The Chrysler Building and Me
by John Delach
The Chrysler Building is up for sale. The Abu Dhabi government fund that bought our iconic skyscraper at the height of the real estate market in 2008 wants to recoup as much of the $800 million they paid to Tishman Speyer for a 90% share in this art deco sky treasure. Tishman retained 10% that is also on the block. Real estate brokers differ widely on the estimated selling price but note Abu Dhabi paid top dollar in 2008 and they doubt the fund can sell without taking a loss. True, the market has re-bounded with a vengeance, but the tower is considered an obsolete relic unable to offer amenities and the work environment of our throw way office concepts. If true, this makes me sad.
My first encounter with the Chrysler Building came at a Christmas Party held for the staff and their families when I was four or five years old. Back then I was a carrot top with a face full of freckles. Our downstairs neighbor, Bill Sleazak, invited my Mom and me to join his family at the party. Mr. Sleazak was an elevator operator in the tower, a job that I considered as important as a subway motorman or an airline pilot.
At some point during the party, a master of ceremony announced that there would be a freckle contest. Several kids came forward to be judged but I didn’t because Mom chose to keep me out of the contest as we weren’t real family. Nevertheless, some fellow standing near by took one look at my face and announced to the crowd, “I have the winner over here.”
With that, he propelled me through a sea of people right up to the judge who declared me the winner. I recall being showered with gifts and Mr. Sleazak being none too pleased that I received all this attention.
The Twenties were still roaring in 1928 when Walter Chrysler set out to build his namesake skyscraper determined that it would be the tallest in the world. (The Empire State Building was not his rival. Its conception was a year away)
His competition was a Downtown giant, 40 Wall Street, then sponsored by the Bank of Manhattan Trust. Originally conceived as a 47-story tower, the plans were altered, first to 60 floors and eventually; to 77 floors. The height of 40 Wall climbed to 927 feet.
Chrysler decided to top off his building at 72 floors at a height of 925 feet but with a secret plan.
Forty Wall was finished first taking the title as the world’s tallest building on May 1, 1930. But Walter Chrysler had already unleashed his architectural addition, a 125-foot long spire assembled inside the building and hoisted to the top of the building in 1929, giving him the title On May 27, 1930 when the tower was deemed to be completed.
The howl from downtown could be heard everywhere. Cheat, fraud, charlatan, etc., etc. Still the architectural societies who govern these things deemed the Chrysler Building to be tallest in the world. Eleven moths later, the Empire State Building took the title.
I encountered a close-up view of the spire at some point in the 1980s. My firm had bid on the world-wide insurance needs for Freeport-McMoRan, a global mining conglomerate head-quartered in the Pan Am Building, (now Met Life.) I participated in our bid, preparing the proposal for their marine risks, a minor part of their insurance program. We have a sixth sense in the insurance brokerage business anticipating when we are being used to force the existing broker to hustle. In other words, the fix was in. Every other executive who worked on this proposal made themselves scarce the day Freeport-McMoRan called with the bad news that we had not been selected. I alone was available to accept the gilded lily.
When I arrived at their offices in one of the uppermost floors in the Pan Am Building, I was told to cool my heals. I thought of telling the receptionist to f*** off and leaving but the view from the lobby had grabbed my attention. From where I sat, I looked down on the base of the Chrysler Building’s spire. Not a great view on this murky, overcast morning, amazingly, I realized I was witnessing activity that nobody else could see. Three workmen had loosened a hatch at the base of the spire, where they were performing dangerous maintenance work. One workman stepped out into space roped to the other two. I looked on open mouthed and in fear for their safety.
Absorbed by what I was observing, the receptionist had to shout to jar me from my concentration. “They will see you now,” she explained. I hesitated, took a last look and let her usher me into a conference room where I listened as some assholes preached to me about the deficiencies of our proposal. I made no response, asked no questions and left at my convenience.
Returning to reception, I saw the men were gone and the hatch had been secured. I assumed all had gone well and thanked the Lord for their protection.
From 1992 to 1999, my office at Marsh & McLennan was on the 39th floor at the eastern side of 1166 Avenue of the Americas. I had an unobstructed view of the Chrysler Building, three blocks away. What a hoot!
My beautiful skyscraper: The first thing I saw in the morning when walked into my office and the last thing I saw at night before I left. Some nights, those rare times, usually after a significant rainfall washed away all the pollutants, those special nights when Manhattan sparkled like a thousand jewels, I would close my door, turn off the lights and admire my magnificent neighbor. Just the Chrysler Building and me.
I love this Dad. Your love for New York City is infectious. And, I remember the story about the freckle contest, so amazing.
Hey, John. Nice article. I have a nice distant view of the peak from my apartment. Not bad. Also have a book that you should get: The Chrysler Building, Creating a New York Icon Day by Day, by David Stravinsky (whoever he is). Great photographs.
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That’s a great one, John. One of your best!
Tom Briggs +1.917.842.6791