When it opened on May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world. As such, it not only became an icon of New York City, it became a symbol of 20th-century man's attempts to achieve the impossible – a bright ray of hope in an era that, for many, was an endless litany of shattered dreams.
Interestingly, the construction of the Empire State Building began with a competition between automobile company titans. However, this race was to be waged not on the track but in a bid to see which company maverick - John Jakob Raskob (creator of General Motors) or Walter Chrysler (founder of the Chrysler Corporation) - could build the world’s tallest building.
The impetus for the contest began in Paris with the Exposition Universelle of 1889 which featured the Eiffel Tower – the tallest building in the world at that time – as its showpiece. American architects and engineers looked on the Eiffel Tower as a challenge to go one better. Soon, New York City was the site of some fierce competition. By 1909 the Metropolitan Life Tower rose 700 feet (50 stories), quickly followed by the Woolworth Building in 1913 at 792 feet (57 stories), and soon surpassed by the Bank of Manhattan Building in 1929 at 927 feet (71 stories). That’s when Raskob and Chrysler got into the game. Chrysler started construction first, but kept his building’s target height a secret until completion, so Raskob had to hope his building would be taller. Raskob put his trust in the design of William Lamb (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates).
Chrysler completed his self-named tower first, in May 1930. It was the first man-made structure to stand taller than 1,000 feet. But the victory was short-lived. Less than a year after it opened to the public, the Chrysler Building was surpassed in height by the Empire State Building.
Excavation for Lamb’s dramatic design began on January 22, 1930 with construction getting underway on March 17 of the same year. The framework rose at the phenomenal rate of 4 ½ stories per week. Total build time took 7,000,000 man-hours – that’s one year and 45 days of straight work (including Sundays and holidays, something unheard of at the time) – so that the project completed ahead of schedule. While the onset of the Depression halved the anticipated cost of the building, the price (not including land) still came in at $24,718,000.
When completed, the Empire State Building towered 103 stories above Manhattan’s skyline. The soaring structure measured out at a total height of 1,454 feet (1,453 feet, 8 9/16th inches) or 443.2 meters to top of lightning rod. The 86th Floor Observatory is perched at 1,050 feet (320 meters), with the 102nd Floor situated at 1,224 feet (373 meters).
On May 18, 1981, the building (exterior and lobby) was declared a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. On December 20, 1982, it was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places. On October 23, 1986, it was recognized as a National Historic Landmark by the National Parks Services, I.S. Department of the Interior and a commemorative plaque was awarded.
Over the years, the Empire State Building has also won a place in the hearts and minds of thousands, nay millions, of people around the world. It has been seen in dozens of motion pictures including “An Affair to Remember”, “King Kong”, and “Sleepless in Seattle”, as well as countless advertising campaigns. It has been visited by a diverse range of dignitaries including Queen Elizabeth, Fidel Castro, Pele, KISS, and Lassie.
Other bits of trivia:
The base of the TV tower was originally designed as a dirigible mooring mast. But the idea didn’t, um, fly. One attempt to moor a privately owned blimp was successful - for all of three minutes. In September 1931, during a second attempt at mooring atop the famous building, a Navy blimp was almost upended and nearly swept away celebrities attending the historic affair, while the water ballast drenched pedestrians several blocks away. That soaked the mooring mast idea.
Dirigibles weren’t the only aircraft to come in contact with the Empire State Building. On July 28, 1945, an Army Air Corps B-25 crashed into the 79th floor killing 14 people. Damage to the building was $1-million, but the structural integrity of the building was not affected.
Interesting happenings at the top:
I’ve managed to visit the top of the Empire State Building three times. Each time, the sky has been fairly clear with a few fluffy clouds hanging about for interesting photo backgrounds. On my first visit I discovered that if I stood with my back to the outdoor railing at the 86th Floor observation deck and then looked back and up toward the top of the Empire State Building tower, there was an optical illusion created by the moving clouds and angle of the building that made it seem that the tower was falling toward me – or away from me, depending on the direction of the clouds.
A couple I know who visited the famous structure on their 25th wedding anniversary claim there is truth to the urban legend about sparks flying when you’re on top of the building. They told me that when they kissed up there, their lips literally sparked! I’ve also heard that under the right conditions the static electricity there can build up so that if you stick your hand through the observatory fence, St. Elmo's Fire will stream from your fingertips!
Things to know when planning your visit to the Empire State Building:
The main entrance is located at Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets. Everyone must use that entrance unless they are handicapped. A handicap entrance is open Mon-Fri until 6pm – it’s located on 34th Street beside the Bank of America.
Think of yourself going on an airplane and you’ll have an easier time at the mandatory security check. No glass or bottles are allowed. Cameras and camcorders are okay, but no tripods. And only carry-on-size and style bags, backpacks, etc are permitted. THERE IS NO COAT OR BAGGAGE CHECK, so best leave the steamer trunk in your hotel room. And be prepared to carry everything with you while you’re in the building. A full description of the Empire State Building’s security procedures is available on the building’s website.
Bonus: Seniors 62+ are given a discount off the regular adult admission.