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“a Chase Up Into The Sky”

July 2024
16min read

With Al Smith its No. 1 booster, the Empire State Building rose amid the rubble of the Depression. Is its glory at an end?

In an article entitled “Cioudbuster” for a 1943 issue of WNYF , the magazine of the New York Fire Department, Peter J. Malier reflected that “when almost everything else was coming apart and tumbling earthward with the stock market … the Empire State, with its gracefully curved mast 1,250 feet in the sky, became a reality.” Two years later Fire Commissioner Patrick Walsh cited Maher’s words in his annual report. Walsh looked back over the bleak years of the Depression and recalled the wonder and the paradox of the period from 1929 to early 1931: while the Western world was slipping deeper and deeper into economic stagnation, the Empire State Building was rising higher than any Other structure in the world.

The economic skies were still bright when, at the end of August in igzg, the announcement was made that an organization headed by former Governor Alfred E. Smith would tear down the elegant but fading Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street and would replace it with the world’s tallest building. Six weeks later the stock market began its catastrophic plunge.

Once the slide started, many sizable ventures were abandoned, but the Empire State project did not falter. Standing behind it was a network of bigmoney men. AIost active among them was John Jacob Kaskob, who had lifted himself out of boyhood penury up through the duPont empire to become cocreator of General Motors. Other backers included Coleman duPont and his cousin Pierre, and two lesser tycoons, Ellis P. Earle and Louis Kauffman.

Alfred E. Smith, with neither money nor business experience to contribute, was drawn into the project by Raskob, who had been chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1928, when Smith unsuccessfully challenged Herbert Hoover for the Presidency. Raskob and Smith, staunch Catholics both, had suffered side by side through bruising attacks on their religion and patriotism; now that Smith had returned to private life, Raskob was there with what he needed most—a job. Smith, like the building itself, was “up from the city streets,” and he had a magnetism of legendary proportions: he would serve as front man and mascot for the project.

The August announcement followed many months of detailed planning, and preliminaries were well under way when the market crashed. Additional lots had been purchased to the west, to provide a full two-acre base. (The lot extends from Thirty-third Street to Thirty-fourth along Fifth Avenue, and more than halfway from Fifth to Sixth Avenue.) The architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon had been retained: blueprints had been drawn, contracts let, and executive offices set up nearby at 200 Madison Avenue.

The razing of the Waldorf began on the first of October and continued despite the shock waves of October 24, Wall Street’s Black Thursday. To retreat would have entailed huge losses; Raskob, with vast investments to protect, told the public that now was the time to buy stock. As the New York Times reported, Senator A. R. Robinson of Indiana accused him of being “psychologically” responsible for the stock market catastrophe. In December, Smith announced a loan of 27.5 million dollars from Metropolitan Life Insurance Company; the project moved on.

The Empire State Building was to become the grand champion in sky racing, New York’s favorite architectural sport for some time. Two decades earlier Metropolitan itself had pulled away from the field by erecting its yoo-foot Wall Street tower. But when Metropolitan offended magnate Frank Woolworth by refusing him a loan, Woolworth’s pique, according to architect Gass Gilbert, led him to commission Gilbert to build a tower higher yet. The ensuing “gothic cathedral” on City Hall Park, completed in 1913, reigned as New Yoik’s tallest—at 792 feet—for sixteen years. By 1929, during a spurt of renewed competitive building, the gay foot Bank of Manhattan Building on Wall Street appeared to be the front runner. Walter Chrysler’s uptown structure, rising at the same time, was not regarded as a serious contender, but in a surprise finish a finial spire, secretly assembled inside, was shot up through its dome. At 1,046 feet, the Ghrysler Building not only trounced the Bank of Manhattan; it was sixty-two feet taller than the Eilfel Tower—and was the tallest building in the world. Mr. Chrysler’s victory was brief, for even as his building was opening in 1930, Empire State was under construction.

