Monday, 16 September 2013

Preview: The Empire State Building

Until recently, if ever you needed to remind yourself what the original Seven Wonders of the World were - and it's easy to forget a couple - all you had to do was take a stroll into the lobby of the Empire State Building . There, on the walls, all seven were depicted. But wait, there was an eighth! I think you can probably guess what it was.

"You are now in the most famous building in the world. This triumph of architectural and engineering genius, the Empire State Building -- the Eighth Wonder of the World-- soars 1,472 feet into the sky -- as high as all the original Seven Wonders stacked together. A city in itself -- virtually a city of marvels-- the Empire State Building has a population of 16,000 persons working in the building plus 35,000 visitors daily -- totalling more visitors in a single year than the combined totals of all who visited the original Seven Wonders of the World throughout recorded history."

So says the plaque next the picture. They've all since been relocated, less conveniently, in a new exhibit hall on the 80th floor as part of $550 million renovation of the building, but nevertheless, this is a bold and very characteristic statement of the Empire State Building. It makes no pretence at humility. From the beginning, from the very first press conference announcing its construction on 29th August 1929, it was billed as the 8th Wonder of the World. The original supertall skyscraper, reaching 381 metres upon construction and later 443 metres with an added antenna in 1952, the Empire State Building was for forty years the tallest building in the world, until the twin fellow New Yorkers of the World Trade Center took over in 1972. It's got a lot to shout about, and like the New York citizens that walk by it daily, it's not afraid to do so.

So it's tall. And pretty much, that's the reason for the Empire State Building's existence. Some buildings are built for religion, some are built for practical functions, but the Empire State Building was built with the simple purpose of being the tallest. New York in the early 20th Century was in boomtime - it was an era of prosperity and of skyscrapers. Engineering had reached the level where super-tall buildings were feasible, with steel developed to be stronger and more flexible than iron or stone, and elevators making the journey practical - any building that involved mere footpower was never going to be very popular beyond the sixth storey. And every time a tall building appeared, somebody else was there to admire it and think "I'm gonna building an even taller one". That was the New York way, and that was pretty much the thought process of a businessman named John Jakob Raskob.

A self-made man, from humble beginnings Raskob eventually becoming wealthy through his involvement with General Motors (though not the creator, as is sometimes stated. He had a lot of money and a lot of influence, and wanted to do something with it. Some eras would have seen grand temples, palaces or statues, but Raskob was a capitalist living in a city with skyscrapers going up, two in particular - 40 Wall Street and the Chysler Building - being in construction and prepared to set new height records. With a small group of wealthy investors, and teaming up with the former governor of New York State, Albert E, Smith, as the frontman, he wanted to outdo both of these. It was a rapid process, from the first public announcement to its completion the Empire State Building only took twenty months. Twenty months of hype and publicity, and active competition against their rivals.

After gathering together the team of funders to form Empire State, Inc, the first step was to find a suitable site. One fell neatly in their hands. In 1928, the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel had been bought, in order to build a 50-storey skyscraper in its place, but the buyer had defaulted on the second payment. In the summer of 1929, Raskob jumped in and took over the buyer and therefore the prime site on 350 5th Avenue.  Handily, this introduced them to the previous architects, a firm called Shreve and Lamb. Raskob asked them to double the size of the building. The technical conditions of size, cost, and an 18 month time limit upon commencing construction were made clear; as for aesthetics there was little in the way of detail, except that “it should resemble a pencil”.

