It’s really a matter of perspective. I was pretty broke when I lived in New York City. By the time I paid rent and bought food there was not a lot left over for entrance fees. Lucky for me, NYC is home to so many great spots that are not officially open to tourists, but do allow anyone to pop in.
My favorite freebie is one of the city’s best-loved landmarks. The privately built Chrysler Building. It was, for 11 short months, the tallest building in the world. Walter Chrysler headquartered his company here but still owned the building personally. He wanted to leave it to his children. Its décor is inspired by the source of his fortune: the automobile. Gargoyles are shaped liked the Plymouth hood ornament. Radiator caps inspired the corner decorations.
This early skyscraper was constructed in record time, four floors per week with, remarkably, no deaths. The pressure was on architect William van Alen. His building was in a neck-in-neck frantic race against his ex-partner H. Craig Severance’s 40 Wall Street for the title of tallest building in the world . Severance announced the completion of his world’s tallest building in May 1930. But van Alen had a trick up his sleeve. He had covertly gotten the go ahead for a spire; then secretly built it inside the frame. Once 40 Wall Street was finished, he took just 90 minutes to install this pre-fab pinnacle on top of the Chrysler Building. At 1046 feet his masterpiece won the title (until the Empire State Building opened less that a year later).
Everything was custom designed and cost a fortune. Originally the building housed a speakeasy near the top, a few apartments including one for Walter that boasted the highest toilet in NYC, a members lunch spot called the Cloud Club and a bottling plant in the basement that filtered watered to be delivered to the tenants. Now it is all offices.
This perfect example of Art Deco architecture and interior design does not provide tours. But anyone can and should step inside the lobby. It once housed a Chrysler dealership. It now offers a chance to admire fine murals, spectacular elevator doors and the first digital clock. Murals of workers were designed to remind executives each and every day of the hard working people on whom the company depended. Big wigs then got into one of the custom designed inlaid elevator doors and headed to their sky high offices with breath taking views.
Things did not end well for van Alen. He had neglected to sign a contract with Chrysler. When he asked to be paid the standard 6% of the construction budget, Chrysler refused. Van Alen had to sue. Though he won the fee he was deemed unemployable. This was his last commission. He spent the rest of his life as a sculpture teacher. Chrysler died in 1940; his kids sold the building 13 years later.
405 Lexington Ave. at 42nd St.