Inside the Needle: The Chrysler Building Gets Lit



Lexington Ave & E 43rd St, New York, NY 10017

Neighborhood: Midtown

The cellar of the Chrysler Building is midtown’s one great monument to the American filling station. It offers (for free) the same perfume of motor oil, the same lulling throb of distant engines, the not unpleasant heat, the mesmerizing hiss of compressed air. And it is always noontime in the Chrysler Building cellar, the same endless noontime with everything suspended in slow motion, even the traffic that comes and goes, and the customer’s call bell that maybe just rang, no one’s quite sure. The office is still the coolest spot outside the soda machine, and the words “container” and “pop” still get you coffee and Coke. The bottlecap-bitten desktop and the rabbit-punched green locker are still around, too, along with the butter-colored trophy and the wood paneling, the rickety adding machine and the old steam pressure gauge, the American flag (folded) and the indispensable Playboy (unfolded)—both of which have been folded and unfolded an equal number of times since yesterday. The same thick-shouldered young mechanic is taking the same nap on the same sweated-out sofa after the same all-night shift, and when his boss calls out, “Reilly, you in there?” the mechanic still awakens instantly and with a jaw-snapping start—groping for his keys, swinging his big stockinged feet straight into oil-darkened boots, lurching to attention, all in one unhurried motion.

Thirty of the building’s men wear blue work clothes with their surnames embroidered in red script over the right breast pocket. Ten of them are called Frankie. After a job is done (for instance: every six weeks six men are supposed to wash five thousand windows), all the men report back to David Gibb, the knob-shouldered assistant chief engineer, who wears thirty-two keys on his belt and reports to Walter Murphy, the walrus-mustached chief engineer who wears forty-four keys and answers to Bartholomew Cournane, the no-nonsense building manager, who carries twenty-six keys (mostly masters) whenever he leaves his cellar office to report to John Filbert, the unseen general manager who works on the 39th floor with only three keys in his pocket—two for his office and one for the men’s room.

Ernie Colin, chief electrician, is probably the only man in midtown who wears two rings of forty-two keys each and also lives on top of a mountain. Ernie’s house stands 1,279 feet above sea level. It lies nine miles north of Milford, Pennsylvania, ten miles west of the Appalachian Trail, and 122 miles northwest of the Chrysler Building. Ernie spends twenty hours every week commuting to and from his desk, which stands in the cellar, six feet four inches above sea level. As director of Apelco Inc., the building’s electrical contractor, Ernie is responsible for the performance of 750 miles of electrical wiring—a distance, one senses, that Ernie Colin would gladly travel every day if every day Ernie Colin could exit the clammy, hierarchical cellar and climb into the building’s Olympian spire.

Ernie is a specialist in high places. “Height never bothered me. This building is a little lower than the height of the mountain live on in Pennsylvania. I feel at home up there.” Ernie has felt at home on the tip of the antenna above the roof of the World Trade Center (1,718 feet: “It’s nice”), at the pinnacle of the dirigible mooring mast atop the Empire State Building (1,472 feet: “Nicer yet”) and at the extreme tip of the Chrysler’s spire (1,046 feet 4 inches: “One word—peace”). He has the build and disposition of a seasoned rock climber, compact and muscular. He stands five feet six inches tall. Laconic, gruff as a mountain ram he possesses deep affection for the building; he has seen it survive five owners.

When Ernie came to work for Walter Chrysler Jr. in 1951, the spire was lighted every night and every window opening was illuminated by ordinary 50-watt General Electric light bulbs. Ernie was sixteen, an electrician’s helper. In those days (“When Chrysler was Chrysler,” Ernie recalls), contractors were rarely substituted for the 350-man in-house work force. Every electrician worked for Mr. Chrysler. When a fifty-watt bulb needed changing, a man climbed up and changed it. The spire now illuminates the skyline from dusk until midnight; 2,756 four-foot long General Electric Warm White Deluxe fluorescent lamps are bracketed inside the spire’s 112 window openings. Burned out lamps are removed and replaced by no fewer than four of thirteen union-sanctioned electricians. The high cost of their time prohibits more than one monthly expedition to the spire.

One morning not long ago I joined Ernie as he left the Chrysler Building’s cellar and started out for the spire. The ascent began at a thousand feet per minute. We took an express elevator to 57, then to 71 in the 700-feet-per-minute tower elevator. Originally open to the public as an observation spot—it cost 50 cents—the 71st floor gives a radial view of 50 miles. It measures 3,900 square feet. When the elevator doors opened, Ernie and I stepped into a room that was all brightness and order—the outer office of Morse & Harvey, architects. Here was a Mozart symphony, neatly appointed drafting tables, and the promising but opaque gaze of a receptionist.