And so inspired by this simplest of architectural tools, the pencil skyscraper appeared on paper, a succession of rapid drafts until reaching Plan K, the version we see today. Much of the design was limited by the laws of the time, which required that tall buildings grow narrower as they rise, related to certain heights. This was done to maintain light at ground level, and the stepped-in style that resulted was known colloquially as "wedding cakes". The Empire State Building is one such of these cakes. Upon rising sheer from the pavement, the first setback was done just five floors up, and several more followed. It's curious that this distinctive feature of the building was not an aesthetic choice, it was simply an imposed restriction: left to its own devices, the Empire State Building would probably have been a sheer, vertical creation - more like a pencil, I guess. The height too changed with the drafts, mostly as a reaction to the Chrysler Building. There was kind of a race between the men behind the two buildings, Walter Chrsyler and Raskob. Chrysler had been secretive about his building's eventual height, but when he heard that the Empire State Building was to be 305 metres - i.e. 1000 feet - he immediately stuck a steel spire on the top to make his one 1048 feet. By December 1929, the new height of the Empire State Building was announced as 1250 feet, or 381 metres.

From January 11th 1930, the dismantling of one of New York's legendary hotels begun. Full and precise plans were already in place: the builders knew all materials and the quantities required. If everything had come in a single shipment, it would have required a 57 mile long train. Actual construction began on March 1930 and it was quick. The Empire State Building went up at a rate of 4½  floors a week, and a week was a five day working week. The metal skeleton was done in only 23 weeks and on May 1st 1931, after just 14 months of actual construction and three months ahead of schdule, the Empire State Building was opened.

However, it was a bad time for a massive new building of offices to open. The Empire State Building was built during the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, and despite its rapid rise, many considered it a folly - the "Empty State Building" it was nicknamed. Renting the office space was a problem, and when it opened only 28% was rented. The tallest building in the world had a whiff of the gimmick and the folly about it. What brought it through this period? Sheer popularity. Despite early problems with tenancies, there was no corresponding problems whatsoever with casual visitors. From the beginning, the lobby and the observation deck were busy, bringing in much-needed money - in the first year, tourists brought in the same amount as tenants. Importantly, they kept the Empire State Building high profile, something a giant ape also helped with in 1933.

The Great Depression passed, and the Empire State Building survived. By 1944, it was 85% occupied; by 1946 it was full. These days, it seems to hover on around 80% or so, with a constant turnover. But then, the Empire State Building has never primarily been an office building, it's been a symbol. A symbol of New York, of capitalism, of skyscrapers, and of punching the sky with ambition.

I've been to New York a few times, and climbed to the top of the Empire State Building on two of these occasions. It's a great building in a great city, offering great views and is a key part of a famous skyline. Like the Statue of Liberty, its fame is probably its primary attribute, but there's no doubt that it's got a sense of style and is clearly very big. Simply being tall doesn't make anything a Wonder - but the Empire State Building isn't simply tall. It's got that little bit of "wow" that Wonders need, and that means its got a foot in the door as a genuine contender among the big boys of my list.

I'll be visiting the Empire State Building late next year or beyond, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

“The Empire State Building” John Tauvanac
“Empire State Building” Elizabeth Mann
"The Empire State Building" Theodore James Jr


  1. Normally my first impressions of a building stay with me, but I actually used to think that there was nothing special about the Empire State Building (other than it was tall), but now I really love it, despite only ever having seen it from a distance. I used to compare it unfavourably to the Chrysler Building; blocky vs curves, a jumble of antennas vs a neat spire, add to that the Chrysler building's decorative features and shiny top. But little by little it's grown on me. I think both buildings are great in their own way. I would have loved to visit New York in 1940 before all the glass-clad skyscrapers went up.

  2. Weirdly, my impressions are kind of the inverse. The first two times I was blown away by the Empire State Building, but on a very fleeting trip to New York last year, approaching it from the Penn Station direction, I was entirely underwhelmed. To the point where I wasn't even sure if I was looking at the right building. It looked really drab.

    It's strange how impressions can change so radically. Possibly, I was just in the wrong mood, or the cloudy weather got in the way. Or perhaps it was simply the pressure of expectation. Or maybe, after having seen so many great buildings in the last couple of years, the Empire State Building just seemed less special.

    I think I was probably in a strange mood that day though. Looking at pictures of it, I still think it looks great.

  3. Did you take the image? I a m a potograoher of a similar image and wanted to know you are too?


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.