Paul Clemence Photographs the Chrysler Building

Like a lot of events obscured by the pandemic of 2020, the 90th anniversary of the opening of the Chrysler Building slipped right by most of us.

The 77-story Art Deco masterpiece by architect William Van Allen opened on May 27, 1930. For a brief 11 months, it was the tallest building in the world, until eclipsed by the Empire State Building. Today it’s the 11th tallest building in New York City.

Tomorrow marks its 91st anniversary, so architecture photographer Paul Clemence spent the better part of last week shooting the building’s form, details, and ornament.

Actually, he’s been busy shooting it since he arrived in New York City from Brazil, via Miami, in 2009. “It’s so very photogenic,” he says. “I like to shoot it at different times of day, and in different lighting, and in different kinds of weather.”

The award-winning photographer had been taking photos of many of the super-tall buildings in the city, when he paused to take in the Chrysler’s detail-driven design. “It’s so much more creative than these new buildings going up,” he says. “I look at the Chrysler and my imagination just flies – the more you look at it the more you discover little details everywhere.”

He’s talking about flat bricks laid in running and stack bond; others rounded to take their corners gracefully. He means the stainless steel eagles, gargoyles, and pineapples hovering over the streets of Manhattan. He’s thinking of the patterns in glass and steel at the building’s entrance – and on the 30th floor, a mosaic frieze of wheels with mudguards and hubcaps, its corners adorned with winged, oversized, 1929 Chrysler radiator caps.

“When you go all the way up, it’s pretty fascinating – because it’s so imaginative,” he says. “The crown, with all the curves and angles, was done before computers. That’s pretty mind-blowing.”

Remarkably, Clemence shot most of his images from the street, using a powerful 20x zoom lens. “It’s a Canon G3X, and with it, I shot almost all the details from the ground floor,” he says. “Some were shot from the One Vanderbilt building right next to it.”

Designed and built during the go-go, boom-boom days of the late 1920s, the Chrysler Building came to symbolize a less promising era too. “It opened, and right after that the stock market crashed,” he says. “So it was looking to the future as a crowning moment, and at the same time the end of the Roaring Twenties.”

Still, at 90 years old, it remains one of New York’s best-loved buildings.

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