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The Empire State Building

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Empire State Building at night
John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images
A construction worker does structural work with the Empire State Building in the background in New York City around 1930.

A construction worker does structural work with the Empire State Building around 1930.

National Archives/Hulton Archive/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?) ; not to mention the countless toys, models, postcards, ashtrays, thimbles, etc. that bare the image if not the shape of the towering, Art Deco building.

Yet, 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, in a way, 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).

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