E. 42nd Street: You & I & Irwin Chanin
Continuing our stroll eastward on E. 42nd Street, we come to the Chanin Building, which takes up the rest of the block all the way to the corner at Lexington Avenue.
The Chanin, completed in 1929, is, at 56 floors and 680 feet, more than twice as tall as its two neighbors. But I'll get to that aspect at some other time. For now, I'm going to concentrate on what we as pedestrians experience close up, at sidewalk level.
Irwin Chanin, a self-made man whose parents immigrated from Russia, had already made a name as an important NYC builder and developer. This eponymous structure, with its momunmental proportions and exuberent decoration, was meant to be a vision of the high-spirited and optimistic American society of the late '20s. It can also be read as Chanin's celebration of his own rise from a humble beginning to a shaper of a great city.
Chanin's training was as a civil engineer, but he also had a architect's eye for design. In 1925, he attended the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the very event that gave birth to the term, "Art Deco." He was inspired and excited about this new style, and anxious to apply it to the work of his construction company.
And so the Chanin Building became one of the first major Art Deco sturctures in New York City. For a very short while, until the completion of the Chrysler Building across the street, it was even the tallest building in the United States.
In the photo above, you can see Chanin's enthusiasm for the then-new Art Deco form of decoration. The first floor, which was designed for retail shops, uses black Belgian marble for the storefronts, with an elegant silver Art Deco typeface for the store names. Just above the black marble is a freize of stylized imagery on brass (all the references say bronze, but it sure looks like brass to me.) The frieze depicts the theory of evolution, starting with plants and amoebae, but only getting as far as geese. Still, the detail is beautiful and captivating.
The second and third floors are defined by a series of pilasters, giving the appearance of a colonade. The fourth story is encircled by a bas-relief in terra cotta from which delightfully stylized flowers seem to erupt.
Although Mr. Chanin was not the very first to build office towers in the Art Deco style, he did pioneer the use of Art Deco in residential structures with two iconic apartment towers on Central Park West - the Century and the Majestic.
The Chanin family construction and real estate business was a worthy contributor to New York City during most of the 20th century. Irwin Chanin worked at his firm until a month before his death, and I was happy to learn that he lived until age ninety-six.