Empire State was conceived on a grander scale than the others. It was not merely to he higher; its Fifth Avenue midtown location was more commanding than its predecessors’, and its site was far larger. Even without its symbolic contrast to the tumbling economic world, there was drama aplenty in the concept, scope, and execution of one of mankind’s most ambitious structures.

The conception was the product, as senior architect Richmond Shreve explained, not of pure inspiration but of a symposium of owner, banker, builder, architect, engineer, and real-estate man. It had to be thus, for there were manifold problems and considerations.

Building tall would require, among other things, larger heating ducts and plumbing pipes, more and faster elevators, sturdier building columns; building tall would require extra time and extra construction equipment—and costs would mount with height.

Strict zoning laws, introduced in igiG alter the construction of the massively proportioned Equitable Building on lower Broadway, required that new buildings grow narrower as they rise. Many thereby took on a “wedding cake” profile. (Skyscrapers in later years have been granted space bonuses at higher Moors in return for setbacks at street levels, and the more streamlined shaft form has become common.)

The zoning regulations meant, in the case of Empire State, that floors aljove the thirtieth could be no larger than one quarter of the ground lot. But the building’s planners decided to forgo the use of the full area permitted: they designed the tower section to rise not from the thirtieth floor but from the fifth.

The first five floors were to be built out to the lot line. Floors from the sixth upward, eased with abutments, formed a relatively slender skyscraper shaft. The tower Moors would have the so-called skyscraper advantages of more windows and minimized interior darkness. Although there would be fewer square feet of rentable space, there would also be less, by definition, to build and maintain; the tower footage was considered prestige space that would command good prices.

The original plan called for a structure of eighty-six floors topped by an observation platform; it would stand 1,050 feet high. That would give Empire State nine more rentable floors than Chrysler, but only a four-foot advantage over Chrysler and its surprise spire. Raskob, worried that the edge was too scant, insisted that “this building needs a hat.” In December of 1929 he came up with a surprise of his own—plans for a two-hundred-foot mooring mast for dirigibles.

Some found the scheme risible. “If you know how to hold down the tail of a dirigible,” volunteered the New York Telegram , “former Governor Alfred E. Smith may give you a job. …” But, first as an idea and later as a fact, the mast held the public’s attention. Its record as a functioning mooring was not prepossessing, but there were, in fact, two connections a few months after the building opened. On September 15, 1931, a privately owned dirigible tied up—in a forty-mile wind—for three precarious minutes. Two weeks later a Navy blimp idled overhead long enough to produce the Times headline: BLIMP LANDS PAPERS ON EMPIRE STATE MAST .

The mast gradually fattened into a hollow tower with a second observation deck; it gave the completed Empire State 102 stories and a height of 1,250 feet.

Crucial to the basic plan was the matter of elevators, a vital consideration in any high construction. The need to transport 16,000 office workers and 35,000 visitors every day presented a number of engineering problems. Empire State’s solution was to group the elevators in a cylindrical well that also accommodated staircases, cable shafts, utility lines, and mail chutes. The plan called for fiftyeight elevators at the base. They were divided into a number of groups, each of which was to service a particular block of the building’s first eighty floors. Two locals would run from the eightieth to the eighty-sixth floor, and another would shuttle up the tower. There would be twelve others: six for freight and six for spot duty wherever passenger traffic became too heavy.

The elevators would move through seven miles of shafts and would be able to handle some 1,390 persons at a time. The top speed then allowed was seven hundred feet per minute; the regulations have been eased since, and now Empire State’s elevators run at speeds of up to 1,200 feet per minute.

Structurally, Empire State, basically a steel cage, was not innovative; “the latest and largest skyscraper marks only a quantitative advance,” remarked architect James Marston Fitch in 1947, ”… the first one was practically as efficient as the last.” But Empire State did have a few contributions to make. Windows were applied to exterior walls with thin metal brackets instead of being set back into stone frames, adding substantially to the rentable space. This method also halved the stonework around the windows and eliminated the shadows that gave other skyscrapers a checkered appearance. Metal strips were applied vertically from window to window all the way up, enforcing the soaring, shining look.

