Dec. 30, 2002
-- It has been a star of the Hollywood screen. As an "Ambassador of New York," it receives between two and three million visitors every year and has played host to figures such as the King of Siam, Queen Elizabeth, and Fidel Castro. It cost upwards of $40 million in the midst of the Great Depression. It has even scuffled with a giant ape -- and remained standing.
While the Empire State Building may no longer be the tallest in the world, it is still the iconic skyscraper, and the product of a generation that faced the debilitating economic depths of the time by raising an embodiment of magnificence.
Going above and beyond the observation deck for Morning Edition
, NPR's Peter Breslow
investigates the history of the Empire State Building in the final installment of the Present at the Creation
series. Breslow gets to the bottom -- or rather, the top -- of the story behind the landmark structure that has defined New York's skyline from the moment of its completion on May 1, 1931.
The genesis of the building came from John J. Raskob, a member of the board of directors at General Motors and chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1928-1932. Raskob teamed with former New York Gov. Al Smith for the project, the goal of which was to outdo Raskob's former automotive competitor Walter Chrysler, whose 1,046-foot tall Chrysler Building, then under construction, was on its way to being the world's tallest.
The Chrysler Building was, according to its namesake, "A bold structure, declaring the glories of the modern age." It was an impressive design, but as Breslow reports, Raskob and Smith conspired to surpass it in both height and ambition.
"They had what I always call the looniest building scheme since the Tower of Babel," says Tauranac. "They decided they were going to put a 200-foot tower atop the tower that would serve as a dirigible mooring mast."
That plan was quickly scrapped after a couple of test runs resulted in blimps that nearly went belly up in stiff winds. Still, the building -- courtesy of a design by architect Wally Lamb of the firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon -- reached a height no one else had dreamed of, and it did so with dizzying speed.
During the peak of construction, there were more than 3,000 men at work at one time. They stacked roughly 10 million bricks and 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone into the shape of a pencil standing on its eraser. The 103 floors took 410 days to complete.
"The workers were delighted to have jobs, it was as simple as that," says Tauranac. "The irony is the workers put up this building in record time. They put it up at the rate of about four-and-a-half floors per week. And here are these workers who threw the building into the air faster and higher than anybody had ever dreamed, found themselves at Christmastime without a job."
Including the antenna atop the tower, the Empire State Building stands a jaw-dropping 1,454 feet tall. But it isn't the simple height that's so impressive, insists Tauranac.
"It's as if you're looking at a building that doesn't even sit on the ground," he says. "It seems to float above the city in diminishing jetes almost, as if it were a ballerina jumping into the air. It is an enormous building but it isn't oppressive at all when you pass by it on the street. You have to look up in order to see it. You don't feel its weight."
An impressive architectural feat, to be sure, but the Empire State Building is far beyond a simple monument to architecture. Since its completion it has managed to become something different to each set of eyes that capture its form, provoking responses as diverse as they are enthusiastic, though most -- like Tauranac -- are touched with awe at the building's grandeur.
"A building designed, fashioned, built by the brains, the brawn, the ingenuity, and the muscle of mankind," remarked Al Smith on the day of its dedication.
"I call it a cathedral of commerce," says Jack Brod, a diamond dealer who was one of the first to move into the building and has worked there ever since. "I put it in the same class as St. Patrick's Cathedral or St. John's Cathedral. But this is a type of building that I don't think will ever be built again."
As New York City once again considers raising towers to scrape the sky, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate form of inspiration.
Listen to a Sep. 30, 2001, Weekend Edition Sunday report by Margot Adler
, about re-opening of the Empire State Building's observation deck. It was closed on Sept. 11, 2001, after the attack on the World Trade Center.
In an April 10, 2000, commentary for Morning Edition
, Lester Reingold described the Empire State Building as a "monument to serendipity.
Listen to a Dec. 13, 1999, Fresh Air interview with Rudy Behlmer
on the making of the 1933 film King Kong
Read about the song named after the city in the Present at the Creation
series: "New York, New York.
Read about how Mohawk Indian ironworkers helped shape New York City's skyline in the Lost and Found Sound
series: Walking High Steel
Read about another urban monument in the Present at the Creation
series: The Capitol Dome
Visit the Building the Empire State Exhibit
at the Skyscraper Museum Web site.
Visit the official Empire State Building Web site
Read about July 28, 1945, when a plane crashed into the Empire State Building
Explore what is once again New York's tallest building