There are bigger buildings. There are gaudier, more astounding ones. But on the occasion of its 90th birthday – May 1 – let be said for all time: there is only one Empire State Building.
“It’s a beloved structure,” said Lilly Tuttle, curator of the Museum of the City of New York.
“Every major city in the world has its symbol, whether its the Eiffel Tower or the London ‘Big Ben’ clock tower, or the Hollywood sign,” Tuttle said. “In New York, it’s the Empire State Building. Absolutely.”
It’s also a building with a message for 2021. Two messages, really.
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One is the amazing things people are capable of, in the worst circumstances. For the Empire State Building, you’ll recall, went up in the depths of the Great Depression, when bread lines were everywhere, when the unemployment rate was 15.9% — a period at least as grim as our current COVID crisis.
“They had very little problem getting workers,” said John Tauranac, author of “The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark.” “Workers were desperate for jobs.”
The other takeaway is the American genius for building things: dams, suspension bridges, interstate highways, great buildings. Perhaps — as President Joe Biden suggested when he unveiled his infrastructure plan on March 31 — it’s time to do so again.
“In moments like this, infrastructure, art, engineering, can be a big part of the recovery movement,” Tuttle said.
Today, as ever, the Empire State Building is a symbol of optimism and resilience. It was one of the first public attractions to reopen after last year’s COVID shutdown: on July 20 (and in conformance with state guidelines).
Over the past few years it’s been subject to $165 million worth of upgrades — including a revamped 102nd-floor observation deck, a fabulous glass elevator, new museum space and a new dedicated entrance.
“Unless you have visited since Nov. 28 of 2019, you do not know the Empire State Building,” said Jean-Yves Ghazi, president of the building’s observatory. The place has been COVID-proofed, with timed admissions, hand-sanitizing stations, new air circulation systems and more.
“There’s no better time than now, with the capacity controls in place, the low crowds,” he said. “It’s an absolutely stellar experience.”
It always was. People were going ape for the world’s most famous skyscraper even before it opened in 1931, even before King Kong, in 1933, climbed to the 102nd story with Fay Wray screaming in his giant mitt.
During its 13½ months of construction, in 1930 and ’31, crowds would gather at the site to watch the steam shovels dig and the jackhammers chatter, to see the mammoth structure rise at the rate — at one point — of one story per day, to watch the brawny steeplejacks on 40-story girders walk nonchalantly across the sky like Greek gods.
At a time when the entire country was paralyzed by fear, when all progress had come to a standstill, this was an object lesson in hope.
“They put up a fence around the site, so people would look down into the hole in the ground, even before they started erecting,” Tauranac said.
“People liked to visit it, and look at it,” he said. “There was a guy who set up a telescope in Bryant Park and had a little freelance business. He would allow you to look at the construction of the Empire State Building for 2 cents.”
Nothing like it
The sheer, astounding size of the thing — the world’s tallest building, in an era when tall buildings sprouted like dandelions — was part of the mystique. More than 100 stories! It boggled the mind. No coincidence that, in 1933, the world’s biggest ape climbed the world’s biggest skyscraper. They deserved each other. “One of our national characteristics,” wrote Nation film critic William Troy, reviewing “King Kong” when it opened, “is our sometimes childish, sometimes magnificent passion for scale.”
There was, at the time, something else, too. The Empire State Building was not only big. It was fast.
It went up in 410 days. A typical skyscraper, these days, takes three to five years (though in 2015 a 57-story “modular” building in China went up in 19 days).
It spoke to a competence, a can-do spirit, that Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular were very proud of. A joke at the time involved a braggart tourist who, after seeing each new sight in New York, said “Hell, we got one twice as big in Texas!” Finally, he was shown the Empire State Building. “What’s that?” he said, astonished. “I don’t know,” his guide yawned. “It wasn’t there yesterday.”
“It was a symbol of American industry to build things big, and to build them quick,” Tuttle said. “We were building boldly, fearlessly, even in the darkest days of the Depression.”
The speed at which it was built — and the fact that it was built at all — was partly an accident of timing.
Back in the 1920s, a “race to the sky,” fueled by Jazz Age optimism and ready money, pitted financiers against each other in a kind of architectural Kentucky Derby. Everyone wanted to build the World’s Tallest Building.
Most famously, the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street were neck-and-neck in 1930: each builder, in response to the other, kept adding floors as construction progressed, while the public breathlessly speculated on who would “win.”
The finale was a nail-biter. Just as 40 Wall Street was about to walk away with the prize, a 125-foot spire, assembled in secret, poked out of the top of the Chrysler Building, suddenly raising the height to 1,046 feet. On May 27, 1930, the Chrysler became the World’s Tallest Building — for all of 11 months.
Six other super-skyscrapers were on the drawing board when the stock market crashed in October 1929 — bringing most construction to a screeching halt. Only the Empire State Building weathered the disaster.
A big part of it, Tauranac said, had to do with the two guys at the center of the project. Al Smith, former New York governor and failed presidential candidate, and John J. Raskob, treasurer and a vice president of GM — who also happened to be Smith’s campaign manager — were looking for something to do.
“They were both workaholics, and after the loss of the election they found themselves unemployed,” Tauranac said.
The “race to the sky” was a welcome distraction. They became heads of a consortium of investors, Empire State Inc. But Raskob, crucially, had been smart about the stock market. “He saw the crash coming and had all of his money sitting in a bank account,” Tauranac said.
