There's historical significance behind the crown jewel of the New York skyline
The Empire State Building and others built in the late '20s and early '30s are still the soul of New York, much more so than the glass buildings which have been knocked off so frequently.— Author John Tauranac
For 41 years, the Empire State Building stood proudly as the world's tallest building. Since 1973, however, when the World Trade Center opened in Manhattan, developers across the globe have built progressively taller skyscrapers that pierce unseen layers of the atmosphere. This fierce competition dropped the Empire State Building to No. 15 in the world at its 80th birthday in 2011 on a list compiled by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. It might seem that the once mighty Empire State Building has lost its lustre, but historians and architects say its significance and stature as one of the world's most recognisable and important buildings remains undiminished.
The Empire State Building, which officially opened in May 1931, has long been seen as a symbol of modern ambition. It was once the granddaddy of all skyscrapers, but it had to fight for that title from the outset.
The building was originally designed to be 1,000 feet tall, but plans changed in 1930 when the neighbouring Chrysler Building was completed at a height of 1,046 feet. That didn't sit well with John J. Raskob, one of the Empire State Building's financiers. Raskob was formerly chief financial officer for General Motors Corp.
"There was no way he was going to let the upstart Chrysler best him at the race for the tallest," said John Tauranac, author of "The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark."
Raskob and his partner, Pierre S. du Pont added a five-story penthouse to the top that brought the Empire State building to a height of 1,050 feet. But they weren't done. In what Tauranac calls the "looniest building scheme since the Tower of Babel," they also planned a 200-foot tall dirigible airship mooring mast on top of the penthouse.
Dirigibles are hydrogen-powered ships such as the Hindenburg or the modern-day blimps that fly over sporting events. The men behind the plan thought the blimps could temporarily be tied to the mast so passengers could disembark on top of the building. But dirigibles needed to be tethered at both ends as protection during heavy winds, and the Empire State building had only a single mast.
"One zeppelin captain was asked if he would tie his ship atop the Empire State Building and he laughed and said, 'Not until others do it before me,' '' Tauranac said. "They started installing equipment for the dirigible mast, but never finished the job because they realised the lunacy of it. But it did make it the world's tallest building until the World Trade Center."
The Empire State Building was not only taller than the Chrysler Building. It was twice its size in terms of square feet. The Empire State Building has 2.1 million square feet compared with just 1 million for the Chrysler Building.
"If you take the Chrysler Building and 140 Wall St., which was another building competing in the race to the skies in 1929, (and) put those two together, that equals the amount of office space provided in a single Empire State Building," said Carol Willis, founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York. "Of course, through the 1930s there was an oversupply of office buildings as the business economy contracted, so the Empire State Building really struggled to fill that space. It was known as the Empty State Building for a while."
The time it took to construct the Empire State Building was equally impressive, Willis said. From the moment the first steel column was raised, the skyscraper took just 11 months to build.
This was largely a result of timing, Tauranac said. By the time construction began on the Empire State Building the country was mired in the Great Depression. Nothing else was being built, so there was no competition for the raw building materials.
"People said the steel made in Pittsburgh arrived at the site still warm from the oven," he said. "It was an exaggeration, but there was a grain of truth to it."
It also helped that the Empire State Building was never intended to be a triumph in design. The Chrysler Building sports hubcaps in the facade, radiator caps on the corners and a stainless steel crown. Unless you count the extras at the top, the Empire was meant to be a functional building. The architectural firm behind it, Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, was "straight line, white bread, commercial architects," Willis said.
"It's a functional and utilitarian building in the tradition of the steam engine," she said. "It belongs to that sensibility of form follows finance, the economy of means and the efficiency of construction. But it's that simple utility that gives it its beauty and dignity."
After the Empire State Building, major construction in New York all but came to an end for the next several decades because of the Great Depression, World War II and the nation's recovery from those events. By the time another wave of construction began in the 1950s, modernism had taken over architecture. New buildings usually featured rectilinear glass that stood in contrast to the Art Deco giants of the past.
Instead of overshadowing their forefathers, however, the new buildings created a sense of nostalgia.
"The Empire State Building and others built in the late '20s and early '30s are still the soul of New York, much more so than the glass buildings which have been knocked off so frequently," Tauranac said. "Every small town in the U.S. has a glass-walled something. The novelty simply isn't there, whereas people are always intrigued by buildings from the Empire State era."
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