Once planned, the construction was speeded by “the discipline of a most rigorous accountancy to the owner,” according to Colonel W. A. Starrett of Starrett Brothers and Eken, the firm that had contracted to build Empire State. What he meant was that the building went up in a hurry to keep costs down.

On October 1, 1929, a truck rolled through the main door of the old Waldorf, and the demolition began. A dry-eyed Smith proclaimed that the hotel, historic as it might have been, had to come down in “the march of progress.” The hotel’s treasures were put up for auction, but demand was light. Some sixteen thousand truckloads of debris were carted away; “five miles beyond Sandy Hook,” noted Starrett, “the remains of the Waldorf-Astoria were dumped into the sea.” A seven-hundredman crew, with derricks, compressors, and oxyacetylene burners, worked into the winter to finish oft the old dowager.

The aim was to raise the new building within twenty months. An overlapping schedule was set np: demolition, October, 1929, to February, 1930; excavation, January to March; structural steel, March to September; exterior masonry, June to December; metal window frames, May to January, 1931; elevators and mail chutes, May to February; interior partitions, June to February; painting and revolving doors, March to occupancy.

At a depth of thirty-five feet, the new basement was only five feet deeper than the Waldorfs. It had footings for 210 steel and concrete columns that would go down to bedrock. Every stage of the excavation-construction process was well timed and publicized: the first steel piers were sunk on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1930.

With spring, work on the skeleton began in earnest. Empire State absorbed fifty-seven thousand tons of steel—nearly three times as much as the Chrysler Building and enough, said the corporation’s brochures, to make a double railroad track to Baltimore.

The steel was poured and set into girders in Pittsburgh. The girders were then sped to a waterfront supply yard in New Jersey, whence they were trucked to the building site, lifted in bundles on cobweblike cables, and set in place. Often the whole process took a mere eighty hours. Sixteen electrically driven derricks were equipped with automatic hoists, an innovation born of an accident during the Chrysler construction in which a derrick operator, knocked unconscious by a flying brick, had dropped his bundle of steel. Despite the improvement, Empire State could not match Chrysler’s record of only one life lost during construction. According to the New York Daily News , fourteen men were killed in various kinds of mishaps during the raising of Empire State.

Fitting-up gangs and raising gangs moved the steel up to the riveting gangs at the ever-heightening top; a heater, a bucker-up, a sticker-in, and two riveters fastened each girder with bone-rattling machines. At peak construction, thirtyeight riveting gangs were on the job; three hundred steelworkers, interchanging their posts, put the giant frame together.

The press lavished praise and admiration on the steelworkers, calling them “the poet builders” and “the sky boys who ride the ball to the 90th floor or higher, and defy death to the staccato chattering of a pneumatic riveting-hammer.” Said the Literary Digest in May of 1931: “Like little spiders they toiled, spinning a fabric of steel against the sky … weaving a web that was to stretch farther heavenward than”—unhappy basis of comparison—“the ancient Tower of Babel.” The pictures accompanying this article arc proof that the steelworkers captivated photographer Lewis Hine. Hc called them “the spirit of the skyscraper,” whose “experiences have given me a new zest of high adventure.”

The steel men represented a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, and were union and nonunion alike; but they worked quickly. “The first column was set on April 7, 1930,” wrote Colonel Starrctt with justifiable pride, “and twenty-five weeks later over 57,000 tons of steel had been topped out … 87 stories above the sub basement level, 12 days ahead of schedule.” September of iggo saw, in fact, two topping-out celebrations. Down at street level Al Smith laid the cornerstone, while high in the sky a handful of steelworkers, perched on a girder over the eighty-fifth Moor, raised the American flag 1,048 feet above Fifth Avenue.

