The Empire State Building: A Race to the Top
It is hard to find a New York City postcard without some image of the Empire State Building. In 1931, The Empire State Building first opened its doors in New York City. Since then, it has been revered as a one of the most iconic landmarks New York has to offer. Just like New York City itself, the Empire State Building has a history worth exploring. The first days of the Empire State Building can be traced back to 1928, when the current site opened up after the Astor family sold their hotel and property to the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation, to move their business uptown.. The president of the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation, Floyd de L. Brown, financed the $14-16 million dollar purchase through the Chatham Phenix National Bank and Trust Company, whose president was Louis G. Kaufman. The building that was intended to replace the once Waldorf – Astoria Hotel, was supposed to be the Waldorf – Astoria Office Building, which had plans to reach fifty stories. However, Floyd de L. Brown was unable to make the third and final payment to Chatham Phenix, and everything slipped away. There were attempts by Brown to open a secondary finance, but that too failed. Brown had no choice but to sell his claim to the bank.
This real-estate opening intrigued a very wealthy man, named John J. Raskob. Raskob was involved with politics and served as the chair of the National Democratic Party. The businessman at heart began to convince some of his wealthy friends to partake in the job with him. Eventually, Pierre S. du Pont and former Governor of New York, Al Smith were on board the mission. Raskob and du Pont had access to the funds, and Smith knew his way around New York. Together, the men made up what was known as the Empire State, Inc. From the very beginning, they had a common vision that surpassed that of the recent plans for the fifty-five story Waldorf – Astoria office building. The men were on a mission to construct the tallest building in the world. On August 30, 1929, the New York Times front page read:
“Former Governor Alfred E. Smith will head a company to be incorporated to build the highest building in the world on the site of the Waldorf – Astoria Hotel. The structure to be known as the Empire State Building will be an office eighty stories high, and will cost with the $16 million already paid for the site, more than $60 million”
The group, however, intended to conceal the actual finalized height plans of the building because their soon-to-be-built Empire State Building was competing for the tallest building in the world, with the already-in-construction Chrysler Building.
The architects who were going to undertake such a feat for the Empire State Inc. were the same that Floyd Brown intend on using to construct the Waldorf – Astoria Office Building. The two men were William F. Lamb and Richmond Shreve from the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. On April 7, 1930, the Empire State Building’s structural foundation was laid. About a month later on May 27, 1930, the Chrysler Building was completed and stood at a towering 1,046 feet. Almost exactly a year later, the Empire State Building was finally complete. From its first idea in 1928, to the completion in 1931, the building was the fastest to ever be erected and stood at a staggering 1250 feet. It held the title for the tallest building in the City for nearly 40 years—until the World Trade Center was completed. The short time it took to complete the Empire State Building is in no way a reflection of the construction being an easy feat. At the height of its construction in August of 1930, more than 3,400 men were employed. Beginning at 3:30 in the morning and ending at 4:30 in the afternoon, these men constructed the tower of steel beams, each weighing over a ton.
However, in the early days of the Empire State Buildings opening, America, and especially New York City were still fighting the Great Depression. Businesses and banks were stagnant, and unemployment was climbing. Because of this, only a small forty six percent of the building was rented out. An additional factor that heavily affected the largely vacant building was the location of the Empire State Building. The building was meant to promote business and commerce however; the crux of the financial district was condensed into the Wall Street and Grand Central area. In popular media, the misfortune of the early Empire State Building, garnished it the name “the Empty State Building”. Despite these early challenges, the owners kept the lights on in the building and New Yorkers fell in love with it, as it became a widely recognizable symbol of the city.
The Empire State Building has become a major source for New York City tourism. The primary tourist attraction would have to be the legendary observation deck. According to the Empire State Building website, ““The Highest Open-Air Observatory in New York” Find yourself in the center of it all, above it all. As the most famous observatory in the world, the 86th Floor has been the setting of dozens of movie and television scenes, as well as tens of millions of unforgettable personal moments”. New York from this view is nothing less than breathtaking. The distant streets and avenues below show in all their brilliance, the grid structure of Manhattan. From 1000 feet in the air, the city below looks like a giant blueprint, and what once seems so big, looks incredibly small.
In addition to the observation deck, the Empire State Building has become an extremely popular landmark for pop culture. The ever famous, many times re-created, scene of King Kong climbing his way up the Empire State Building is probably something everyone thinks of when looking at the skyscraper. Another Hollywood classic that is set at the Empire State Building is An Affair to Remember. The main actress Deborah Kerr tells Cary Grant that the Empire State Building is “The nearest thing we have to heaven in New York”. Since its creation, the Empire State Building has been marveling the minds of New Yorkers and tourists, making it a main source of attraction in the city. The building itself (not including the corporations it houses) has accumulated so much revenue, that in 2013, the building released its initial public offering to the New York Stock Exchange. This exposed just how much of a tourist attraction it truly is. According to the Securities Exchange Commission, the Empire State Building has an average of 4 million visitors annually, and around 10% of tourists go up to the observation deck that visit New York, which is a huge number considering the amount of tourists. Lastly, the observation deck tickets have reached revenues of $80 million dollars. These numbers explain only in part, what a landmark tourist attraction the Empire State Building is.
