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. Today it stands as the tallest building in New York City, a sad, but defiant, reminder of the World Trade Center tragedy.
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, and they were joined, thus creating the legendary Waldorf-Astoria. The epitome of style at the time of its construction in 1897, it took only a few decades for the Waldorf-Astoria 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].
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.
A former General Motors executive named John Jacob Raskob wasn't pleased with Chrysler's accomplishment, and partnered with then-governor of New York Al Smith, Raskob proposed 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 allotted about a year and a half to take the building from design to completion [Source: Berman]. Architects Shreve, Lamb and Harmon were signed to complete the design. They crafted a functional building with few overt decorative touches. 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 interior lobby features several varieties of imported marble and incorporates Art Deco styling throughout.
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 steel beams and stonework were prepared off-site, then delivered ready to be inserted into place by 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 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 post, 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]. The spire gives the completed building 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].
Built at the beginning of the Depression, the building initially struggled to find tenants, 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.
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 $18 for an adult ticket. This allows access to the 86th floor observatory. The 102nd floor is accessible as well, but costs an extra $15. 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, such as this one from Google Maps.
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.