The symbolic building of New York and, for a long time, the tallest skyscraper in the world: this, of course, is the Empire State Building, which rises to a total height of 1,454 feet. The art déco style skyscraper was the tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1971, the year when it was surpassed by the construction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In 2001, after the tragic events of September 11, the Empire State Building temporarily reclaimed the title of the tallest skyscraper on the New York skyline, only to lose it again in 2013 with the completion of the One World Trade Center (which is 1,792 feet tall at the tip).
New York’s most famous skyscraper
The Empire State Building stands in the heart of Manhattan between Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. Even more than its height, it has always been the beauty of this skyscraper that has astounded and fascinated people. It is not by chance that it won first place in the ranking of the best loved buildings drawn up by the American Institute of Architects. Registered since 1981 as one of the Unites States’ national monuments, it became even more famous through its many appearances in extremely well-known films. The first movie to use the Empire State Building as a backdrop was King Kong, followed by Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair to Remember, The Day After Tomorrow, The Avengers and so on.
The story of the design and construction of the Empire State Building
On the site of the Empire State Building, the city’s first major hotel once stood, the Waldorf-Astoria, built in the nineteenth century by the Astor family. The hotel was demolished in 1929 and the entire lot was bought by a group of businessmen, including a former manager at General Motors and the former governor of the state of New York. In those years, a race had been underway to build the tallest skyscraper in the world and the accolade would soon be bestowed on the Chrysler Building in 1928, with a height of 1,046 feet.
The design of the Empire State Building was assigned to the firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates, which managed to present the plan in the record time of only 2 weeks. Such speed was only possible because inspiration could be drawn from the other skyscrapers in the art déco style that the firm had designed in Cincinnati and Winston-Salem. Initially, the original plan envisaged the construction of an 80-floor building, enough to beat any previous record. But while the architects were designing the future Empire State Building, hundreds of workers were busy erecting the aforementioned Chrysler Building. For that reason, it was decided to increase the final height of the skyscraper, reaching a total of 102 floors.
Works to construct the Empire State Building began on 24 September 1929, starting with the demolition of the previous buildings. The foundations were laid in early 1930. The construction site – assigned to the company Starrett Brothers and Ekin – employed around 3,400 workers, most of whom were Italian and Irish immigrants with a significant minority of native Mohawk people, chosen for their great sense of balance and insusceptibility to vertigo.
With such a large workforce, construction of the Empire State Building proceeded at a very fast pace and no other construction site in the world has ever equalled it: the skyscraper rose by four and a half floors a week and the works were completed in just 23 weeks.
On 1 May 1931, the official inauguration of the skyscraper was held. In attendance were the mayor of New York and the governor of the state of New York, that is, the future president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The then current president of the USA, Herbert Hoover, personally turned on the lights of the new skyscraper via a radio link from the White House. It was greeted with great enthusiasm: this wasn’t just the tallest skyscraper in the world but also the building with the greatest number of floors and the most speedily built.
The Empire State Building in the history of the United States
The fascinating history of the Empire State Building does not end with its construction. It should be emphasised that, when work began on the building’s foundation, the United States was in the grip of the crisis of 1929. It is not therefore surprising that the building – intended for offices – remained mostly unoccupied in the early years, due also to competition from the nearby Rockefeller Center. What saved the skyscraper from failure were its height, which drew hordes of visitors every day who wanted to get to the terrace on the 86th floor, and its growing fame, boosted by the movie King Kong, filmed in 1933.
The history of the Empire State Building is strewn with many other famous events: they include the B-25 bomber that accidentally crashed into the 78th and 79th floor in 1945, causing the deaths of 14 people, the enforced deactivation of lighting at night during the energy crisis or the day in 1980 when the building was assigned its own post code, the famous 10118.
The specifications of the Empire State Building
The entire steel framework that supports the Empire State Building, in accordance with the construction criteria of the time, is covered with concrete and bricks. The total weight of the building is estimated to be 365,000 tons, resting on foundations laid to a depth of 55 feet 8 inches and made up of 210 pillars. The external cladding of the building is formed of aluminium panels, which decorate the skyscraper along with limestone blocks placed between the building’s 6,514 windows. The result is an austere-looking, symmetric and harmonious skyscraper.
It is astonishing to realise that, initially, the building’s original mast was designed as a docking station for airships, thereby allowing passengers to disembark. The plan was deemed impracticable and the 204 feet mast was used to accommodate a complex system of antennae, as well as acting as a vital lightning rod.
The art déco style is carried through to the interior, especially in the main lobby on Fifth Avenue, embellished with decorations in pink, red and Rocheron marble. The Empire State Building has 73 lifts (including 6 hoists), which travel at speeds of between 590 feet a minute and 1,411 feet a minute. To reach the 103rd floor from street level without using the lifts, 1,872 steps must be climbed.