Like the best of these stories, the two bitter rivals started out as best friends: William Van Alen and Craig Severance.
They were business partners. Van Alen was considered the artistic maverick and Severance was the savvy businessman. It's unclear why they broke up, but at some point, Severance decided he could do better on his own. The two parted ways and set up separate practices.
At the time of their breakup, New York City was undergoing a boom like nothing ever seen before. Massive wealth turned Manhattan into some of the most valuable property in human history. And when property gets valuable, we build up.
Late in 1928 Walter Chrysler, founder of the Chrysler car company, came to New York and bought a plot of land and decided to build, what he referred to as, "a monument to me." Van Alen had already been working on plans for the previous owner of that plot and Chrysler decided to hire him to develop that plan into what would become the Chrysler Building. Walter Chrysler was a great fan of art and architecture and felt a real kinship with the Beaux-Arts trained William Van Alen.
Meanwhile, downtown at 40 Wall Street, Craig Severance was planning the Manhattan Company Building. It was funded primarily by the young, Wall Street hot shot, George Ohrstrom. The two towers had different goals. Severance's building was being constructed to make money. The Chrysler Building was intended to be a monument to Chrysler, but it also aimed to be a beautiful and innovative structure.
At the time, Cass Gilbert's Woolworth building was the tallest building in New York City and both Van Alen and Severance intended to take its crown.
What followed was an epic back and forth struggle for the glory of ruling the New York City skyline.
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