New York: Empire State Building

A grandiose monument to unregulated private capitalism, the building represented an expression of faith in American business enterprise in the 1920’s.

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Empire State Building

Information Desk

350 Fifth Avenue

New York City, NY 10118

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The site of the Empire State Building was formerly that of the old Waldorf-Astoria, in its day, New York City’s largest, most luxurious hotel. According to legend, the hotel came to be built because of a feud between two members of the socially prominent and wealthy Astor family whose mansions stood on the site. Resentful that his aunt, the formidable Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, had assumed the title of the Mrs. Astor, her nephew, William Waldorf Astor, feeling that as he was the head of the family that title rightfully belonged to his wife, got his revenge. He had a luxury hotel called the Waldorf erected on the site of his mansion on the 33d Street corner. As anticipated, the aunt would not tolerate living next to a commercial establishment. She sold out and another luxury hotel, called the Astoria, was erected on the site of her mansion. The hotels were then combined to create the Waldorf-Astoria. A family feud gave birth not only to the hotel but also to a full-block frontage building lot on Fifth Avenue–a rarity in New York real estate.

The Search for a Profitable Project

The Empire State Building was the inspiration of John Jakob Raskob (1879-1950), a shadowy financial genius who had made a fortune devising a plan whereby consumers could buy General Motors automobiles on the installment plan. In 1928, he had been financial adviser to Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944), the four-time New York governor, in his bid for the presidency–which Smith lost. Raskob now had available an unemployed but highly popular former governor with extensive executive experience and political connections.

Raskob was looking for a project to occupy his time and to make money. He was aware of the publicity the Woolworth Building, constructed in 1913 at a height of 792 feet, gained from being the world’s tallest building. Raskob came upon the idea of constructing a speculative office building, and in order to attract tenants, would make it the world’s tallest building. It was to be named the Empire State Building. Former governor Smith joined Raskob in forming a company for the purposes of erecting and managing the building. During the spring and summer of 1929, Raskob laid the groundwork–obtaining both title to the Waldorf-Astoria site and the necessary financing. He had the architect, William F. Lamb of the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, draw up designs. On August 29, 1929, Alfred E. Smith announced the creation of a company that would build an office building of eighty stories, 1,000 feet high–the tallest in the world. The announcement spurred to action Walter P. Chrysler, who had been erecting a building nearby in competition with the Bank of Manhattan Building for the title of the world’s tallest building. At 927 feet, the Bank of Manhattan Building was taller by 2 feet than the Chrysler. Chrysler won the contest through an astonishing feat. In October of 1929, his architect had raised through the top of the Chrysler Building a secretly constructed stainless steel spire, which increased the total height of the building to 1,048 feet, surpassing in height not only the Bank of Manhattan Building but also the projected Empire State Building. Raskob then had his architect add five stories to the Empire State Building, raising the total to eighty-five and the height to 1,050 feet–2 feet higher than the Chrysler Building. Then, for added security, Raskob had his architect add a 200-foot lantern tower to the building, raising its height to 1,250 feet. In a clever publicity move, the tower lantern was projected as a dirigible mooring mast, although no dirigible ever would or ever could be moored to it. It was the tower lantern that made the building distinctive, even unique. If the Woolworth Building was New York City’s Cathedral of Commerce, the Empire State Building would be its lighthouse–as famous as the legendary lighthouse called the Pharos at Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Built in Record Time

Once the plans were in final form, Raskob and Smith went to work on the details of construction, which demonstrated their organizational ability, their political connections, and their financial resources.

The building site proved ideal. It was entirely solid granite or schist. Complicated and expensive shoring was unnecessary. The construction contract was given to Starrett Brothers and Eken, who had constructed the Bank of Manhattan Building in record time. They got the Empire State Building contract largely because Paul Starrett, principal of the firm, assured Raskob and Smith that his firm had no equipment available for the job. Because of the nature of the construction, new equipment, as well as new building methods, would have to be devised.

Excavation began on January 22, 1930; construction started on March 17, 1930; the cornerstone was laid by Alfred E. Smith on September 17, 1930. The magnificently constructed old hotel did not go easily. In the desire to get the new building started, no attempt was made at salvage; large sections of the old building, with woodwork and fittings still attached, were cut away with acetylene torches and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. Working without interruption even during the bitter winter of 1930-1931, the building went up at the astonishing rate of approximately a story a day. The building was finished ahead of schedule. The total construction time was one year and forty-five days.

Probably never in the history of the world has a building of such size and quality been erected in so short a period of time. The stock market crash of October 29, 1929, which deepened an economic depression already underway, proved an unanticipated advantage in the construction of the building. Capital, labor, and supplies became increasingly available at steadily decreasing costs. The final cost of the building was $24,718,000–about half its projected cost of $43,000,000.