Other crews in the construction process swarmed in on the heels of the steel setters. Stairways rose through the skeleton; then came the electric cables and various kinds of piping, the building’s veins and arteries. The lower Moors were plastered before the roof was made tight. The overlapping schedule was working well, and, with the omnipresent pressure for speed, it all gave, in the Times ’s felicitous phrase, the impression of “a chase up into the sky.”

The concrete Moor arches quickly followed the steel. As Starrett wrote:
Early in October, 1930, the arches of the eighty-sixth floor … were completed. … about three million square feet of arches had been set. These arches requited 62,000 cubic yards of anthracite cinder concrete and nearly three million feet of reinforcing mesh. …

As soon as this work [had been] thoroughly organized above the sixth floor, the stone setting and outside Avail construction progressed at the rate of a story a day. … All stonework except a few ornamental features around the lower floors were set in 113 days.

The logistical problem of how to handle all the building materials was resolved by the installation of a unique horizontal and vertical railway. Trucks drove into the site at ground level and unloaded the materials—everything but the steel handled by hoists—into twenty rail cars. The cars glided on tracks into specially designed temporary elevators, which carried them to the proper Moors. Tracks, shunts, and turntables had been installed on each floor—the materials were deposited at the workers’ very elbows. The system was orderly and safe; it kept wastage to a minimum and allowed New York to get on with its business without blocked streets or sidewalks.

The work force became a small army during the peak months of spring and summer, 1930. On busy days Starrett Brothers and Eken had 1,900 men on their payroll, and sixty-seven subcontractors had another 1,500 on theirs. Colonel Starrett later estimated that seven million man-hours went into the building of Empire State. In addition to the tradesmen—carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, heating and ventilating men—there were inspectors, foremen, checkers, clerks, and even men with watering cans to settle the dust.

The care and feeding of well over 3,000 workers was a problem all by itself. When the noon whistle blew, five mobile cafeterias began shuttling up and down the scaffolding. For forty cents—and with no time lost—a man could sit on a girder and gulp down two sandwiches, coffee or milk, and pie. Ten miles of temporary piping, at a cost of twentyfive thousand dollars, brought water to virtually every man aloft. Down below there were nurses and medical facilities.

As the months went by and the building began to look like a building, sidewalk crowds, swelled by men and women out of jobs, watched in fascination. Oftener than not, the question they asked each other was, “How will it be filled?”

Opening day, May 1, 1931, was all that the promoters could have wished. The Times spoke of the “blue haze of a cloudless sky,” and special guests at the top were impressed when told that one could see for eighty miles.

The ceremonies were a predictable political potpourri. President Hoover, welcoming a bright spot in the gloom of the deepening Depression, (licked a switch in Washington that illuminated Smith’s New York tower. Governor Franklin Roosevelt came down from Albany, Jaunty Jimmy Walker, mayor of New York, remarked cryptically that the building looked like just the place where “some public official might like to come and hide.”

Smith introduced speakers over the “raddio,” and telegrams were sent from the world’s highest dispatch station. Smith read a cable from architect William Lamb, who was in a relaxed and jovial mood on a sea voyage: “One day out and I can still see the building.” Again the press sang paeans, calling Empire State “poetry in steel,” “building in excelsis,” and “the tallest arrow in Manhattan’s quiver.”

Al Smith, along with his tall, black governor’s chair and his political cartoons, moved into his olRces on the thirty-second door. He was the source of an ever-freshening stream of publicity designed to keep the building before the eyes of the public—and the eyes of prospective renters. Smith’s every move was news, île entertained celebrities, from royalty to movie stars to downright crackpots, in the Empire State Club and on the observation decks. When one timorous elevator rider asked whether she could expect to go up or down, Smith assured her, “It all depends what kind of life you’ve led.”

Filling nearly two million square feet of rentable space was no small order. Potential lessees were lured by the centrality of the location and by the distinction of the site. (Huge advertisements in the press, playing up William Astor’s purchase of the ground in 1827, burbled on about the “perpetual prestige” of the address.) Some ads also carried pictures Astor private homes, of Astor family weddings, and of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel itself—all to “recapture an age of elegance” and to encourage occupancy at “the world’s most distinguished address.”

