Carol M. Highsmith
For a brief time, William Van Alen could claim to have designed the world’s tallest building. Today, he gets credit for creating a towering icon of New York City.
William Van Alen was born in Brooklyn on August 10, 1883. His interest in architecture led him to the Pratt Institute, a Brooklyn fine arts school, and a job working for residential architect Clarence True. William was intrigued by French ideas on modern architecture. He studied under the French immigrant Emmanuel Lewis Masqueray, who founded the first atelier (educational workshop) in the United States, devoted to architecture. As a member of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, Van Alen studied in France after winning the society’s Paris Prize in 1908.
Van Alen studied the French Beaux-Arts movement, which sought to create a modern style influenced by the arts of ancient Greece and Rome. After returning to America, he applied his lessons in partnership with H. Craig Severance. The partners made names for themselves designing innovative commercial buildings in New York City. Their buildings were seen as acts of showmanship for themselves and their clients. Eventually, Severance felt that Van Alen received too much credit for their stylish structures. They ended their partnership in 1923 and became rival architects.
In the 1920s, Van Alen continued to follow new ideas from Europe. While attending a Paris exhibition in 1925 he discovered the new Art Deco style. Short for “Arts Decoratifs,” Art Deco used straight lines and bold geometric patterns to give buildings a more modern look. With the Chrysler Building, Van Alen would add an Art Deco flourish to the New York skyline and help make Art Deco an American style.
The property at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue was owned by developer William H. Reynolds when Van Alen was hired to design a skyscraper for the site. When the project proved too expensive for him, Reynolds sold the site to automobile manufacturer Walter P. Chrysler, who wanted Van Alen to design the world’s tallest building. Meanwhile, H. Craig Severance wanted his Manhattan Trust building on Wall Street to be the tallest. A high-profile competition was on as the two skyscrapers rose together.
It looked like Severance would win after raising the Manhattan Trust building to 927 feet by late 1929. On October 23, Van Alen took the city by surprise by having a 185’ Art Deco spire hauled up the side of the Chrysler Building and mounted on top to tower over Manhattan Trust. The Chrysler Building opened only 14 and one-half months after construction started, in May 1930. At 1046 feet it was the tallest man-made structure on Earth. Within a year, the Empire State Building surpassed Van Alen’s achievement.
After suing Chrysler over his payment, Van Alen never worked on a major project again. He died in relative obscurity on May 24, 1954. But while the Chrysler Building was criticized for commercialism early on, it has become one of New York’s favorite skyscrapers and a symbol of the Art Deco style of the Roaring Twenties. Its fame elevated Van Alen’s reputation as a major American architect. In 1996, the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects was renamed the Van Alen Institute in his honor.