Empire State Building, Manhattan

Discover all the things you may not know about the Empire State Building

The precursors to the Empire State Building

In 1929, the architect William Lamb, of the Shreve, Lamb and Harmon architecture firm, drew up his plans for the imposing Empire State Building taking inspiration from the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem (North Carolina), and the Carew Tower in Cincinnati. So, it should come as no surprise that these two old Art Deco buildings are considered the Empire State’s precursors. An interesting anecdote; in 1979, on the 50th anniversary of the Reynolds Building, the General Manager of the Empire State Building sent them a birthday card with the message “Happy birthday, Dad”.

The challenge that would give birth to the world’s tallest skyscraper

Empire State Building, Manhattan

The end of the 1920s marked a period of unprecedented economic growth in New York. Entrepreneurs were throwing around the idea of building the world’s tallest skyscraper. Initially the competition was between two participants: The Bank of Manhattan Trust Building at 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building (an elaborate Art Deco structure designed by the great car manufacturer Walter Chrysler). As each project tried to gain a few dozen meters in height by adding extra floors to their respective projects, the race for victory really intensified in 1929 with the unveiling of the plans for the Empire State Building elaborated by General Motors Director John J. Raskob and former New York Governor Al Smith.

Chrysler decided to change his plans one last time when he learned that the Empire State would measure 305 meters in height. He was confident that by adding a 14.6-meter steel point to the building, he would win the race. But to his chagrin, Raskob and Smith further modified their own project, and on completion in 1931, their 381-metre-high colossus imposed itself above the streets of Midtown Manhattan, winning the crown for the highest building in the world. It would keep this status for nearly four decades, until the first of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers was completed in 1970.

A skyscraper built in record time

Empire State Building construction

Despite the gargantuan scope of the project, from start to finish, it took only 20 months to complete not only the design and planning but also the entire construction of the Empire State Building. The building was erected on the site of the former Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Following this hotel’s demolition, the contractors Starrett Brothers and Eken began a chain assembly process to erect the skyscraper in a timespan of just 410 days. Thanks to an impressive team of 3,400 men working tirelessly every day on this project, four and a half floors were added every week! The first 30 floors were completed even though some details on the ground floor had yet to be finished. The construction of the Empire State Building was completed faster than expected, and within budget, but not without the loss of five construction workers during its construction.

In the early stages of its planning, the Empire State Building was a far from promising project.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression didn’t create ideal conditions for its development. Initially, the building was to house mainly offices, but when it opened in 1931, only 25% of its business premises were occupied, giving rise to it being labelled the Empty State Building. The owners of the building tried everything to attract new tenants including leaving the lights on in empty offices as well as launching an ambitious advertising campaign. In 1932, after the death of Thomas Edison, who had invented the highly dubious ‘spirit phone’, a session to contact his ghost was even organized on the 82nd floor of the building! Despite all these efforts, the upper half of the skyscraper remained unoccupied, and it wasn’t until just before the Second World War, that it would finally become profitable.

Initially the summit of the Empire State Building was intended to accommodate airships

Empire State Building Mooring Mast Project

In the 1930s, it was believed that transatlantic travel by airship would be the means of transportation of the future. So, the owners of the Empire State Building decided to adapt the top of the skyscraper for this eventuality. The idea was to fly these airships close to the summit of the building where a mooring system was put in place. An open-air walkway would then allow airship passengers to transfer to the building, and after passing immigration and customs, they would find themselves in the heart of Manhattan, all in less than 8 minutes. The project, although enthusiastically received, was soon abandoned, as the winds at the summit were often so violent that it was almost impossible for the pilots to moor safely. In 1931, a more or less successful test was carried out but it only lasted a few short minutes. Two weeks later, a Goodyear airship pulled off a publicity stunt by dropping a stack of newspapers on to the roof of the building.

Mooring mast

In 1945, an Air Force bomber crashed into the Empire State Building.

Bomber B-25 crash

On July 28, 1945, Army Lieutenant-Colonel William F. Smith, flying a B-25 Mitchell Air Force bomber, was headed for La Guardia Airport, New York, when he was diverted by air traffic control due to heavy fog at the airport. He ended up getting disoriented in the fog and turned the wrong way after passing the Chrysler building. His plane slammed into the 78th and 79th floors of the Empire State Building at a speed of 320 km/h with a large explosion ensuing. The disaster not only killed the pilot, a veteran of the Second World War, and two crew members, but also another eleven people inside the building. Miraculously, the fire-fighters managed to put out the fire caused by the accident in only forty minutes. Until then, this had been the most devastating fire in New York’s history, and yet only two days later, the building was reopened and it was back to business as usual.

Miraculous survival after tragic collision of the bomber with the Empire State Building

When the bomber crashed into the Empire State, the impact was so severe that engine debris propelled into the building cut the cables of two elevators, including the one containing Betty Lou Oliver, the elevator’s twenty-year-old operator. Her elevator took only a few seconds to plummet from the 75th floor to the basement. The 305 meters of damaged cables, accumulating in the basement of the elevator in combination with the breaking effect of the compressed air pocket that built up below the rapidly descending elevator, were enough to cushion the impact and save the life of young Betty Lou.

The 50th Anniversary of the film King Kong celebrated at the Empire State Building

Empire State and  "King Kong"

The Empire State has featured in more than 90 films, the most famous being King Kong shot in 1933. In the final scene, Kong, an enormous ape, scales the skyscraper, with the heroine he loves in his hand only to be attacked by war planes. In 1983 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the movie’s release the president of an airship company wanted to reproduce this mythical scene that was originally shot in a studio. His plan was to fly vintage planes over the Empire State Building, imitating the attack against a 25-metre high inflatable version of the gigantic ape that would be attached to the building’s side. But this project that cost an estimated $150,000 was doomed to disaster when the inflatable King Kong ripped before it was even fully inflated. Despite a second attempt, with Kong successfully inflated and attached to the building, the project was definitively abandoned following further rips after just a few days.

Did you know?

  • The Empire State Building has 103 floors, and measures 381 meters in height, not counting its 62-metre high antenna.
  • It is located on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Street.
  • There was a project to add an additional eleven floors to the Empire State but this idea was quickly abandoned.
  • In 1973, with the completion of the World Trade Center, also in Manhattan, the Empire State finally lost its crown as the world’s tallest building.
  • Following the collapse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the Empire State once again became New York’s tallest building, albeit for a short time.
  • In 2002, Peter L. Malkin already in possession of a 114-year lease bought the building outright and became both its owner and administrator.
  • The Empire State Building has 2 observation platforms located on the 86th and 102nd floors, which between them attract more than 4 million visitors a year. On a clear day, it’s possible to see up to 130 km away with views out over New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
  • More than thirty people have ended their lives by jumping off the skyscraper.
  • A race called the “Run-Up” is organized every year and it consists of racing up to the 86th floor of the building. (1576 steps in total!)
  • The building has an around the clock security service.
  • Couples who get married on the 80th floor on Valentine’s Day automatically become members of the Empire State Building Wedding Club and get free admission to the Observatory on their anniversary, every February 14th.

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