A landmark in corporate history was reached 90 years ago today that auto tycoon Walter Chrysler opened his namesake building in Manhattan. The art deco masterpiece was by far the most visually compelling addition to the New York skyline and also the tallest, outstripping the Woolworth Building by more than 200 feet. Walter Chrysler’s moment in the sun did not last long: The Empire State Building overtook it less than a year later.
As the smallest of the “Big Three” automakers, Chrysler knew what it was like to be in the shade of Ford and GM. By the 1970s all three were in trouble due to rising production costs, quality problems, and years of design complacency. In 1979, Lee Iacocca created a new corporate landmark when he famously convinced the United States Congress to provide Chrysler with a $1.5 billion relief package. That landmark held until 2009 when GM received its own, much larger, federal bailout. Today, Walter Chrysler’s company (now Fiat Chrysler) remains a distant third among US automakers. His building has dropped to 11th place in the Manhattan skyline sweepstakes.