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Thursday, May 26, 2005

"Rhapsody in chrome"

Today’s Home & Garden section in the New York Times has the most wonderful collection of stories, audio and photographs in celebration of the Chrysler Building’s 75th birthday.

Regular readers of Creative Ink may note that the Chrysler Building is simply my most favorite in all of New York. Writer David Dunlap says, “It bubbles. It fizzes. It is 77 stories of razzmatazz and attitude, a bit of speedway and a lot of jukebox. It is knock-your-socks-off exhibitionism, with a dash of pure carny."

No kidding! I’ve had the pleasure twice in the past year of staying at the Grand Hyatt, also at 42nd and Lexington, but on the northwestern corner. I’ve marveled at the magnificent building glinting in the sunlight and seen its chrome spire rising majestically through the mist. And had I more time, I would ask to see the space that once was photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s studio.

Michael J. Lewis, a professor of art history at Williams College, says that the building’s “discordant elegance” came close to what George Gershwin achieved in music — “a rhapsody in chrome.”

The building was a reflection of the times, when more American men had been exposed to European culture through the Great War, and women were beginning to find themselves and their freedom just a tinge.

As Frederick Lewis Allen reported in his magisterial account of the Roaring Twenties, "Only Yesterday," the average amount of fabric needed to dress a woman declined from 191⁄4 yards in 1913 to a flimsy 7 yards by 1928.

Though its namesake has been long gone from the building, the structure still speaks for the inner entrepreneur. Lewis writes: The Chrysler Building is the act of an upstart, cockily challenging the supremacy of General Motors and the Ford Motor Company.

But its beautiful debut, often pooh-poohed by the critics of the time, came on the heels of the Depression and its cockiness quickly fled with the devastation that followed the Stock Market Crash. Lewis writes:

The Art Deco skyscrapers were not discredited by their fantastic mooring masts at their summits but by the bankers and the brokers leaping from their windows.

It does have a storied past and one that I first romanticized as a young reporter. Fresh from his honeymoon with Clare Booth, Henry Luce conceived of Life magazine in its once-resplendent Cloud Club restaurant. Rachel Davis, the owner of Rachel Davis Fine Arts in Larchmere, had called to tell me that someone had found in a relative’s basement boxes and boxes of Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs. Would I be interested in seeing them and writing a story about the find?

I was there in a heartbeat. Bourke-White has long been a hero of mine primarily for her fearlessness in pushing the envelope of life as a photojournalist, indeed as a woman at a time when women exercising freedom was simply not done.

My head was spinning as I thumbed through the stacks of photographs. How I coveted just one. But I was newly married, working on a weekly reporter’s salary and simply could not afford to purchase one of the photographs.

Oscar Graubner took my favorite photo of her. Though I don't own a framed copy, I have it in two books of her work. "Maggie," as she was known, is climbing out of one of the stainless-steel gargoyles outside her studio on the 62nd floor of the Chrysler Building — 800 feet above the sidewalk.

Of course, she had to do some finagling to even get studio space there at that time. Fortune magazine, for which she was working, would not rent her space on her own. Her lease was co-signed by Time Inc. She paid $387.92 per month, plus electricity.

She describes best, in her 1963 autobiography, “Portrait of Myself,” her fascination with the building and her desire to live there.

On the sixty-first floor, the workmen started building some curious structures which overhung 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue below. When I learned these structures were to be gargoyles à la Notre Dame, but made of stainless steel as more suitable for the twentieth century, I decided that here would be my new studio. There was no place in the world that I would accept as a substitute. I was ready to close my studio in Cleveland in order to be nearer Fortune, but it was the gargoyles which gave me the final spurt into New York.

It turned out that I had not one but a pair of gargoyles resplendent in stainless steel and pointing to the southeast … I loved the view so much that I often crawled out on the gargoyles, which projected over the street 800 feet below, to take pictures of the changing moods of the city.

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