The Empire State Building

Empire State Building at night
John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ever since it was built, the Empire State Building has captured the attention of young and old alike. Every year, millions of tourists flock to the Empire State Building to get a glimpse from its 86th and 102nd floor observatories. The image of the Empire State Building has appeared in hundreds of ads and movies. Who can forget King Kong's climb to the top or the romantic meeting in An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle?

 Countless toys, models, postcards, ashtrays and thimbles bear the image if not the shape of the towering Art Deco building.

Why does the Empire State Building appeal to so many? When the Empire State Building opened on May 1, 1931, it was the tallest building in the world - standing at 1,250 feet tall. This building not only became an icon of New York City, it became a symbol of twentieth century man's attempts to achieve the impossible.

How did this gigantic icon get built? It started with a race to the sky.

The Race to the Sky

When the Eiffel Tower (984 feet) was built in 1889 in Paris,  it taunted American architects to build something taller. By the early twentieth century, a skyscraper race was on. 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).

When John Jakob Raskob (previously a vice president of General Motors) decided to join in the skyscraper race, Walter Chrysler (founder of the Chrysler Corporation) was constructing a monumental building, the height of which he was keeping secret until the building's completion. Not knowing exactly what height he had to beat, Raskob started construction on his own building.

In 1929, Raskob and his partners bought a parcel of property at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue for their new skyscraper. On this property sat the glamorous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Since the property on which the hotel was located had become extremely valuable, the owners of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel decided to sell the property and build a new hotel on Park Avenue (between 49th and 50th Streets). Raskob was able to purchase the site for approximately $16 million.

The Plan to Build the Empire State Building

After deciding on and obtaining a site for the skyscraper, Raskob needed a plan. Raskob hired Shreve, Lamb & Harmon to be the architects for his new building. It is said that Raskob pulled a thick pencil out of a drawer and held it up to William Lamb and asked, "Bill, how high can you make it so that it won't fall down?"1

Lamb got started planning right away. Soon, he had a plan:

The logic of the plan is very simple. A certain amount of space in the center, arranged as compactly as possible, contains the vertical circulation, mail chutes, toilets, shafts and corridors. Surrounding this is a perimeter of office space 28 feet deep. The sizes of the floors diminish as the elevators decrease in number. In essence, there is a pyramid of non-rentable space surrounded by a greater pyramid of rentable space. 2

But was the plan high enough to make the Empire State Building the tallest in the world? Hamilton Weber, the original rental manager, describes the worry:

We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet taller than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Walter Chrysler would pull a trick - like hiding a rod in the spire and then sticking it up at the last minute. 3

The race was getting very competitive. With the thought of wanting to make the Empire State Building higher, Raskob himself came up with the solution. After examining a scale model of the proposed building, Raskob said, "It needs a hat!"4 Looking toward the future, Raskob decided that the "hat" would be used as a docking station for dirigibles.

The new design for the Empire State Building, including the dirigible mooring mast, would make the building 1,250 tall (the Chrysler Building was completed at 1,046 feet with 77 stories).

Who Was Going to Build It?

Planning the tallest building in the world was only half the battle; they still had to build the towering structure and the quicker the better. For the sooner the building was completed, the sooner it could bring in income.

As part of their bid to get the job, builders Starrett Bros. & Eken told Raskob that they could get the job done in eighteen months. When asked during the interview how much equipment they had on hand, Paul Starrett replied, "Not a blankety blank [sic] thing. Not even a pick and shovel." Starrett was sure that other builders trying to get the job had assured Raskob and his partners that they had plenty of equipment and what they didn't have they would rent. Yet Starrett explained his statement: "Gentlemen, this building of yours is going to represent unusual problems. Ordinary building equipment won't be worth a damn on it. We'll buy new stuff, fitted for the job, and at the end sell it and credit you with the difference. That's what we do on every big project. It costs less than renting secondhand stuff, and it's more efficient."5 Their honesty, quality, and swiftness won them the bid.

With such an extremely tight schedule, Starrett Bros. & Eken started planning immediately. Over sixty different trades would need to be hired, supplies would need to be ordered (much of it to specifications because it was such a large job), and time needed to be minutely planned. The companies they hired had to be dependable and be able to follow through with quality work within the allotted timetable. The supplies had to be made at the plants with as little work as possible needed at the site. Time was scheduled so that each section of the building process overlapped - timing was essential. Not a minute, an hour, or a day was to be wasted.

Demolishing Glamor

The first section of the construction timetable was the demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

When the public heard that the hotel was to be torn down, thousands of people sent requests for mementos from the building. One man from Iowa wrote asking for the Fifth Avenue side iron railing fence. A couple requested the key for the room they had occupied on their honeymoon. Others wanted the flagpole, the stained-glass windows, the fireplaces, light fixtures, bricks, etc. Hotel management held an auction for many items they thought might be wanted.6

The rest of the hotel was torn down, piece by piece. Though some of the materials were sold for reuse and others given away for kindling, the bulk of the debris was hauled to a dock, loaded onto barges, and then dumped fifteen miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

Even before the demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria was complete, excavation for the new building was begun. Two shifts of 300 men worked day and night to dig through the hard rock in order to make a foundation.