The Finest, Most Durable Materials

Sponsor, architect, and builder were agreed that only the finest materials were to be used both within and without, and the building was to benefit from the latest developments in building technology and the science of metallurgy. The seventy-three elevators rose and fell at speeds up to 1,400 feet per minute. Advances in metallurgy made available stronger and lighter steels and improved specialty metals such as cast aluminum and chrome-nickel steel. The building was clad in fine Indiana limestone cut to size at the quarry. Sections of the sixty thousand tons of steel used in construction were made to precise specifications in Pittsburgh and delivered still warm to the site. The use of less expensive cast aluminum and chrome-nickel steel for much of the exterior not only cut the cost of construction by eliminating more costly stone, but resulted in a stone cubic foot to building cubic space ratio four times greater than customary. The frames of the 6,500 windows were painted with a tomato-red rust preservative. The awe-inspiring lobby was sheathed in costly marbles imported from Germany and Spain.

An Aesthetic Success, a Commercial Failure

The opening ceremonies were held May 1, 1931. President Herbert Hoover in the White House pressed a button that illuminated the building. Thousands admired the innovative beauty of the great building, but neither the ebullience of Smith nor the optimism of Raskob could mask the pervasive influence of the terrible depression that was searing the American psyche. Construction had come to a standstill, and most of the thousands of workers who had toiled so splendidly on the building were now either unemployed or on bread lines. The rental market, too, was dead or dying. Despite the best efforts of Smith and Raskob, the building was only about 30 percent rented–and then mostly to small renters. Fifty-six floors remained vacant, bravely lit up at night so as to give the impression of occupancy. The only bright spots were the observatories on the 86th and 102d floors that continued to turn large profits. The use of the lantern tower, first for radio and then for television antennae, would also contribute to the profitability of the building.

A Disillusioned Sponsor

Alfred E. Smith served as president of the new building, but time took its toll. With inadequate revenues because of unrented space, the building faced bankruptcy, which was only staved off by Raskob’s financial manipulations. The election of 1932, which gave the presidency to Franklin D. Roosevelt, also gave Smith hope that he would be given an important position at the federal level. Roosevelt, however, disliked Smith, and even though he used much of Smith’s social agenda as governor of New York for his own New Deal legislation, never offered the former governor a position. The once “Happy Warrior” grew increasingly embittered and gradually faded from public view, even abandoning his beloved Democratic Party.

Smith died in 1944 and did not live to witness the spectacular crash on July 25, 1945, of a B-25 bomber into the side of the Empire State Building at the seventy-fourth floor. Even though the crash did minimal damage, quickly repaired, to the building, it killed fourteen people.

An Unfulfilled Dream but a Beloved Landmark

Although east 34th Street never became the new commercial center Raskob had hoped, for the Empire State Building this was an advantage. The building continued to stand in splendid isolation, visible for miles around. By 1950 it was fully rented and profitable. New Yorkers and visitors alike have taken the building to heart. They love and admire it, and even after it was superseded as the world’s tallest building in 1970 by the mundane World Trade Towers to the south, the Empire State Building still stands tall in imagination. The building was designated a New York City landmark in 1981, listed on the state and National Registers of Historic Places in 1982, and recognized as a National Landmark in 1986. More importantly, the Empire State Building serves as the symbol of New York City around the world, and its observatories remain one of the city’s main tourist attractions.

For Further Information

  • Bryant, David. “Margaret Bourke-White; Lewis W. Hine: The Empire State Building.” Library Journal, February 1, 1999, p. 82. The writer discusses the contents of two books of spectacular photographs of the Empire State Building by the greatest photographers of the time.
  • Burrough, Bryan. “Emperors of the Air.” Vanity Fair, May, 1995, p. 120-129. A somewhat racy account of three present-day real estate tycoons who are attempting to gain control of the famous building.
  • Heller, Steven, Sarah J. Freymann, and Steven Schwartz. The Empire State Building Book. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Contains an easy-to-follow account of the actual construction of the building.
  • Langer, Freddy, ed. Lewis W. Hine: The Empire State Building. New York: Neues, 1998. A capsule history accompanied by facts and figures that have made this Art Deco landmark so famous.
  • Levy, Donald S. “Monuments of the Age.” Time, December 7, 1998, p. 121. The author analyzes how five major monuments, including the Empire State Building, define the twentieth century.
  • Tauranac, John. The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995. The first book-length treatment of the famous building by a noted architectural historian.
  • Willis, Carol. Building the Empire State. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. An eyewitness account through a meticulously kept in-house notebook details the innovative building process.