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The Empire State Building

The Empire State building was the tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1973. (Photograph by Jiuguang Wang and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

The beginning of the 20th century was marked by a boom of building activity in the city of New York. Buildings were constructed and then demolished only a few years later to make room for larger buildings. Companies vied for the honor of having their name on the tallest building in not only the city, but the world. The skyline of the metropolis became its pride, crowned with an array of skyscrapers, each one different than the one before it.

In their race to have their name on the tallest building, developers would even resort to trickery. In 1930 the Bank of Manhattan skyscraper was completed. It stood 135 feet taller than the older Woolworth building and two feet higher than the planned height of a rival project, the Chrysler Building, which was still under construction. The architect of the Chrysler building, William Van Alen, however, had a 185 foot-long spire secretly assembled inside the building. At the end of construction on October 23, 1929, the spire was hoisted into place and in only 90 minutes the Chrysler building usurped the Bank of Manhattan for the title of tallest building in the world.

The consulting architects of the Bank of Manhattan, Shreve & Lamb, however, would soon get their revenge. Even as the Chrysler building was being topped off, they were designing a structure that would forever change the skyline of Manhattan and become an icon of the city. The building they were working on would eventually be 1,454 feet in height with 102 stories and would carry a name that commemorated the state of New York: The Empire State Building.

Planning

Seven Quick Facts
Height: 1,454ft. at antenna; 1,250 ft at roof
Floors: 102
Finished: May 1, 1931
Cost: $40,948,900
Location: New York City, USA
Made of: "Art Deco" design with steel frame and faced with Bedford Indiana Limestone
Other: World's tallest building from 1931 to 1973

The man behind the building of the Empire State Building was industrialist John J, Raskob. The person most associated with the project, however, was Raskob's friend, Al Smith, the former governor of New York State. Smith was a well-liked politician and the company Raskob and Smith put together to build the world's tallest skyscraper took advantage of the notoriety of his former position by naming the building in accordance with the state's nickname.

Raskob and partners bought a parcel of land that contained the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at 350 Fifth Ave. The hotel was demolished and the architectural firm of Shreve & Lamb was engaged to design the new building. Like many buildings of that era it was given an "art deco" look that emphasized bold lines, symmetry, and motifs like sunbursts and chevrons. At first the building was designed with a flat top and was only slightly taller than the Chrysler Building. Then, on December 11, 1929, it was announced that the designers had decided to add a two-hundred-foot-high mast that would be designed to moor dirigibles.

The Empire State Building elipsed the Chrysler Building as the tallest by over 200 feet. (Photograph byLeena Hietanen and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

The Mooring Mast

At that time lighter-than-air aircrafts were considered the future wave of transportation. The addition of a two-hundred foot mooring mast would not only make the structure significantly taller than the Chrysler Building, the cylindrical tower would not be purely ornamental, but functional. A mooring mast on the building would allow airship passengers to disembark right in the middle of the city, rather than at some remote airfield terminal many miles away. It was estimated a passenger might be able to get off their dirigible at the 102nd floor, take an elevator down the observation deck on the 86th floor, get their luggage, and then ride another elevator to street level and be walking on Fifth Avenue only seven minutes after their arrival.

As attractive as this idea was, however, it was never practical. The winds around skyscrapers tend to be unpredictable, making docking difficult. Also, the Empire State Building's mooring mast would have only allowed the nose of the ship to be secured to the building, instead of the nose and tail, which would have been a typical arrangement at an airfield. With only the nose secured, a sudden wind could easily tip the tail of the dirigible up into a nearly vertical position. There was also the question of having the passengers walk an open gangplank from the ship to the mast with nothing below them for more than a thousand feet. It would be an exploit that might even make passengers not prone to acrophobia feel a bit edgy.

The top of the building: The chrome-nickel steel mooring mast was built for airships, but now is the base of a huge antenna. (Photograph by Jiuguang Wang and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

The idea of using the mast to dock airships was eventually dropped, but the mast itself made an excellent architectural addition to the building. Built of shining chrome-nickel steel, it was shaped a bit like a rocket taking off, including four "fins" or winged buttresses made of cast aluminum. At night it was illuminated and could be seen for miles.

