The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day
by David Stravitz
Published by Princeton Architectural Press
166 pages, 2002
One Man's Treasure...
Reviewed by David Middleton
It's been said that one man's junk is another man's treasure. David Stravitz' lovely The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day has been created from both. In 1979 Stravitz met a photographer who was selling everything and closing up shop. After deciding which pieces of equipment he would buy, Stravitz made a spectacular discovery. In a dark, forgotten corner of the photographer's studio, days from being scrapped for silver, was what Stravitz could only consider "...the treasure of a lifetime." Found were over 500 photographic plates and negatives of New York from the 1920s and 30s, Stravitz says that "more than one hundred and fifty negatives contained in this collection documented the day-by-day construction of the world's greatest art deco skyscraper, the Chrysler Building -- from the excavation of its site at the northeast corner of 42nd street and Lexington Avenue, to the erection of its tower, to the crowning of its magnificent spire."
Most of the photographs were taken by Peyser & Patzig, commercial and industrial photographers of the time, plus one famous Margaret Bourke-White photograph, though "How her now famous image wound up in this collection of relatively unknown images is a mystery." These photographs were considered simply illustrations for the client documenting the building's progress and were likely never meant to be seen by the general public. In The Chrysler Building, not only are we fortunate enough to get to experience these never-before-seen images but the author's serendipitous discovery creates a story as fascinating as the book itself.
The Chrysler Building contains few words -- a preface by Stravitz, an introduction by the preeminent authority on New York architecture, Christopher Gray, and at the back of the book short descriptions of the plates -- and the book is better for it. There are no doubt other books which go into detailed descriptions about how much material was used in the construction, site challenges and the sociopolitical climate of the time and the ramifications of erecting such an effigy to power and wealth on the cusp of the Great Depression. While Stravitz and Gray briefly touch on these subjects, the book is mercifully free of pages and pages of uninterrupted text and the photographs are unencumbered by subtitles (except for those which appeared on the original negative). The reader gets to experience the erection of the building almost the way any New Yorker in 1929 would have. The photographs, beautifully detailed and superbly reproduced, are not only a record of the Chrysler during construction but also offer us a tiny slice of New York life. Starting with site excavation and ending with the completed building, The Chrysler Building dedicates itself to the simple yet elegant presentation of these images -- hats off to designer Sara E. Stemen and editor Nancy Eklund Later for showing such marvelous restraint. Also included are two stunning four-page fold outs, one of the excavation site, the other a richly detailed panorama of Manhattan as it was more than 70 years ago.
Of all the great shots in the book, none holds as much power as the portrait of the vice president of the W.P. Chrysler Corporation and man in charge of supervising construction, Frank B. Rogers, doffing his hat to the city. An ordinary enough shot at first glance -- a pleasant looking bespectacled man in a nice suit and leather gloves holding what looks like an art deco trophy -- until you come to the vertigo-inducing realization that the trophy he is clutching is the very tip of the Chrysler building's spire and beyond the flimsy looking scaffolding the city is 1046 feet, 4 and 3/4 inches below.
Over 100 of the more than 500 images Stravitz found have been reproduced in The Chrysler Building. This brings up two questions for me: Why did it take almost 23 years for these photographs to finally see the light of day and -- just as importantly -- when will we get to see the other 400 or so Stravitz has left? | November 2002
David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and is so impressed by this book that he can't think of a single smart-ass thing to say.