William Van Alen had been an architect for a number of years before he went to work on the design of the Chrysler Building in New York City. He had worked for a number of architectural firms in New York City and had been involved in the design of the Hotel Astor in 1902. He apparently was highly regarded and won the Paris Prize Design Scholarship in 1908 to study design in Paris at the Victor Laloux Atelier and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Van Alen returned to New York City in 1910, and then became interested in new architectural styles including modernism. In 1911 he formed an architectural partnership with H. Craig Severance. Van Alen was the architect with modern ideas but Severance was the better salesman, and was able to bring in the assignments. As a result the partnership prospered and they became known among others for their distinctive building designs which provided store front windows that were flush with the walls of the building.
Unfortunately and not surprisingly the partners had personal differences that culminated in a separation of the partnership in 1924. Both continued their respective design firms and focused on building design.
In the late 1920’s they found themselves competing for the design of the then tallest building in the world. Severance was designing the Manufacturer’s Trust Building at 40 Wall Street and Van Alen was involved in designing the Chrysler Building. Van Alen’s Chrysler Building won the height contest with 1046 feet. However, both buildings were eclipsed in height in 1936 when the Empire State Building was built.
Van Alen’s contract for the Chrysler Building was with Walter Chrysler who objected to the high design fee Van Alen was charging him. It amounted to 6 percent of the building cost, $ 14 million, and amounted to $ 840,000. Van Alen sued and eventually ended up receiving the entire fee.
Following the completion of the Chrysler building design, Van Alen had difficulty finding commissions. The depression had also started and that diminished the work for building architects. He changed his profession and became a lecturer in sculpture.
William Van Alen was born on August 10, 1883 and passed away on May 24, 1953. He had been educated in design at the Pratt Institute and at the Atelier Masqueray. Later he also studied in Paris as discussed above.
In his memory and respect for Van Alen’s design initiatives the Van Alen Institute of Design was established. It is still there and thriving. It is located at 30 West 22nd Street in Manhattan, New York.
William Van Alen was probably a close or distant cousin of the other four Van Alens in the Prominent Dutch American collection. I suspect that all the Van Alens in the USA are descendants of one Dutch immigrant who settled in Kinderhook, New York in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Unlike the other four Van Alens who were all quite wealthy or well-off, it does not appear that William Van Alen was that well-endowed financially.
Bascom, Neal, “For the Architect, a Height Never Again to Be Scaled”, New York Times, May 26, 2005