As a result, the Empire State project had seed money, even as most of its competition had been wiped out on Oct. 29. As important, just about the whole country — steel companies, engineers, construction workers — suddenly needed work very badly. The entire economy was at their disposal.
“It was kind of an opportunity,” Tuttle said. “Labor costs were very low during the Depression.”
Some 3,400 construction workers, mostly Irish and Italian, went to work on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, recently demolished. They were joined by the famous Mohawk “Iron Walkers” from Montreal, who were employed on many of New York’s most vertiginous projects.
“For some reason, they had perfect balance,” Tauranac said. “You see pictures of these guys walking 70 stories up, without any fear. Incredible. They had a sort of village in Brooklyn, near the Gowanus Canal. They would go wherever the jobs were.”
Officially, five people were killed during the construction. They were not, sadly, the last to lose their lives at that address. There were 14 killed as a result of the famous 1945 plane crash just below the 80th floor (a B-25 bomber lost in the fog).
A good idea at the time
There might have been other casualties if the owners had followed through on their famous scheme — yes, the stories are true — to use the spire of the Empire State Building as a mooring mast for zeppelins. Transatlantic passengers, so the thinking went, would fly into Manhattan, debark on the 102nd floor and take the elevator down to the street. It was attempted once, in 1931 — high winds prevented docking — then wisely forgotten.
“That was the looniest scheme since the Tower of Babel,” Tauranac said. “Imagine the Hindenburg tied to the top of the Empire State Building and exploding.”
Other facts-at-your-fingertips: The Empire State Building is so big it has its own ZIP code: 10118.
There are 1,576 steps to climb in the Empire State Building Run Up, an annual event since 1978.
An instant success as a tourist attraction, the Empire State Building was originally a flop as a real estate venture. “The Empty State Building,” people called it. Today, Tauranac said, the occupancy rate (pre-pandemic) is over 90%.
The building’s new LED lights, installed in 2012, are capable of illuminating the tower in 16 million color combinations (colored lights have been used, since the 1976 bicentennial, to mark special occasions).
“The building, through its lighting program, continues to be on the cutting edge of technology,” Ghazi said.
Empire State Building now the 49th-tallest
Today, the Empire State Building is merely the 49th-tallest in the world. It was superseded in 1971 by the World Trade Center, temporarily regained its title as New York’s tallest in 2001 when the towers fell, and has been since topped by the new One World Trade Center, and by dozens of other buildings from Dubai to Mecca. And what once seemed like a pencil-thin profile now looks like a piece of stubby chalk, compared with the new “pencil towers” going up in midtown.
And yet. The Empire State Building, designed by architect William F. Lamb, has a unique profile — one that has, over the years, made it beloved by Manhattanites, and pretty much everyone else.
“It’s a very dramatic building,” Tauranac said.” But it’s also very kind and gentle. It doesn’t scream at you. The Chrysler Building is probably the sine qua non of the art deco skyscraper. But it’s a chest-thumping building. It says, ‘Look at me; look at my stainless steel gargoyles!’ The Empire State Building is almost huggable.”
Deemed “the eighth wonder of the world” by its publicists, the Empire State Building was instantly iconic, the quintessential man-made marvel.
It shows up time and again in movies: “King Kong,” of course, but also “Love Affair” (1939), “On the Town” (1949), “An Affair to Remember” (1957), “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993), “Love Affair” (1994) again, “Independence Day” and “James and the Giant Peach” (both 1996).
“Ah! The Empire State Building” gloats The Sub-Mariner in a 1940 comic, flying up to the 102nd story. “So — they’re proud of this, are they?” says Namor — more a bad guy than a good guy in those days — as he yanks the spire out of its place and sends it crashing down into the street. “Then maybe — THIS — will impress them!!”
The most celebrated thing about the Empire State Building was, and probably remains, the view.
Tourists still seek it out — even now, when there are other, higher perches. But not everyone was enchanted with that famous panorama of buildings, streets, rivers and suspension bridges.
In 1933, the same year as “King Kong,” another giant paid the Empire State Building a visit. F. Scott Fitzgerald, eight years grimmer since the high noon of “The Great Gatsby,” climbed up to the observation deck and discovered that the Empire State Building had ruined New York City — his New York City — for all time.
“I had discovered the crowning error of the city,” he wrote. “Its Pandora’s box.”
“Full of vaunting pride, the New Yorker had climbed here, and seen with dismay what he had never suspected. That the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits … New York was a city after all and not a universe.
“That was the gift of Alfred Smith to the citizens of New York.”
More people, to be fair, have thrilled to that view than wept at it. Many have been overwhelmed.
And one or two, Tauranac reports, seem to have been confused. That’s why he wrote another book, “The View from the 86th Floor,” to help visitors peering from the parapet to understand what’s what.
“I used to go up there all the time, and I would hear people say, ‘Look at the big spire on that church!’ And they would be looking at the Chrysler Building,” he said.
But the person who really understood the Empire State Building, better than anyone, may have been Andy Warhol.
In 1964, he made a black-and-white film called “Empire,” which consisted of a single shot of the building that lasted eight hours.
“Empire” has not been widely seen. No doubt the excitement is too much for some viewers. But the guy who painted Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jackie O., who was obsessed with American icons, knew exactly what the great edifice at 20 W. 34th Street was. A star.
“That’s what he’s saying with that film,” Tuttle said. “The building is a celebrity.”