Empire State Building Completed

By: Ed Grabianowski  | 
A complete view of the Empire State Building
Building the Empire State structure was a deadly job.
Image courtesy Alain Baburam/Stock.xchng

The Empire State Building is an iconic office building known as "the Most Famous Skyscraper in the World." Construction began in 1930, and the grand opening was held on May 1, 1931. It was the world's tallest free-standing structure until 1967 and the world's tallest skyscraper for over 40 years. It was displaced in 1972 by the construction of the World Trade Center towers. While it stood as the tallest building in New York City again, following the World Trade Center tragedy, it is now surpassed by One World Trade Center.

The site of the Empire State Building was originally occupied by brownstone mansions owned by members of the illustrious Waldorf Astor family. Built in 1856 (the site was previously farmland), the houses were torn down to make way for hotels. The Waldorf Hotel was built first; not long after, a second hotel was built on the land. When they were joined, they created the legendary Waldorf Astoria Hotel.


The epitome of style at the time of its construction in 1897, it took only a few decades for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to fall out of fashion. It was purchased for roughly $15 million in 1929 and scheduled for demolition in favor of an office building [Source: Tauranac]. Now, let's learn more about that famous commercial office space with the Art Deco style.

A New Frontier of Structural Steel

At the time, new technologies were pushing commercial real-estate development ever higher. Steel-frame construction allowed a building to support more weight, allowing for taller structures. The elevator was a vital invention that could provide access to upper floors - no one would lease space on the 50th floor if they had to take the stairs to get there.

In 1930, the Chrysler building (a building some people mistake for the Empire State Building) took the record for world's tallest skyscraper at 77 stories and just over 1,000 feet tall. Even more notable is the sunburst design at the top, one of the best examples of Art Deco design. Yet the world's tallest building was about to meet its match.


A former General Motors executive named John Jacob Raskob wasn't pleased with the Chrysler building. After purchasing the property from Bethlehem Engineering Corporation, Raskob partnered with former governor of New York Al Smith to propose a building that would surpass Chrysler's edifice.

It was a gamble, though. None of the office space inside the building -- more than two million square feet of it -- had been leased ahead of time. Raskob was hoping tenants would line up when his magnificent new structure was completed. He didn't want to waste any time, either -- Raskob's building plans allotted about a year and a half to take the midtown Manhattan project from design to completion [Source: Berman].


The Empire State Building Begins to Take Shape

The architectural firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon were signed to complete the design. They crafted a functional building with few overt decorative touches, but it nevertheless became a national historic landmark. The Empire State Building's beauty and grace comes from its efficiency. Texture is provided by the play of light and shadow on the graduated setbacks that make the building smaller at higher floors. The ground floor interior features several varieties of imported marble and incorporates Art Deco style throughout.

A structural worker on a steel girder during the construction of the Empire State Building in 1930
A structural worker on a steel girder during the construction of the Empire State Building in 1930
Image courtesyLibrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The construction itself was a model of efficiency as well, based on the emerging principles of industrialism, assembly lines and division of labor. To maintain the strict schedule, pieces like structural steel beams and stonework were prepared off-site, then delivered ready to be inserted into place by construction workers. A series of hoists and narrow-gauge tracks inside the building moved the pieces to the top-most floors, while large external winches were used for heavy stone pieces. Workers perched hundreds of feet above street level as they riveted steel girders.


While the project was considered very safe for the era and complexity, six workers died. As many as 3,500 workers were at the job site at one time, with the weekly payroll sometimes approaching $250,000 [Source: Berman]. Because it would have been impossible to get all the workers down from the site, then back up again in a timely manner for their lunch break, food concessions were placed every few floors.


The Completion of New York City's Tallest Building

The glass, steel and aluminum spire at the top was originally part of a radical plan. Airships (blimps and dirigibles) would use it as a mooring mast, loading and unloading passengers and cargo. There would even be customs offices in the building to process visitors and imports. However, several tests revealed that the wind conditions in New York City were too severe to allow safe airship docking.

The spire would eventually serve as a television antenna for several New York TV stations [Source: Berman]. Yet the spire made the building taller, with a height of 1,472 feet. During the afternoon of the winter solstice, the Empire State Building casts a shadow more than a mile long [Source: Tauranac].


Communications devices for broadcast stations are located at the top of the Empire State Building
Communications devices for broadcast stations are located at the top of the Empire State Building
Image courtesy David Corby/GNU Free Documentation License

Built at the beginning of the Great Depression, the building initially struggled to find tenants in a slow market, and its owners were close to bankruptcy. Not even public relations efforts like the use of the building in the 1931 classic film "King Kong" could change the Empire State Building's fortunes. But the improved economy in the post-WWII years eventually made the Empire State Building one of the most profitable plots of real estate in the country, with occupancy rates consistently above 95 percent.


The Empire State Building Today

Today, visitors can ascend to the Empire State Building's observation deck for an unequaled view of New York City. It is open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week, and costs $44 for an adult ticket. This allows access to the 86th floor observatory. The 102nd floor is accessible as well, but costs $79. You can enjoy the view for free with the official Empire State Building web cams. You can also see how impressive the building looks from above -- it is easily spotted in satellite photos.

Today the Empire State Building serves as an opulent address for commercial office space and a point of pride for New Yorkers. While the New York City skyline has many architectural wonders to show off, those other buildings can't compete with the Empire State Building's history and stature.


For lots more information on the Empire State Building and related topics, check out these links:



  • Berman, John S. "The Portraits of America: Empire State Building: The Museum of the City of New York." Barnes & Noble, March 15, 2003. ISBN 978-0760738894.
  • Empire State Building: Official Internet Site. http://www.esbnyc.com/index2.cfm
  • Mann, Elizabeth. "Empire State Building: When New York Reached for the Skies." Mikaya Press, October 4, 2003. ISBN 978-1931414067.
  • Tauranac, John. "Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark." St. Martin's Griffin; First St. ed, April 15, 1997. ISBN 978-0312148249.


Frequently Answered Questions

Who did the construction work on the Empire State building?
The construction work on the Empire State building was completed by the firm of Starrett Brothers and Eken.