This was the last floor on which we could be certain of finding a world of straight lines. Above this elevation lay curious, irregular terrain. A trompe l’oeil mural painted on Morse & Harvey’s south side ceiling attempted to represent the view of the spire that Ernie and I would have seen if we looked up and found a big hole in the architects’ ceiling. There were the five gleaming, crescent-shaped tapering upward to a needle-point finial. We would also have seen five groups of dark, triangular-shaped window openings, arranged in each arch like rows of’ sharks’ teeth.

Apparently, we had already ascended to within five arches of the top of the building. This seemed to make sense: we were standing on the 71st floor of a skyscraper that is widely known to contain 77 floors. It would be logical if there were six more floors. But, as Ernie described it, “From here on, there are floors, but you’re not on floors. You’re never on the floors. You’re always in between the floors.”

To demonstrate, we mounted the fire staircase in the building’s central core, and Ernie began to climb: eight steps north, two steps east, five steps south—fifteen ordinary cement treads and risers—which brought us to a brick-walled landing that was marked with the numerals 72. But there was no 72nd floor here—only a landing leading to more stairs, which we took. Another 15 steps and we arrived at a similar landing, marked 73. But, as before, the 73rd floor was nowhere to be seen—it was up another three steps, to the west, through an unmarked, locked door.

At this elevation, the Chrysler building tapers to 2,700 square feet. The north side of the floor harbors a rectangular water tank, about the size of a comfortable houseboat. It contains 15,000 gallons of water, 3,500 of which are kept in reserve in case of fire. On the south side, two Oz-green motors hoist the tower elevators. On all sides, trapezoidal portions of three large triangular windows rose up from somewhere underneath the floor and, before vanishing through cement bays into the ceiling, admitted shabby slivers of daylight. Altogether, the floor contained exactly what the Chrysler Building’s blueprints testify that the 73rd floor contained in March 1929. Only this was not 73 either. “Right now,” said Ernie, “you’re on seventy-three-and-a-half, which drives you a little cuckoo.”

The standard distance between floors in a midtown office building is eleven feet. William Van Alen, the Chrysler Building’s architect, drew elevation measurements for the spire that describe floors on which, with no remodeling whatsoever, M.C. Escher could have opened for business: a measurement of 13 feet 7 inches between 69 and 70; 12 feet 7 inches between 70 and 71; 10 feet 9 inches between each floor from 71 to 75; 15 feet 1 inch between 75 and 76; 15 feet between 76 and 77. Yet these same floors were framed inside five levels of exterior arches, which, from the outside, at any rate, appear to function something like a Russian nesting doll: each ascending arch a slightly smaller but exact duplicate of the one below. The window openings only preserve the illusion. They are the same shape, all different sizes, and some of them are so tall they furnish as many as three floors with light, albeit in varying amounts. But the floor frames and the floors themselves account for most of the Escher illusion.

For one thing, they were the last part of the spire to be built. When William Van Alen learned that H. Craig Severance, his former partner, had topped out at 927 feet at the Bank of Manhattan Company at 40 Wall Street, Van Alen ordered a 185-foot-tall steel needle to be assembled in secret inside the scaffold-shrouded spire. Then, on the night of September 27, 1929, the entire 27-ton needle was hoisted up through the spire and bolted into place, giving Van Alen 120 feet over his rival.

On 74, Ernie and I slipped past four transformer vaults and the dark, airless, pegboard-covered offices of an abandoned radio station, WPAT. In the next 18 steps upward, the temperature dropped by as many degrees. The door to 75 gave way to a weightless feeling. All of a sudden, nearby clouds seemed even more nearby. The wind sounded louder. The wind was louder. The wind was blowing across the 75th floor at about eight to ten miles per hour.

On 75—and on all remaining floors—the window openings in all four walls have never in their history contained glass panes. Several feature safety nets. “If you fall,” said Ernie, “you don’t fall out.” At this altitude, fluorescent lamps are not so much burned out as iced. Posted inside the window openings, like sentries inside castle loopholes, the lamps and fixtures suffer severe seasonal exposure. On a windy winter’s day, when the mercury stands at 32 degrees above zero on Lexington Avenue, the temperature on the 75th floor—868 feet 1 inches above sea level—can reach 20 below zero. Intense cold shortens the five-to-six-year life of an $8 General Electric Warm White Deluxe lamp to as few as sixty hours. In winter, there are but two sources of warm air on this floor: Puffs of heat float up from the mouth of the fire tower court, carrying crude scents from deep within the 862-foot tall brick shaft; and, from across the floor, the whir of a space heater fan, the first of 12 such fans between 75 and the summit. The heaters have been installed to prevent ice from falling onto the world below. Under certain conditions, especially when a north wind blows on a day of high humidity, when ground temperatures are between 28 and 35 above zero, a wrap of ice can form on the spire’s metal skin, clinging to the smooth arches like a science fair demonstration of latent energy, or, high above midtown’s crowded pavements, latent litigation.

