One of New York’s most stunning Art Deco buildings, the Chanin Building uses a number of different materials in many inventive ways.
Centrally located on East 42nd Street near the Grand Central Terminal, the Chanin Building was constructed between 1927 and 1929 for noted developer Irwin Chanin by Sloan and Robertson architectural firm. One of the tallest buildings of its time, it contains 56 floors and stretches to a towering 680 feet.
Irwin S. Chanin
The Chanin Building was seen by some as an example of the American Dream. A mere twenty years before the completion of this massive skyscraper, the developer, Irwin S. Chanin, an engineer who had worked on the construction of New York’s subway, decided to get into the construction business. With only $200 and some additional funding, he started building small houses in Brooklyn. Soon he would expand into the construction of hotels, theaters and apartment buildings, amassing a fortune in the process. Irwin Chanin himself saw the Chanin building as an ‘architectural beauty wedded to business efficiency’ and advertised the skyscraper in brochures as an icon of progress.
Typical of New York skyscrapers of its era and in conformance with old NY zoning laws, the building is set back from its limestone base in a series of narrow setbacks that extend for the first thirty or so floors.
The soaring tower is made of buff-brick and terracotta, with limestone buttresses at the base and crown. The facade introduced the use of colored glass, stone, and metal on the exterior of New York’s tall buildings.
The Chanin Building is topped by a distinct Art Deco style crown, consisting of a set of buttresses. At night, the top was reverse-lit by floodlights, creating a magnificent illuminated pattern, visible forty-five miles – more than 70 km – away.
While the tower is a wonderful addition to the skyline, the Chanin Building’s most wonderful contribution to architecture is its lovely ornamentation, both inside and out. On the exterior, a band of terracotta features graceful leaf-like forms that are simply lovely. Also, a beautiful bronze frieze at street level depicts what seems to be the beginnings of the theory of evolution. Angular zigzag patterns overlaid with curving flower petals are also found over the storefronts.
The two lobbies inside the building are equally spectacular. Chanin designed them with the assistance of artists Jacques Delamarre and René Chambellan, the latter well-known for his architectural sculpture pieces. It is said that Chanin wanted to portray the opportunities available in New York, including to people like him. One lobby is dedicated to “intellectual” pursuits while the other demonstrates “physical” pursuits, both decorated with plaster figures that are rather cubist in style.
The ornate elevator doors from the main lobby sport a goose motif and once led to the top floor, where Chanin’s office was located behind a set of bronze gates that were said to represent the greatness of the city. Beyond the gates, Chanin’s office was also decorated with beautiful Art Deco ornamentation.
There was also an open air observation deck on the 54th floor and an ornate movie theater on the 50th, neither of which is still open.