The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building dominate the Midtown skyline. The two Art Deco buildings were conceived of during the Roaring ‘20s and completed in the early years of the Depression, and at one time each was the tallest building in the world. The Chrysler Building, however, held that title only for 11 months, from its completion on May 27, 1930, until the opening of the Empire State Building on May 1, 1931. And it was no coincidence that the Empire State exceeded the Chrysler in height. The two buildings, along with 40 Wall Street in the Financial District, rose higher and higher from their original plans as they vied in what the newspapers called “the Race into the Sky.”
Architect William Van Alen was hired in 1927 to create a 40-story building that would house the headquarters of auto manufacturer Chrysler Corp. As months went by additional floors were added, until by October 1928 the building, at Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street, was designed to consist of 68 stories and reach a height of 808 feet.
Meanwhile, banker George Ohrstrom was planning a 60-story office building at 40 Wall Street. Its architect, H. Craig Severance, had been Van Alen’s business partner until 1924, and the dissolution of their firm was an acrimonious one. Severance was determined that his building would be taller than Van Alen’s, so he added two stories to his plan, bringing the structure’s height to 840 feet. Later, for good measure, he added another 65 feet to its height. When 40 Wall Street opened in April 1930 at 925 feet high, it was the tallest building in the world.
But not for long. Refusing to be bested by his former partner, Van Alen added a 125-foot spire to his design, though he kept this information out of the public eye. The spire was constructed within the frame of the building, which by now had reached 77 stories, to avoid Severance from getting wind of it. Van Alen’s stealth paid off; when the Chrysler Building was completed in May 1930, it captured the title of the world’s highest building.
In April 1929, however, another entrant had joined the Race into the Sky. A group of investors including two members of the du Pont family, former New York governor Alfred E. Smith, and the manager of Smith’s failed 1928 presidential bid, John Raskob, announced plans to build their own tower on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets, on the site of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. A former executive at General Motors, Raskob was not about to let Chrysler have bragging rights to the world’s tallest building. After more than a dozen revisions, the Empire State Building was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon to stand 1,250 feet tall, exceeding the Chrysler Building by 204 feet. And that is without counting the Empire State’s 204-foot antenna, which brings the 102-story building to 1,454 feet.
The Empire State Building not only won the race to be the world’s tallest building, but it held the title until the completion of the World Trade Center in 1973. Some 4 million visitors each year marvel at the panoramic views from its observatories on the 86th and 102nd floors. It was famously climbed by King Kong, and the American Society of Civil Engineers named it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, an honor it shares with, among other structures, the Channel Tunnel, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Panama Canal.
Yet in at least one way the Chrysler Building was the more successful enterprise. Even in 1935, the midst of the Depression, tenants occupied 70% of the Chrysler, while the Empire State struggled with an occupancy rate of only 23% and did not turn a profit until the 1950s. What’s more, the Chrysler Building still retains the title of the world’s tallest brick building with a steel structure.
The Battle to Be the World’s Tallest Building