Peter Cooper was an American original and one of the most unknown creators of modern America. Born in New York in 1791, the seventh generation of the original settlers of the Hudson Valley when the southern end of Manhattan was still known as New Amsterdam, he would begin his career as a mere apprentice coachman on Broadway. Then in 1828 he founded the Canton Ironworks in Baltimore, before designing and building America’s first locomotive, called the Tom Thumb.
Yet, while Cooper did enter into a profitable agreement with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, his real fortune came from his ironworks. Later he became the primary promoter of and financial contributor to the first transatlantic telegraph cable. But possibly his finest contribution was the Cooper Union in New York City, a place of higher education in the arts and science, where tuition would be free to the most gifted applicants. It was established in 1859 and was funded with over half of Cooper’s personal fortune — much of which consisted of land holdings on Manhattan. One of those holdings, a 37,000-square-foot plot of land mostly used by goats and squatters, was next to Mrs. White’s farmhouse on Lexington Avenue. At the time the value of that land was somewhere around 2 cents per square foot. At least, that’s what the title to Mrs. White’s property deed reflected in the late 1870s.
When Peter Cooper lay dying in 1883, he called his children in to discuss how to use the value of his holdings in perpetuity for the benefit of Cooper Union’s educational mission. At the same time some 1,300 miles west of that deathbed, an 8-year-old Walter Chrysler was still having nightmares that Indians were raiding his small railroad town of Wamego, Kansas, where his father worked with the rail lines. Chrysler himself would become a railroad mechanic in time; he moved farther west and lost jobs frequently, either through downturns in the economy or from his famous youthful temper.
Several Kinds of Genius
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Finally in 1905, newly posted to the Fort Worth and Denver Railway’s yard in Childress, Texas, Chrysler’s mechanical genius for improving locomotives to where they could traverse the nation’s highest peaks made him something of a legend in the industry. From there he went to American Locomotive and then on to run the Buick division of General Motors. But in 1919, disappointed in the direction that Billy Durant was taking General Motors, Chrysler resigned; his ten-million-dollar payout made him one of the wealthiest men in America at the time. At that point he was only 13 years out of the dilapidated farm house he had rented for his wife, Della, near the Texas Panhandle.
Chrysler would use a reasonable portion of the GM payout to set up trusts for his children and his wife. But Della wasn’t too happy having her 44-year-old, retired Type A personality husband sitting around the house doing nothing. He got the hint and took a million-dollar-a-year job saving Willys Overland. When the bankers who had hired him refused to sell him the automaker, Chrysler purchased the Maxwell Motor Company, renaming it after himself. By the late Twenties he’d also bought up the Dodge Brothers’ shuttered operations and started Plymouth and DeSoto.
Though he had generously created trusts for his children, Chrysler knew that his young sons had no interest in automotive manufacturing or the family business. He was even more sure when 14-year-old Walter Jr. used a large cash birthday gift to buy a work of art. Chrysler understood why his boys weren’t interested, but maybe not the psychology behind that fact. As he told others, he could not instill in them a burning desire to create something big, a desire he had always felt as a boy. The reason was simple. Chrysler’s starting point in life had been that of the son of a lower wage blue-collar family, in the age of zero work rules, long hours and no safety protections. His boys, on the other hand, were born into one of America’s wealthier families. The childhood fears of a lack of money, the nightmares about Indian raids that he had endured weren’t there to shape his sons’ characters.
So Chrysler decided to create a modern business for his sons to take over, so they wouldn’t go through life as trust fund babies, waiting for some high-powered city slicker or banker to steal their money.
In 1921 a one-term New York State Senator by the name of William Reynolds declared that he would build a super skyscraper in New York City, and a lavish hotel at the base. Reynolds hired architect William Van Alen, but never could deliver all of the funds needed for that project. In 1928 Walter Chrysler stepped in and took it over. After all, here was the perfect long-term job for his sons, Walter Jr. and Jack. They wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty, and they could mingle with the Who’s Who of the city, who might be tenants; even better for the long-term view, land and buildings appreciate in value. By 1929 the Chrysler Building was at the point of completion, right down to the hidden spire they had assembled inside the building and secretly hoisted to the top; that spire would make the building the city’s tallest skyscraper at the time.
Sadly, this occurred literally just before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression, but the Chrysler Building was completed, all 77 floors and another seven floors hidden above them. Almost immediately John J. Raskob, also a former executive with General Motors, would start work on the Empire State Building, which in time would steal Chrysler’s claim to have built the tallest skyscraper in New York.
The Architectural Forum magazine lavished praise on what is still considered one of the greatest works of the Art Deco era in 1930; and its look today is still considered one of the finest in the New York skyline. As historian and Chrysler biographer Vincent Curcio has pointed out, there is still a misconception that the Chrysler Building was funded and originally owned by the car company, but that is in no way true. No, it was Walter Chrysler’s personal vanity project, albeit one designed to provide work for his sons coming of age. If you are counting, the opening of the Chrysler Building in New York came just 23 years after Walter and Della left that farmhouse in Childress.
The one thing Walter Chrysler couldn’t do was buy the land beneath his skyscraper. No, as it turns out, that parcel of Manhattan was the same goat pasture owned by Peter Cooper and endowed to his Institution of Higher Learning in the city to this day; the rental proceeds still help gifted students cover the cost of their education in the sciences. Even now, as the Abu Dhabi Investment Council and Tishman Speyer have announced they would sell the famed building, hoping to recover the $800 million investment the UAE put into it just a decade ago, the Cooper Union will still be the landlord of the property on which the Chrysler Building rests. Which means Amazon, negotiating to make the Chrysler Building their New York HQ, will be endowing Cooper’s school.
Price vs. Worth
If one wants to visualize what $800 million can buy today, it could be the Chrysler Building in New York. Or it could be what it’s estimated that Fiat-Chrysler will have to pay for skirting U.S. emission standards on its V-6 diesel engines; that’s according to the proposed settlement offer that came out the same week the Chrysler building went up for sale again. Ironic, isn’t it?
Walter Chrysler, Jr. was only 20 when the building bearing his family’s name was finished. He’d already started an art magazine while at Dartmouth, along with friend Nelson Rockefeller. It was the younger Chrysler who started the Airtemp Division of the car company and created the first air-conditioning system for automobiles in the mid-1930s. During the Second World War he enlisted in the Navy. He helped in the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he backed the Broadway play New Faces of 1952, which helped launch the careers of Eartha Kitt and Mel Brooks.
But there were always unseemly stories about the young Chrysler, too. Many pointed out that some of his self-acclaimed works of art were fakes. Others would say Chrysler had never paid them for the art he’d purchased. He created the Chrysler Art Museum of Provincetown, Mass., in 1958, but had to move it to Norfolk in 1971, long before the #MeToo movement; it has been written that authorities told Chrysler to leave town because he was a predatory gay soliciting others. If true, it’s best his father and mother died decades before that expulsion.
As for the skyscraper his father built for him and his brother Jack, it still stands and pays rent to the man who created America’s first locomotive, the Tom Thumb, paid for by the man who mechanically improved the Fort Worth and Denver’s locomotives 113 years ago in West Texas, before moving into personal transportation for all of us. And on that street corner in New York City, two famed railroad men will always be connected.
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org