William Van Alen   [1883-1954]


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


About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. More


Subscribe Now

Subscribe to NNI's  e-Marcurius and DAG to receive information about New Netherland-related events, activities, conferences, and research. 


Support NNI

By supporting NNI you help increase awareness of the 17th century Dutch colony of New Netherland and its legacy in America.