The suites ranged in size from six hundred square feet to whole lower floors of seventy-one thousand, all offered at “bargain prices because mass produced.” But it was slow going, getting people to take space. Vaudeville artists enlivened their routines with sketches on “The Empty State Building,” “The 102-Story Blunder,” and “Smith’s Folly.” The bravest boasts claimed only 46 per cent occupancy when the building opened and only about two-thirds of capacity during its early years. When the King of Siam visited Empire State he said he felt right at home because his country had its white elephants too.

Smith manned the helm for the thirteen years that were the building’s first and his last. Although he enjoyed his new role and remained the hero of millions, those years were underscored by bitterness, and he was often “poor Al” instead of “the Happy Warrior.” On top of the stinging defeat of 1928 had come the Depression itself. Close friends went bankrupt, and some of them committed suicide. Despite his annual salary of $50,000, Smith had to battle various creditors.

During his period of managing the Empire State, Smith himself changed. He moved his residence to Fifth Avenue and exchanged his brown derby for a top hat. The once-proud alumnus of F.F.M. (Fulton Fish Market) became the recipient of honorary degrees from several universities. The former antitrust campaigner, now struggling to reduce taxes and to attract tenants, sided more and more with the men of Wall Street. Opposing the “socialistic bureaucrats indulging in communistic planning and crackpot reforms” of the New Deal, Smith saw hope for the nation only in the “initiative, [the] force, [the] foursquare, down-rightness and hard-bitten self-reliance of men of this type rebuilding prosperity.”

“To fill vacant floors in the Empire State Building,” wrote Robert Moses, “the Governor had to make a humiliating journey to Canossa.” Smith went to Washington in 1941 and with President Roosevelt’s help was able to secure the rental of sixtieth-floor suites by the Department of Commerce.

But even during those early hard times, the one-hundred-and-second-floor tower—“as high as you can get without actually flying”—was a smash hit. It attracted over a million visitors annually, and their admission dollars helped out. There was no doubt about it: the world up there was different. The pressure of swirling winds made snow seem to fall up, and rain turned red from the skyglow. In bad weather the top of the building was literally lost in the clouds; on calm nights, in later years when the top third was floodlit, the Empire State held regal command over the city.

In time, skating troupes, bathing beauties, circus acrobats, and mediums (who wanted to be closer to the spirit world) all performed on the observation decks. A Hollywood film showed King Kong at the literal height of his career. Health nuts climbed the building’s 1,860 steps despite discouraging frowns from a management fearful of heart attacks. The building had its share of excitement- there were minor fires and periodic shootings, and there were the inevitable suicides. One of the first was headlined in the Mirror: PRETTY IRMA, SHE LEAPED FOR LOVE FROM THE WORLD’S HIGHEST BUILDING . Suicide rails were installed around the observation decks in 1947.

When Smith died in 1944, much of the fun died with him, but so did the hard times of depression and war. Empire State entered an era of peace and plenty; the city’s office occupancy rate rose above 98 per cent, and the vast corridors in the sky, dark and empty for so many years, kindled with light and business.

Barely out of financial trouble, the building that had had little success in mooring dirigibles came into tragic contact with another type of aircraft. At 9:49 on the drizzly, misty morning of July 28, 1945, an Army B-25 crashed into the north side of the cloud-shrouded colossus. It tore a jagged eighteen-bytwenty-foot hole between the seventyeighth and seventy-ninth floors and spewed flaming gasoline five stories up and down.

One of the plane’s engine’s shot across the seventy-eighth floor, ripped through the south side of the building, and wound up in a sculptor’s studio on the opposite side of Thirty-third Street. The other motor, along with part of the landing gear, crashed into an elevator shaft and landed atop an empty car, which then plunged to the subcellar, touching off another fire.