Raising the Steel Skeleton of the Empire State Building

The steel skeleton was built next, with work beginning on March 17, 1930. Two-hundred and ten steel columns made up the vertical frame. Twelve of these ran the entire height of the building (not including the mooring mast). Other sections ranged from six to eight stories in length. The steel girders could not be raised more than 30 stories at a time, so several large cranes (derricks) were used to pass the girders up to the higher floors.

Passersby would stop to gaze upward at the workers as they placed the girders together. Often, crowds formed to watch the work. Harold Butcher, a correspondent for London's Daily Herald described the workers as right there "in the flesh, outwardly prosaic, incredibly nonchalant, crawling, climbing, walking, swinging, swooping on gigantic steel frames."7

The riveters were just as fascinating to watch, if not more so. They worked in teams of four: the heater (passer), the catcher, the bucker-up, and the gunman. The heater placed about ten rivets into the fiery forge. Then once they were red-hot, he would use a pair of three-foot tongs to take out a rivet and toss it - often 50 to 75 feet - to the catcher. The catcher used an old paint can (some had started to use a new catching can made specifically for the purpose) to catch the still red-hot rivet. With the catcher's other hand, he would use tongs to remove the rivet from the can, knock it against a beam to remove any cinders, then place the rivet into one of the holes in a beam. The bucker-up would support the rivet while the gunman would hit the head of the rivet with a riveting hammer (powered by compressed air), shoving the rivet into the girder where it would fuse together. These men worked all the way from the bottom floor to the 102nd floor, over a thousand feet up.

When the workers finished placing the steel, a massive cheer rose up with hats waiving and a flag raised. The very last rivet was ceremoniously placed - it was solid gold.

Lots of Coordination

The construction of the rest of the Empire State Building was a model of efficiency. A railway was built at the construction site to move materials quickly. Since each railway car (a cart pushed by people) held eight times more than a wheelbarrow, the materials were moved with less effort.

The builders innovated in ways that saved time, money, and man-power. Instead of having the ten million bricks needed for construction dumped in the street as was usual for construction, Starrett had trucks dump the bricks down a chute which led to a hopper (a container that tapers at the bottom for controlled release of its contents) in the basement. When needed, the bricks would be released from the hopper, thus dropped into carts which were hoisted up to the appropriate floor. This process eliminated the need to close down streets for brick storage as well as eliminated much back-breaking labor of moving the bricks from the pile to the brick layer via wheelbarrows.9

While the outside of the building was being constructed, electricians and plumbers began installing the internal necessities of the building. Timing for each trade to start working was finely tuned. As Richmond Shreve described:

When we were in full swing going up the main tower, things clicked with such precision that once we erected fourteen and a half floors in ten working days - steel, concrete, stone and all. We always thought of it as a parade in which each marcher kept pace and the parade marched out of the top of the building, still in perfect step. Sometimes we thought of it as a great assembly line - only the assembly line did the moving; the finished product stayed in place.10

The Empire State Building Elevators

Have you ever stood waiting in a ten - or even a six - story building for an elevator that seemed to take forever? Or have you ever gotten into an elevator and it took forever to get to your floor because the elevator had to stop at every floor to let someone on or off? The Empire State Building was going to have 102 floors and expected to have 15,000 people in the building. How would people get to the top floors without waiting hours for the elevator or climbing the stairs?

To help with this problem, the architects created seven banks of elevators, with each servicing a portion of the floors. For instance, Bank A serviced the third through seventh floors while Bank B serviced the seventh through 18th floors. This way, if you needed to get to the 65th floor, for example, you could take an elevator from Bank F and only have possible stops from the 55th floor to the 67th floor, rather than from the first floor to the 102nd.

Making the elevators faster was another solution. The Otis Elevator Company installed 58 passenger elevators and eight service elevators in the Empire State Building. Though these elevators could travel up to 1,200 feet per minute, the building code restricted the speed to only 700 feet per minute based on older models of elevators. The builders took a chance, installed the faster (and more expensive) elevators (running them at the slower speed) and hoped that the building code would soon change. A month after the Empire State Building was opened, the building code was changed to 1,200 feet per minute and the elevators in the Empire State Building were sped up.

The Empire State Building Is Finished!

The entire Empire State Building was constructed in just one year and 45 days - an amazing feat! The Empire State Building came in on time and under budget. Because the Great Depression significantly lowered labor costs, the cost of the building was only $40,948,900 (below the $50 million expected price tag).

The Empire State Building officially opened on May 1, 1931 to a lot of fanfare. A ribbon was cut, Mayor Jimmy Walker gave a speech, and President Herbert Hoover lit up the tower with a push of a button (symbolically pushed at a specific time in Washington, D.C.).

The Empire State Building had become the tallest building in the world and would keep that record until the completion of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1972.

Notes

1. Jonathan Goldman, The Empire State Building Book (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980) 30.
2. William Lamb as quoted in Goldman, Book 31 and John Tauranac, The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark (New York: Scribner, 1995) 156.
3. Hamilton Weber as quoted in Goldman, Book 31-32.
4. Goldman, Book 32.
5. Tauranac, Landmark 176.
6. Tauranac, Landmark 201.
7. Tauranac, Landmark 208-209.
8. Tauranac, Landmark 213.
9. Tauranac, Landmark 215-216.
10. Richmond Shreve as quoted in Tauranac, Landmark 204.

Bibliography

Goldman, Jonathan. The Empire State Building Book. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

 

Tauranac, John. The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark. New York: Scribner, 1995.