Perhaps the most pertinent primary source for this project is the New York Times article from August 30, 1929. This source reveals the earliest days of the Empire State Building’s conception, as well as the people that made this architectural dream a reality. While going through this primary source, there was something particularly interesting. It discussed the limitations of building the tower, and not only the obvious cost and it being the first of its kind. It discussed the issue of the stringent New York building codes that were in place. The Times article states “The Empire State Building will reach nearly 1,000 feet. It will rise 15 stories before there is a setback and the great height of eighty stories will be reached by a tower. Mr. Smith said this meant the upper fifty floors of the building will have plenty of light and air” This information reveals that the “upper fifty floors” was relatively uncharted territory when it came to skyscrapers. The City building regulators simply did not quite know the possibilities such a lofty building could have.
The second primary source that reveals a great amount about the Empire State Building is the 1934 photograph titled Empire State Building. From south. This picture was taken three years after the State Building was opened, and would be looking uptown. The most revealing element of this photograph would have to be the massive scale the Empire State Building possessed over the other standing buildings. Yes, the other buildings around it are not intended to be skyscrapers, but they are considered tall nonetheless. However, the Empire State Building is breathtakingly tall in comparison to them; this ideally reveals that the building was such a leap in architecture, and buildings of that magnitude were in no way common.
The particular question in the guidebook text regarding the relation of the Empire State Building to New York and America as a whole was the main part I was looking forward to write. Throughout the research, common themes regarding the planning, construction and eventually completion of the building kept reappearing. Themes of the American spirit and relentless grit despite every adversity are a few. Just as the founding fathers intended in the making of America, the Empire State Building represents the push, and need to expand to greater heights that have ever been done before. The idea that in the short history of New York City and America as country, we have risen to such heights (literally), makes the Empire State Building that much more majestic and awe-inspiring. It is essentially a mirror to the American dream, reflecting the reality that all things are truly possible here. The building brings New York City and America to life through the many themes and influences that went into completing such an incredible building.
 John Tauranac, The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 118 accessed November 5, 2017.
 “Smith to Help Build Highest Skyscraper” New York Times Aug 30, 1929 accessed November 5, 2017.
 Shawn Selby. “Empire State Building.” Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, 2016 accessed November 5, 2017.
 Kenneth T. Jackson and New York Historical Society. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, 413 accessed November 5, 2017.
 Ric Burns, James Sanders, and Lisa Ades, “New York: an illustrated history” New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 2003. Accessed November 5, 2017.
 Empire State Building, Main Deck: 86th Floor, http://www.esbnyc.com/explore/main-deck-86th-floor, accessed November 5, 2017.
 An Affair to Remember. Directed by Leo McCarey. Performed by Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. 20th Century Fox, 1957.
 EMPIRE STATE REALTY TRUST, INC. EMPIRE STATE REALTY OP, L.P., December 21, 2012, https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1541401/000119312512512349/d283359ds4a.htm#rom283359_22, 11-6-2017.
 “Smith to Help Build Highest Skyscraper” New York Times Aug 30, 1929 accessed November 5, 2017.
 Samuel H Gottscho, photographer. Empire State building. From south. New York, 1934. Jan. 8. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gsc1994012278/PP/. (Accessed November 07, 2017.)
An Affair to Remember. Directed by Leo McCarey . Performed by Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. 20th Century Fox, 1957.
Empire State Building, Main Deck: 86th Floor, http://www.esbnyc.com/explore/main-deck-86th-floor, accessed November 5, 2017
EMPIRE STATE REALTY TRUST, INC. EMPIRE STATE REALTY OP, L.P., December 21, 2012, https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1541401/000119312512512349/d283359ds4a.htm#rom283359_22, 11-6-2017.
John Tauranac, The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 118 accessed November 5, 2017.
Kenneth T. Jackson and New York Historical Society. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, 413 accessed November 5, 2017.
Ric Burns, James Sanders, and Lisa Ades, “New York: an illustrated history” New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 2003. Accessed November 5, 2017.
Samuel H Gottscho, photographer. Empire State building. From south. New York, 1934. Jan. 8. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gsc1994012278/PP/. (Accessed November 07, 2017.)
Shawn Selby. “Empire State Building.” Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, 2016 accessed November 5, 2017.
“Smith to Help Build Highest Skyscraper” New York Times Aug 30, 1929 accessed November 5, 2017.