A Closer Look at the Chanin Building

Chances are, when looking at the Chanin Building at the corner of 42nd and Lex…

Chanin Building
(picture credits: Emilio Guerra)

…You’ve probably noticed the incredible friezes running the perimeter of the building, both in terra-cotta and bronze:

Chanin Building
(picture credits: Emilio Guerra)

If you’ve never seen them, I highly recommend taking a moment to stare next time you come out of Grand Central – the flowing whimsy of the pieces is really gorgeous.

NYC - Midtown: Chanin Building
(photo credit: Wally G)

When it was built in 1929, the Chanin Building was the 3rd tallest in the world, and featured a movie theater on its top floors near developer Irwin Chanin’s offices. Once a dominant part of the Manhattan skyline, taller buildings eventually dwarfed it into the background.

I was scouting offices at about the 20 story level in a nearby building, and happened to notice a few details on the Chanin that I’ve never noticed from the street.

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First, a few stories down from the top, a head-like sculpture can be found on each of the four corners…

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It vaguely reminds me of some sort of art deco Olmec Indian head:

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Another, from a side view:

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Adorning one of the lower balconies are these animal heads, also difficult to see from the street (I love that arched tunnel on the left).

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At first, I thought they were elephants, but they really don’t have much of a trunk. Anyone know?

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Two more heads:

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Lining the top are these sculptures – unfortunately, I couldn’t get high enough to take a decent picture.

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Finally, catch this hanging in one of the balcony windows?

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I really hope this guy never has to use that.

-SCOUT

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14 comments

  1. They look like bulls to me.

  2. Those animal heads that you are questioning look like some sort of Egyptian bull head.

  3. The Chanin Building is absolutely beautiful….and I’m actually lucky enough to work there. In many ways it out-shines the adjacent Chrysler Building.

    Compared to the detailing inside the main lobby, the outside is utterly plain. Unfortunately they don’t allow photography inside, though it is a public space with an arcade of stores and a Subway entrance – so it’s easy enough to walk around and admire. The metal work all around the space (including vents, lights and railings) is all stunning. It’s art deco at its finest. And to the management’s credit, it’s all in very good condition

    I’ve always liked the giant antenna mast that currently sits at the top of the building. It looks like it should be broadcasting some golden-age radio station.

    I’m trying to figure out what angle that postcard illustration is from. I’m guessing we’re looking south-west with Lexington in the foreground and that red brick building on the right is where the Grand Hyatt now stands.

  4. Shattered Monocle

    I work in the area. This is one of my absolute favorites. Check out 275 Madison for more deco goodness.

  5. Were you aware that the Chanin building has an observation deck? Like many of NYC’s decks, it was closed to the public by the insurance companies in the 1970s, though still open to employees until the 1990s. Maybe one of your film crews could gain access…

  6. Wow! I love the Chanin Building and I’ve never seen those features.

    I’d love to access the observation deck mentioned in the comments. Too bad it isn’t publicly accessible :(

  7. Nice post! Actually those animal heads look more like Roman centurian unifroms. To my eye I can clearly see the collar and shoulder openings. And what look like a representation of a torso. And then the capes they wore hanging in the back.
    But thats just me

  8. This is one of my favorite buidings.
    What a coincidence.
    I had to kill time in the Grand Central area yesterday and as I passed the Chanin Building I gave myself permission to actually stop and look for a while. Then I glanced over at the Chrysler building and back again to the Chanin. And I though – how lucky am I that this is my home town?!

  9. Oh, man, the Chanin Building! LOVE it. I worked at the Grand Hyatt for 10 years, all through the 1980s, and was lucky enough to have views of the Chrysler Building, the Chanin Building, and the old Bowery Saving Bank. Lex & 42nd is a GREAT intersection for architecture!

    I confess I never saw those upper elements, though. Thanks so much for bringing them to my attention!

  10. The ancient bull heads your talking about, can’t they be upper bodies?, i mean you can almost se the chest, the collar and the arms ?

  11. Hey – just discovered your site thanks to a mention on Kennethinthe212. Great work, Scout! And yes, I think they’re bulls or cows or something — I’ll look today, since I work at 42nd and Fifth, and arrive via GCT every day.

  12. the animals are obviously bisons. if the heads are of indians, isn’t it logical that the animals are bisons? they are part of the same theme

  13. I met my beautiful wife 56 years when I was a young account executive with McCann-Erickson’s International Division then headquartered in the Channin Building. She started out as my executive assistant but when I realized I couldn’t get any work done around her, I arranged for my boss to take her as his EA. We were both quite serious about other people when we met but cupid had other plans for us. Office romances being frowned on in those days, no one knew we were dating until the day we announced we were getting married. Anyhoo, a few years back after raising four great kids and now living in Dallas, TX, we decided to visit some of our old haunts in NYC. When we got to the Channin it was a Saturday and security was so tight no one was allowed to go anywhere within the building without proper identification or permission. So, sorry to say, we were not able make it to the 47the floor where our family had gotten its start. Now you know why the Channin is so special to us. Maybe next trip.

  14. Those animal heads are certainly geometrized bull heads with garlands hung between the horns and hanging down each side. This was a common motif in Roman sculpture & represented one of the sacrificial animals paraded through the streets on the way to the altar.

    When I was a child, my grandfather gave me some stock shares in the Chanin Building, and I eagerly read how the Chanin brothers gradually paid off the third, second and first mortgages on their building (which was finished just in time to have the Depression shatter their financial plans).

    Many years later, I visited the building for the first time (I lived on the west coast) and was blown away by the quantity and quality of the decor (inside & outside). –They don’t make them like this anymore (except in Singapore: look up Parkview Square, partly inspired by the Chanin building)

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