New York City's Chrysler Building is considered one of the most beautiful examples of art deco architecture in the world. Although named for the Detroit automaker, the building was originally commissioned by William J. Reynolds as New York developers tried to outdo each other in erecting the world's biggest and most lavish structures. Chrysler Corp. eventually took over the project, and company Chairman Walter P. Chrysler added hubcaps and stainless-steel eagles designed to look like hood ornaments to the design. A 180-foot, Nirosta steel-clad spire tops the building. The mix of chrome and nickel does not easily tarnish. The spire was added to keep the Bank of Manhattan from taking the title of world's tallest building with its 40 Wall St. With the spire, which had been built in secret, the Chrysler Building reached 1,046 feet. However, the $20 million building's record would be short-lived: Four months after the Chrysler Building was completed in May 1930, the 1,250-foot Empire State Building took the title, which it held for more than 40 years. Photo courtesy of NYC & Co.
(This is a condensed version of an article that originally appeared in the Winter 1988 edition of Blueprints magazine, a publication of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The magazine was promoting "Sheet Metal Craftsmanship: Progress in Building," a seven-month exhibit marking the 100th birthday of the Sheet Metal Workers union.) What is sheet metal in building? Where can it be found? Imagine a cross-country trip. Begin at the Massachusetts State House in Boston, crowned with a gilded sheet-metal dome. Motor south and west, past metal-clad diners and Quonset huts in Rhode Island, past copper weather vanes gracing early 19th-century church steeples in Connecticut.

Stop in New York City to see early 20th-century skyscrapers ornamented with an array of metallic ornament, from the Gothic tower of the Woolworth Building to the stainless-steel pinnacle of the Chrysler Building. Admire the gargantuan twin monoliths that are the World Trade Center, giant structures clad in metal and glass - sealed volumes made habitable by equally gargantuan heating, cooling and ventilating systems fabricated of sheet metal.

Leaving New York by the Staten Island Ferry, take in the Statue of Liberty, again a product of sheet-metal craftsmanship. Traveling west through New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, note warehouses, factories and farm buildings skinned in metal. All along the route are signs for shops and hotels and restaurants and every other sort of business made of sheet metal. In the Midwest, pass through one small town after another, each possessed of a main street replete with late 19th-century commercial blocks trimmed with sheet-metal cornices, window hoods and storefronts, a few with entire facades made of pressed metal. Enter any of these buildings and encounter tin ceilings and patterned metal wainscoting

The Gateway Arch, also known as the St. Louis Arch, was built to celebrate the U.S. expansion west of the Mississippi River during the 19th century. Although designed in 1947 by architect Eero Saarinen, work on the 630-foot-high, $30 million structure would not begin until 1963. It would take more than two years to build. The monument is covered in No. 3, Type 304 stainless steel. It is designed to withstand winds of more than 150 mph.

Sky-high arches

In St. Louis, on the west bank of the Mississippi, stands an overwhelming monument commemorating the great westward migration, a graceful arc of stainless steel rising 600 feet into the sky. Continue west, past more metal-clad farm buildings, feed mills, water towers. Every restaurant, hotel and hospital along the way has kitchens fitted out with stainless-steel cases and counters. Every enclosed shopping mall has exposed ductwork and an over-arching skylight, both fabricated by sheet metal workers.

Each western county traversed has its county seat, many still served by late Victorian-era courthouses bristling with sheet-metal roof ornament. In downtown Denver there is the immense 19th-century skylight of the Brown Palace Hotel. Observe in the city's industrial district forests of metal chimney stacks, roof ventilators and networks of externally mounted ductwork. At Rocky Flats, west of Denver, are the Atomic Energy Commission's laboratories equipped with elaborate air-handling systems to protect workers and the environment and "glove rooms" in which toxic materials are processed - closed environments built of sheet metal.

In Salt Lake City, notice the sheet-metal statue of the angel Moroni atop the Mormon Tabernacle and see the vast Mormon Auditorium, roofed with metal.

Finally, the West Coast. New office towers rise in Los Angeles, clad in sheet metal, ornamented with sheet metal, made functional by sheet-metal ductwork.

In San Francisco's Chinatown, the colorful trim giving neighborhood buildings their unique character is metal. Here, as is true across the country, older office buildings, stores and apartment houses are being retrofitted to better compete in the real estate market; sheet metal workers specially trained in "TAB" - testing, adjusting and balancing - (who) fine-tune antiquated heating and ventilating systems and install new equipment and improved HVAC systems to achieve greater efficiency.

(David Chase was formerly curator of the National Building Museum.