The crash had also weakened the cables of another elevator—carrying two women. The cables snapped, and the car fell seventy-five stories, but its slowing devices were still operative; though badly injured, both passengers survived.

Fire fighters were able to take elevators to the sixty-seventh floor, but they had to hoof it from there. “It is difficult,” said the fire commissioner’s report, “to fight a blistering hot gasoline fire after plodding up eleven or twelve flights of stairs, encumbered with rubber clothing, weighted clown with heavy rolls of hose.”

Fourteen people were killed in the accident: eleven workers trapped in the Catholic War Relief offices on the seventy-ninth floor, and the pilot and two military passengers aboard the B-25. The death toll might have been much higher but for the fact that the seventy-eighth floor was unoccupied—and that July 28, 1945, was a Saturday.

It took twelve months and nearly one million dollars to repair the building. The work had hardly been completed when the elevator operators went on strike. Some determined tenants climbed the stairs to their offices. One day a group of brokers on the thirty-first floor sent out for lunch—which included 150 sandwiches—and tipped the delivery man seventy-five dollars. One man spent three days in his sixty-eighth-floor office waiting for an important phone call (he got it).

In 1950 the Empire State Building grew another 222 feet with the addition of a television tower that could accommodate transmitting antennas for all of New York’s channels. (In 1965 a master FM radio antenna was installed just below the television facility.) The red warning lights along the television spire are the only ones that operate 365 nights a year. Since the mid-fifties the others—the floodlights for the top thirty stories and the massive fluorescent panels of the tower—have been extinguished on cloudy or foggy nights during the wild-fowl migratory seasons. It was found that cloud-diffused light tended to disorient birds and to lure them into fatal collisions with the building.

The Empire State Building cost just under 41 million dollars, including land; in 1951, the year after John J. Raskob died, a group headed by Roger L. Stevens bought the building for 34 million dollars. The Prudential Insurance Company of America bought the land for another 17 million dollars and set up a lease-back arrangement with the new owners. In 1954 a Chicago syndicate led by Colonel Henry Crown acquired the Empire State for 51.5 million dollars. The most recent ownership change came in 1961: Prudential, together with a syndicate headed by Lawrence Wien, a lawyer, and Harry Helmsley, a realtor, bought the build- ing for 65 million dollars. Prudential became the owner of record, and granted the Helmsley-Wien syndicate a 114-year master lease. They pay an annual rent of 3.2 million dollars while collecting some 14 million dollars from tenants, TV networks, and tourists who come to see the city from the sky.

The past few years have been good to Empire State. With about 932 tenants, it is all but full to capacity. Two sub-ground-level floors, unoccupied since construction, have recently been opened up, adding another 75,000 square feet of space. As always, these is a staggering variety of goods and services available within the building.

But ownership of the capsule metropolis carries with it many headaches and means a ceaseless battle against obsolescence. The elevators have been automated, and air conditioning has been installed. The exterior has already been cleaned and recoated, and the window frames have been repainted. The maintenance cost is a sizable 1.35 million dollars per year.

As New York buildings go, the Empire State is no longer young; at thirty-seven, it is older than the Waldorf-Astoria was when it was knocked down in “the march of progress.” The great post-World War II building boom has provided New York with a great many newer and shinier structures, all equipped with the latest competitive advantages. Currently there is an enormous demand for office space, and the Empire State prospers; but at the next ebb of the economic tide it may not be the last to find itself unfilled.

Even more ominous is the prospect, at last, of a taller building. The projected downtown World Trade Center proposes to shoot two towers—each 10,000 feet square—1,350 feet into the sky. Should the Trade Center take over as the site of television transmission—and the distinct possibility exists not because of its height but because of its greater roominess at the top- Empire State will have lost the glorious title of the world’s tallest building. It will have taken its place, however reluctantly, as the latest in a long line of has-beens. The day of its reign will have ended—but what a day it was.

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