Construction

Construction of the building started on March 17, 1930, with the erection of two-hundred and ten steel columns, twelve of which would run the entire height of the building. The construction firm of Starrett Bros. & Eken put together a tight schedule. The sooner the building opened, the sooner the owners could start making money by collecting rents from tenants. The builders used many innovative ideas to speed construction, like a chute that allowed bricks to be dumped directly into the basement where they could be dropped into carts as needed and hoisted up to the floor where the work was being done. This kept the surrounding streets clear of mountains of bricks waiting to be used as well as eliminating the back breaking job of moving bricks around the site by wheelbarrow.

It took 7 million man hours to complete the 365,000 ton structure. The framework rose at a rate of 4 stories per week. During the course of construction, 3,400 workers practicing sixty trades were involved. Workers used 57,000 tons of steel in the framework and installed 6,500 windows. If somebody decided to walk up he would have to climb the 1,860 steps that were put in position to reach the 102nd floor.

A worker tightens a bolt during construction of the upper floors.

The job was completed in just one year and forty-five days for $40,948,900. It finished on time and for almost $10 million less than expected (mainly because of depressed labor costs caused by the Great Depression of the 1930's). The Empire State Building officially opened on May 1, 1931, with President Herbert Hoover lighting up the tower remotely from Washington, D.C. .

When the building was completed it was the tallest building in the world and the tallest man-made structure of any type. It lost the title of tallest man-made structure in 1953 when the Griffin Television Tower in Oklahoma was completed. It remained the tallest free-standing structure in the world until 1967 when it was surpassed by the Ostankino Tower.

Fame

The building, which dominated the city skyline, soon became known around the world as an icon of New York City. Its fame was not in small part due to it being used as the setting for the climactic scene of the 1933 film, King Kong. In the movie a giant ape is captured on a remote island in the Pacific. Brought to New York City as part of an exhibit, he escapes and carries the film's heroine to the top of the Empire State Building before being vanquished by airplanes armed with machine guns. For the 50th anniversary of the film the connection between the giant ape and the building was further strengthened when a 3,000 pound Kong balloon was attached to the mast. The public was again reminded of the association when the film was remade in 2005 by director Peter Jackson.

Kong fights off planes from the top of the mooring mast in the climax of the 1933 film.

King Kong was only one of many films that would feature the building. The 1939 romantic drama Love Affair, along with 1957's An Affair to Remember and the 1993 film Sleepless in Seattle all dealt with lovelorn couples meeting (or failing to meet) on the observation deck of the building.

Plane Crash

The structure underwent the most violent test of its design on Saturday, July 28, 1945 when a B-25 Mitchell bomber, lost in fog, struck the building between the 78th and 80th floor. The ten-ton aircraft made a tear in the structure 18-feet wide, killing fourteen people. One of the plane's engines blew a hole straight through the building, while the other engine and part of the landing gear dropped down an elevator shaft. The impact also started a fire. The flames were put out in 40 minutes, the only time a blaze at that height has ever been successfully controlled. During the fire, rescuers tried to evacuate an injured woman by using an elevator not knowing the cables had been damaged. The cables broke and the elevator plummeted 75 floors. The woman, Betty Lou Oliver, stills hold the world record for surviving the longest elevator fall.

The Empire State Building illuminated with floodlights in the evening. The Chrysler Tower is in the background. Photograph Michael Slonecker and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

In 1953 a large broadcast tower was added to the top of the mast increasing the total height to 1,454 feet. The Empire State Building held the record as the world's tallest office building (which is not considered the same thing as tallest tower) for 42 years until it was topped by the North skyscraper of the World Trade Center in 1973. It regained the title of the tallest building in New York City, however, with the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorist attack in 2001. It will become the second tallest building in New York again when the new One World Trade Center (previously known as the Freedom Tower) is completed in 2012.

Even if the Empire State Building is no longer the tallest building in the world, or even the tallest building in New York City, it remains one of the most beautiful. Its Art-Deco spire, lit with flood-lights in the evening, is a sight that is recognized the world over. In 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers chose the structure as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, which commemorates the greatest civil engineering achievements of the 20th century.

Copyright 2011 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.