New York City
For forty-one years from 1931, the Empire State Building was the tallest tower in the world. That distinction has since been wrested and rewrested by a series of successors. The 102-story building, covering its 2-acre (0.8-hectare) Park Avenue site and soaring to 1,252 feet (417 meters), was completed in the incredibly short time of 1 year and 45 days; in fact, the time from the decision to build to the letting of office space was only 27 months. Because of the precise planning and exacting project management that achieved such efficiency, this most familiar of all skyscrapers is one of the great architectural feats of the twentieth century.
The Empire State Company was formed in 1929 by John Jacob Raskob (General Motors’ chief executive), the industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, the politician Coleman du Pont, Louis G. Kaufman, and Ellis P. Earl. Raskob invited Alfred A. Smith, the New York State governor until 1929, with whom he had political ties, to become president of the corporation. The two men became the prime movers of the project. The 35-year-old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, was bought for about $16 million from the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation and demolished to make way for the new building. The architects Richmond H. Shreve, Arthur Loomis Harmon, and William Lamb (who did much of the design work) were initially commissioned to create a 50-story, 650-foot-high (195-meter) office block. But the scheme would go through more than 15 revisions before emerging as an 86-story, 1,252-foot (375-meter) tower. Last-minute revisions would further increase it to 102 floors and a height, including its mast, of 1,472 feet (450 meters). The structural engineers were H. G. Balcom and Associates.
Shreve, Harmon, and Lamb produced a steel-framed, art deco tower whose marble-clad, five-story base covered the whole site. From a 60-foot (18-meter) setback at the fifth floor, it rose uninterrupted to the 86th floor. The upper levels were faced with silver buff Indiana limestone and granite, and the verticality of the facade was emphasized by continuous mullions of chrome-nickel steel. The office floors were served by seventy-three elevators.
The esthetics of the design were hardly remarkable, and the building was either ignored or criticized by the aficionados of the sterile European Modernism—so-called international architecture—then being touted in North America. For the present purpose, the Empire State’s artistic qualities are inconsequential, because its significance lies in the fact that the architects made a design that, in the contractor’s words, was “magnificently adapted to speed in construction.” And speed was of the essence: the clients announced an 80-story building in August 1929 and forecast the completion date: 1 May 1931.
The firm of Starrett Brothers and Eken won the contract, estimated at $50 million. The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was demolished within a month, and site excavation began on 22 January 1930, digging 55 feet (16.7 meters) below ground to the gray Manhattan bedrock. Construction started just under two months later, and through the meticulous construction scheduling of the chief engineer, Andrew Eken, it proceeded at record pace. Materials suppliers were asked to deliver goods as they were needed, so there was no need for on-site storage in the downtown area. When materials arrived on-site—at the busiest time, that meant almost 500 deliveries daily—they were immediately hoisted to the appropriate floor and transported by railways to their final location for
fixing. The steel frame rose an average of four and a half floors a week, on a forest of 210 steel columns. One fourteen-story section was completed in a week! Altogether, 69,600 tons (58,930 tonnes) of structural steel were placed in only six months. By the middle of November 1930 the building’s masonry skin was fixed. This unprecedented logistical feat was achieved by an average workforce of 2,500, which at times reached 4,000. Together, they worked 7 million carefully monitored man-hours, including Sundays and public holidays, to meet the deadline. In fact, the building was completed a few days ahead of its rigorous schedule. On 1 May 1931 President Herbert Hoover pressed the switch in Washington, D.C., that turned on the skyscraper’s lights.
The Empire State was one of the last gasps of New York’s real-estate boom. From late in the 1800s more than 180 tall buildings, none under twenty stories, had been erected in Manhattan. As that phase was drawing to a close about thirty years later, New York City saw what might be described as a three-sided “skyscraper war.” The antagonists were the Empire State, the Bank of Manhattan, and the Chrysler Building. The “cold and nondescript” Bank of Manhattan, designed by H. Craig Severance and completed in April 1929, was, at 927 feet (278 meters), the world’s tallest building—at least momentarily. The Chrysler Building, then being built for the automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler, was originally planned to be crowned with a dome, bringing it to within 2 feet (0.6 meter) of the height of the bank. Its architect William van Alen obtained permission to add the spire that is now recognized as the building’s most distinctive feature. Its components were prefabricated inside the upper floors, and it was placed in just one and a half hours in November 1930, bringing the height of the Chrysler Building to 1,048 feet (314 meters). With the advantage of playing a little behind the game, Raskob and Smith had their architects add six stories to the 1000-foot (300-meter) Empire State Building, originally intended to terminate in a flat observation deck. Above it all soared a 200-foot (60-meter) tower, bringing its total height to 1,250 feet (375 meters).
It was mooted that this tower would serve as a mooring mast for airships. The 86th floor would house passenger lounges, airline offices, and baggage rooms, and the vessels would be moored at the 106th level. One attempt to moor a dirigible succeeded for just three minutes, and a near disaster with a U.S. Navy blimp in September 1931 finally led to the abandonment of the scheme—a decision tragically validated by the fiery destruction of the Hindenberg at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. The two observation decks remained just that, and the mast later formed the base of a television tower.
The Empire State Building cost $24.7 million. Optimistically conceived during a real-estate boom, the success of the venture was dashed by the Wall Street crash of 1929. When the building was opened its owners were hard-pressed to find tenants for the 2.1 million square feet (199,000 square meters) of office space, and some witty New Yorker coined the nickname “Empty State Building.” Apart from the impact of the Great Depression, the 350 Fifth Avenue address was too far from the central business district. Eighteen months after opening, only a quarter of the space had been rented; six months later, there were still fifty-six vacant floors and the problems continued throughout the 1930s. After World War II the commercial center of gravity of New York was the Rockefeller Center, the last of whose nine towers was completed in 1940. Although the Empire State achieved 85 percent occupancy by 1944, even now it has a vast number of tenants renting small areas. Over 15,000 people work in it, and up to 20,000 clients, shoppers, and tourists visit daily. Every year, over 3.8 million sightseers and tourists visit the observation levels.
In 1955, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Empire State Building one of the “Seven Modern Wonders of the Western Hemisphere,” and on the occasion of its Golden Jubilee in 1981 it was, not without reason, designated an official New York City landmark.