Twenty-three steps and risers brought Ernie and me to 76, where the wind subsided temporarily, as if we’d stepped into a mountain cave. The tips of windows, reaching up from below, pierced the gloom. Dark, gritty, tucked into the upper reaches of the fourth arch, this floor offered shelter, as the ones above us did not. The last outpost of commerce, 76 contains the highest parcel of real estate on which the Chrysler Building earns money. Inside the south face of 76, Eastern Communications, a two-way-radio company (“We’ re involved with police and government stuff,” Eastern’s president Mike Wolfe told me) clung to the tapering spire with a lease that will not expire until the year 2009. No one but a Manhattan branch of Outward Bound would want to lease on higher floors. At this elevation, there were no more stairwells, no more treads and risers. One hundred and fifty-eight flights of stairs had reached their climax. There was just one way to continue upward.

The ladder was made of steel. It was tall as a foul pole and measured just less than one foot in width. The ladder was cold. It was five years older than Ernie, who, at fifty-one, was eager to ascend. Quickly, nimbly, he climbed, passing structural steel beams, gaining altitude over the center of 76. After 14 rungs, Ernie said, “Right here is equal to one normal floor.” After 22 rungs, we emerged into the kind of clean brightness that floods an aircraft cabin as the plane clears the clouds and climbs to cruising altitude. All around us were wide bays of blue. The window openings—there were now just three to an arch—had never before seemed so open, medieval. Rushing wind and bleating heater fans competed for climatic control of the floor.

The floor itself had shrunk to the dimensions of three standard sheets of plywood abutting one another on the long side. There was the constant presence of a precipice and the nearness of its edge. A nesting peregrine falcon, a rappelling rock climber—these would not have seemed unusual sights on the 77th floor. According to real-estate directories, architectural histories, and by all accounts of its construction, the Chrysler Building contains 77 floors. But as I stood there on the 77th floor and looked up, I saw more floors. Directly in front of Ernie and me was a ladder—another ladder, skinnier by two inches than the one between 76 and 77—and this ladder led upward to—count ’em—eight additional floors. True, all signs of human life end right here on 77, but there was still room at the top, and—this being the Chrysler Building, symbol of a city that is itself a symbol of climbing rung by rung to the top—up we went.

Up in the eighties, I kept thinking of some movie I’d seen as a child of daring young men in scarves and goggles monkeying around on the upper reaches of the Eiffel Tower. I wished I had either a scarf or goggles. It was cold, and the sudden absence of civilization in the middle of civilization made me feel alone and worried. It was strange to think that here in the middle of Manhattan, I was in a place where there was no drinking water, no toilet, no telephone, no stairways or elevators. There was only a frail-looking ladder, creaking under the weight of Ernie and me as we climbed past the four-foot-square platforms at 79, 80, 81, 82. At 83, there was room for just one of us to press onward to the summit.

Deep-sea divers in deep-sea depths are said to experience something called rapture of the deep. A diver’s euphoria proves so overwhelming that he fails to return to the surface even when his air runs out. From the 83rd floor of the Chrysler Building, the city below appears as dreamy, distant, and unnecessary as the mercury-colored surface of the sea must look to an enraptured diver. Looking up with some relief that I did not have to climb still higher, I watched Ernie Colin pull himself onto the 84th—and highest—floor in the building. Up there, inside the pyramidal walls, four narrow window openings face the cardinal directions of the compass. The floor is about a yard square. Directly overhead there is a small trap door, inside of which is a small ship’s ladder and then another—smaller—Alice-sized trap door, beyond which is another tiny ladder climbing up into the sepulchral darkness of the needle.

The needle is in fact a very tall, very slender pyramid. Outside, at the tip of the needle, stands a lightning rod, the grounding wire of which Ernie checks once a month by climbing up inside the needle. Ernie loves it in there. He says that inside the needle, the wind is a whisper, and a feeling of tranquility and enchantment and rapture takes over. He says it’s like being on the moon, weightless, floating. He smiles when he talks about going up in the needle. He says raindrops make a beautiful sound in there.

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§ 2 Responses to “Inside the Needle: The Chrysler Building Gets Lit”

  • Anthony Riesner says:

    On the Chrysler building, all the roofing & sheet metal work was done by Benjamin Riesner & Son

    Anthony Riesner

  • Paul Lindemeyer says:

    Doing the math reveals this piece was written in 1986. Ernie Colin came to work at the building at age 16 in 1951, and at the time of writing, was age 51. That’s 35 years later.

    Too bad Mr. Michaelis couldn’t take a photographer along – some of his descriptive language just cries out for illustration. Floors that are not on floors. An Alice-sized trapdoor. And just how big is a standard sheet of plywood? 4’x8′ – giving the 77th floor an area of just 96 square feet.

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