters, the lives of Van Alen and Ley are chronicled. The late 19th and early 20th century was a period where individuals with no particular background were able to move up in this world by working hard and smart. As always, these are fascinating and inspiring stories, but it was about at two-third of the book when it started to dawn on me that these biographies were not an introduction to, or a background of the main story, they actually were the main story of the book. This becomes apparent in chapter 12 (out of 13) when the construction of the Chrysler Building itself is being discussed. Based on the blurb of the book I had somehow expected juicy stories of fierce disagreements between architect and the builder, and how they worked it all out in the end, but there is none of that. In fact, the two storylines don’t even touch each other.

This doesn’t mean the book isn’t interesting though. Better than the blurp, I think the book is being summed up by its last paragraph:

William Van Alen and Fred T. Ley were very different individuals, but both were remarkable men who started at the bottoms of their professions and rose to the very top. Their one collaboration, the design and construction of the Chrysler Building, remains a revered New York City landmark in active use to this day. Their legacy is in the buildings they created, many of which are in or will soon be entering their second century of existence. The men who designed and built them should not be forgotten.

By presenting the biographies of both men, the differences between them becomes more apparent. Ley’s strengths were project management and process innovation, while Van Alen’s focus was on creativity and originality. Fred T. Ley is the hands-on, pragmatic guy whose professional motto is “If you stop your losses, your profits will take care of themselves.” Van Alen was the first architect who eliminated setbacks in the window installations so the facade looked flat, a trademark of Modern architecture. Another innovation was the use of glass to face almost the entirety of the first four floors of the building.

Two New York designs by William van Alen, left the Childs Restaurant at 604 fifth Av (1924) and 1107 Broadway (1915)

‘William Van Alen, Fred T. Ley and the Chrysler Building’ is thoroughly researched, which must have been quite the challenge as I presume there wasn’t much research material available to begin with. The result is a document full of little-known facts which all have contributed to the rise of the skyscraper. For that alone, the book ought to be in your skyscraper library. Its rightful place is next to the books on the Chrysler Building as a worthy companion to the famous story, but it’ll also sit very well in your skyshaper biographies section!

William Van Alen, Fred T. Ley and the Chrysler Building
by: George C. Kingston
publisher: McFarland (book page)
may 2017 | softcover | 236 pages | 44 photos | ISBN-13: 978-1-4766-6847-5

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