Friday, May 28, 2010

The Empire State Building

One of the nicknames for New York State used to be Empire State. Hence we have the name Empire State Building.

The Empire State Building is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Its construction during the Depression years was a marvel of ingenuity and efficiency. In many ways it was ahead of its time and it remained the world’s tallest skyscraper for a staggering 42 years. We all recognise it. It is truly iconic. And since the World Trade Towers are no longer standing, it once again dominates New York’s skyline.

The site of the Empire State Building – at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street in Manhattan – used to be part of Native American territory before white settlers muscled them off the island. It was a pretty, untilled piece of land, with a stream running across it. In the late C18th the area became the John Thompson farm. It was in a rural area, with the city of New York developing to the south. Fighting between the Americans and British took place there during the War of Independence.

In 1893 the Waldorf Hotel (to the right), the predecessor of today’s Waldorf-Astoria, opened on the site. The Waldorf was the embodiment of class and elegance. It did away with the idea of a hotel being merely a resting place for people in transit. It popularised the habit of “dining out” and was the favourite meeting place of New York’s social elite, known as The Four Hundred.

In the early C20th there was an intense race in New York to build the world’s tallest building. When John Jakob Raskob, a former VP of General Motors, decided to build the Empire State Building, 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building were already under construction. Chrysler was keeping the height of his building a secret. Weber, the original rental manager for the Empire State Building, wrote:

"We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet higher than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Chrysler would pull a trick – like hiding a rod and then sticking it up at the last minute." *

So Raskob asked William Lamb, his designer, to design the tallest building that was possible without it falling down. It was to become the first building to have over 100 floors.

The entire building was constructed in just over 13 months, well ahead of schedule. And because America was in the throes of the Great Depression, labour fees could be kept low and the building came in millions of dollars under budget.

The workforce was 3,400 strong, and consisted mainly of European immigrants. Hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers were also employed as it was discovered that they are undaunted by heights and are just generally fearless. The men worked around the clock, including on Sundays and public holidays. A railway was built at the site to expedite matters. Plumbers and electricians began work on the interior before the exterior was complete.

Safety measures were almost non-existent. Many who have seen the famous photographs by Lewis Hine have marvelled over the absence of safety harnesses. Hine was himself swung out in a basket to obtain many of his photos. There were five recorded deaths during the construction of the building, though only one man died because he fell off the scaffolding (an impressive number, all things considered).

On completion, the Empire State Building was the tallest building by far, outdoing the Chrysler Building, which had held the title of tallest building for less than a year. It was ceremoniously opened on May 1, 1931 by President Hoover who, sitting in his office in Washington D.C., pressed a button that lit up the building.

The building was designed in the art deco style that was popular in the 1920s. It was modelled, in large part, on the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The staff of the Empire State Building sends the staff of the Winston-Salem a Father’s Day card every year as a way of honouring their architectural ancestor.

The scale of the building is astounding. The entire structure, including the antenna, is 443 metres. There are 102 floors, 69 elevators and 6,500 windows. The building even has its own zip code. Visitors to the Empire State Building can have a 360-degree view of the city from its observation deck on the 86th floor. There is a further, smaller observation deck on the 102nd floor.

The building’s spire was originally intended to be a mooring mast for dirigibles (airships). The 102nd floor was to be the landing platform. However, the powerful winds and updrafts made it impractical and even dangerous and the idea was soon abandoned.

The top of the Empire State Building was subsequently put to use to transmit almost all the city’s commercial TV and radio broadcasts. But in 1972 the World Trade Centre overtook the Empire State Building in height and interfered with transmissions from the latter. Much broadcasting was therefore moved to the Twin Towers, but after the terrorist attacks of 2001 the Empire State Building had to reorganise and is once again the main transmitter in NYC. The lightning rod at the top of the building is struck by lightning roughly 100 times a year.

