I’m not saying this new crusade of mine is as critically urgent to the intellectual life of the city as last year’s noble but doomed effort to rescue Books & Company from eviction by the Whitney Museum of Small-Time Real Estate Hustlers. (The Whitney, by the way, for all their grand master-planning-you know, the super-impressive master plan which required them to put one of the premier cultural landmarks of the city out on the street posthaste for the sake of their Grand Design-still hasn’t come up with a way to fill the gaping hole they made of Books & Company. Which suggests, doesn’t it, that the real gaping hole is where the Whitney’s credibility and competence and sense of civic responsibility ought to be. Every minute that space remains empty is one more reason that the current administration of the Whitney is an affront to all thinking New Yorkers.)
Where was I? Off on a parenthetical rant, distracted by rage from my last crusade. This is a more lighthearted one, a light- centered one, in fact. But it involves another landmark crucial to the very identity of the city: the Chrysler Building.
Breathes there a soul in this city so dead he or she doesn’t thrill to the sight of the Chrysler spire? Especially to that spire lit at night? To those elegant glowing arrows of pure light that put to shame the ugly colors Leona Helmsley bathes the Empire State Building with.
I feel a bit disloyal making this invidious comparison because the Empire State Building was an icon of my family history, my link to the Emerald City. When I was growing up on Long Island, my father commuted to the city to work in the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at the time. It was a thrill to visit him in his office in the sky. I wasn’t aware until recently how heated the rivalry was between the Empire State and Chrysler buildings when they were being built, both racing to top out as the tallest spire in the world. The Chrysler, which finished first, held the title for only 40 days before the Empire State beat it by 202 feet.
But let’s face it: When it comes to sheer elegance, if you had to name one structure that is quintessentially Manhattan in its fusion of sophistication and mythic dimensions, true New Yorkers are going to choose the Chrysler Building, if only for the lights, those mystical hieroglyphs of luminosity arrayed against the night sky.
Hey, I’m not trying to sell you the Chrysler Building with this riff. It’s just been sold, in fact, to new management: to Tishman Speyer Properties L.P., the people who own Rockefeller Center. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about those lights, those luminous hieroglyphs and their hidden meaning, because for the first time I’ve had a chance to study them, to stare at them for hours on end. Because for the first time since I moved to New York, I have an apartment with a view, not just any view, but a view of the Chrysler Building.
Faithful readers of this column might recall that last fall, facing an apartment crisis, I issued an appeal to Observer readers-accompanied by a poignant (but dignified) picture of my cat, Stumpy-for help in finding us a new apartment. I was gratified by the response, both to my plight and to Stumpy’s true soulfulness, and one of the first tips (from an alert independent real estate person, Cheryl Tanenbaum) resulted in my recent move to a place with a Chrysler Building view.
It resulted in two discoveries as well, one thrilling, one deeply disheartening. The thrilling discovery came on my first night in my new place. Exhausted by the move and aching too much from shifting boxes of books to sleep, I was staring at the Chrysler spire, trying to figure out the deeper meaning of the pattern of lights arrayed around those arched sheaths of stainless steel at the top. You know, those equipoised triangles of light sabers. The A.I.A.Guide to New York City describes them as “a crown of lancets,” which sounds too clinical to really capture the sublime, ethereal glow of those wands of light.
In technical architectural jargon, lancets are sharp pointed arches. The word is derived from lance, of course, and can also be a term for a surgical cutting blade: lancet as scalpel. But I think there’s something more visionary going on than the surgical metaphor conjures up. I doubt whether the Chrysler Building’s architect, William Van Alen, had this consciously in mind when he was designing the spire, but it struck me with visionary force that sleepless night what those triangles of light were really about.
Think about it, check it out yourself: two-sided triangles of light, luminous dwellings with no floor. Call me crazy, but I think they represent teepees ! The Indian dwellings that the skyscraper skyline superseded, here recapitulated as emblematic hieroglyphs of light atop the iconic spire of that skyline. The more I thought about it, the more symbolically just this interpretive vision seemed to be: The hieroglyphs of light atop the Chrysler spire recuperate (as historicist academics love to say these days) the dwellings of the Native Americans who owned the island before being cheated and dispossessed by the Dutch. (I don’t want to hear any quibbles about whether the Manhattan Indians lived in lodges or teepees-or bed-and-breakfast places for that matter. The point is the symbolic dimension: what the teepee forms represent to us.) Those triangles of light are the luminously transfigured return and reconquest of the island by the culture the skyscrapers replaced. They are glowing, incandescent emblems of the lost origins and exiled owners of the land, haunting its nighttime sky, presiding over its dreams and nightmares.
You’re skeptical, I can tell. So was I at first, so I checked out my teepee interpretation with a learned friend, a Harvard doctoral candidate in comparative literature. She thought I might be onto something, although she saw not teepees but arrowheads. Either way! It’s the return of the repressed, the return of the dispossessed, the return of the native written across the night sky in the language of light.
Until it goes dark: This is the other discovery I made that night, the deeply disheartening one. They turn the Chrysler lights off at 2 A.M. I suppose I should have known this, maybe everyone else knows it, but in recent years I’ve turned into an early riser, rarely stay out past midnight, and so was never witness to the dismaying spectacle of the lights being shut off in the middle of the night. But just as I was meditating upon my teepee vision, the teepees disappeared, the tower disappeared into a shroud of night and fog. The lights went out.
Something is deeply wrong here. Isn’t this the city that never sleeps? Isn’t that what Frank Sinatra sings? I don’t think he’s singing, “I want to wake up in a city that shuts off at 2 A.M.” People leave towns all over America that turn their lights off at 2 A.M. to come to the city that never sleeps. It doesn’t much matter whether, on any given night, you’re up to watch the lights from 2 to 6 in the morning. What matters is that you know they’re there . Even if you’re asleep, you’re asleep in a city that doesn’t sleep, as opposed to a city that shuts off the lights on its most elegant and beautiful iconic spire while reruns of Charles Grodin are still on the air. There’s something wrong, something out of whack about this.
I tried to get some answers on this issue from the new owners of the Chrysler Tower, Tishman Speyer. Were the Chrysler lights always shut off at 2 A.M., or was it a cost-cutting measure introduced by the previous owners of the building? At press time, they hadn’t responded; their spokesman said they’d just taken title to the building a couple of weeks ago and weren’t able to come up with an answer.
All the better in a way: Tishman Speyer can’t be held responsible for the scandalous cheapness of the shut-off; instead, they can play the civic hero here. They can declare, Let there be light all night long. It can’t be that expensive, a few extra hours, certainly not in comparison with the good will they’ll reap from this kind of generous gesture. Write Tishman Speyer (at 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 6620, New York, N.Y. 10020), tell them you want the Chrysler lights on all night long. I mean, is this New York or is this Dubuque? Tishman Speyer, with their mega-investment in New York real estate, ought to think of it as an investment in the city’s future, a gesture of enlightenment in every sense of the word. Write Tishman Speyer and send a copy of your letter to me at The Observer . Or just send them a postcard with these words: Dear Tishman Speyer: light my spire .