Not Made in the USA: The Chrysler Building

By Cory Bortnicker  SEP 25, 2009 7:30 AM

From the top, you can see all the way to Abu Dhabi.


You can usually measure the cultural significance of a piece of architecture by how many times it’s been blown up in the movies. The Chrysler Building, for example, was struck by a meteor in Armageddon, ravaged by an enormous lizard monster in Godzilla, and consumed by a cataclysmic tidal wave in Deep Impact. For whatever reason, filmmakers have decided the best way to drive home just how awful the apocalypse will be is to show the complete and utter destruction of our national treasures. (It will always be the iconic Brooklyn Bridge falling down, never the Queensborough.)

All of which is to say, the Chrysler Building is a permanent fixture in the American mosaic -- one of those buildings we hold near and dear to our patriotic hearts.

Except, of course, for the small caveat that the Chrysler Building is actually owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Yes, it’s another sad-but-true reminder of how many of our national treasures are American in name only. On July 9, 2008, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, or ADIA, reported that it had purchased a 90% stake in the building for $800 million.

So, let’s settle in and meet the new owners.

ADIA is a sovereign wealth fund owned by Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. No one knows exactly how much money the fund has, but given that it manages approximately $1 trillion in excess oil reserves, we can assume it’s, well, a lot. And unlike most government-sponsored funds that usually stick to gold investments, ADIA invests heavily in international real estate and corporations. In 2007, the fund famously purchased a $7.5 billion stake in Citigroup (C), becoming the bank’s second-largest shareholder.

Surely Walter Chrysler -- the original owner of the 77-story Art Deco masterpiece -- is rolling in his grave, right? Well, maybe. In reality, all things Chrysler-related have been going slowly international for years. From 1998 to 2007, Chrysler was part of the German company DaimlerChrysler AG. The Germans sold the majority of their stake back to the US-based private-equity firm Cerberus, but that arrangement didn’t last long. Chrysler went bankrupt in April 2009, and has since merged with the Italian automaker Fiat.

And to get technical about it, the Chrysler Building hasn’t been in exclusively American hands since 2001 when TMW, a German investment fund, purchased a 75% stake in the building from Tishman Speyer.

Foreign investors pouring money into New York City properties is nothing new. During the 1980s real estate boom, Japanese investors snapped up buildings with unsettling efficiency. Sure, they lost billions when property values sank by nearly 50% during the recession in the early 1990s, but still, it hurt American pride. When Mitsubishi purchased Rockefeller Center, there was downright outrage.

But today, there’s little indignation over the Chrysler Building purchase. No riots in the street. No organized protests. Nada. Maybe multi-million dollar real estate deals just don’t hold our attention like they used to. Maybe we’ve all become too cynical. Hell, maybe we’re just happy that anyone would invest in us at all, these days.

Or maybe we’re just of the opinion that some of the best stuff in the city has always had foreign fingerprints.

After all, even Lady Liberty was made by the French.

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