The Empire State Building proved unprofitable for the first two decades. It was too far from the main transport links and so was unable to find enough tenants. It was dubbed the Empty State Building. Things only changed in 1951 when the building was sold to Roger Stevens for $51 million, then the largest sale in real estate history. Today roughly 21,000 people work in the Empire State Building on a daily basis, making it the most populated workspace after the Pentagon.

The building is a popular venue for the sport of tower running. The Empire State Building Run-Up is a foot race that has been held annually since 1978. The record time for running up all 1,576 steps to the 86th floor is 9 minutes and 33 seconds.

The Empire State Building has seen its share of tragedies. In 1947 a fence had to be erected around the observation terrace when 5 people attempted to commit suicide in a 3-week period. One lady who jumped off the 86th floor was blown back onto the 85th floor, incurring only a broken hip, which further illustrates how strong the winds near the top are. The most infamous suicide, however, was that of Evelyn McHale who, in 1947, jumped from the observation deck. She crushed a limousine below but landed in such a restful pose that she was called, paradoxically, The Most Beautiful Suicide.

In 1945, at the end of WWII, a US Army B-25 Bomber accidentally flew into the Empire State Building during heavy fog. Some who heard or felt the impact initially thought that the war had been brought to New York. The bomber crashed into the 79th and 80th floors, into the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council. One engine shot straight through the building and fell out the other side. The other engine fell down an elevator shaft, severing the cables. Incredibly, a woman named Betty Oliver, who was in the damaged elevator, survived a plummet of 75 floors. She still retains the record for the longest survived elevator fall. Fourteen people died in the crash.

The 1997 Empire State Building shootings could be seen as a precursor to the type of terrorism that was to come to America in later years. A Palestinian named Ali Kamal shot seven people on the observation deck and then himself. Only one of his victims was fatally wounded. Ten years later his family admitted that they had been coerced into covering up his motives, but a note on his body and his diary entries both made it plain that he was angry with America for supporting Israel and so wanted to make ‘a statement’ at a place where people would take notice of his actions.

Since 1964 different coloured floodlights, representative of various important or popular events, have illuminated the top of the building. For example, red and green lights are used at Christmas. When Buckingham Palace played the Star Spangled Banner during the Changing of the Guard on September 12, 2001, the Empire State Building was lit up in gold and purple (the royal colours of Elizabeth II) as a way of showing America’s appreciation for the supportive gesture.

The Empire State Building is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It has played a major role in over 600 movies, including An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle. In King Kong (the 1933 and 2005 versions) the Empire State Building was the scene of the showdown between King Kong and his pursuers. But in the 1976 remake, which was set in a contemporary NYC, the scene was shot on the Twin Towers.

The One World Trade Centre, or Freedom Tower, which is being built on the site of the previous World Trade Centre, is set to once again usurp the title of tallest building in NYC. It is due to be completed in 2013. It will be an incredible 541 metres – almost 100 metres taller than the Empire State Building – and will be the tallest building in the United States.

* Hamilton Weber as quoted in Goldman, Book 31-32.

1) The Empire State Building, by Michael Slonecker. Free use.
2) The Waldorf, circa 1904-1908, by Joseph Pennell. Public domain.
3) Photograph of a Workman on the Framework of the Empire State Building, by Lewis Hine. Public domain.
4) Empire State Building, Psongco. GNU Free Documentation License.
5) Ernie Sisto (New York Times).
6) David Shankbone. GNU Free Documentation License.


  1. I cannot get over the fact that it was done in 13 months. The N1 - M5 project here is taking at least 3 years!!

  2. Crazy, I know! The one little main road in Hillcrest has taken nearly that long too, I think!

  3. And hows that 75 story elevator fall!! Crazy.

  4. Thanks for sharing the lesser-known facts about Empire State Building. Your article keep me engaged for many minutes.

  5. @optimalspaces I'm so glad you enjoyed it :-) I'm afraid I'm only replying now as I wasn't alerted that a comment had been posted. Thanks for visiting my blog!


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