Empire State Building Marks 75th Year

Seventy-five years ago Monday, the lights went on for the first time in the Empire State Building. Reporter Dave Johns spends an afternoon with the landmark's chief electrician Bill Tortorelli and gets a view from the 72nd floor balcony where Tortorelli and his team change the gels to create the world-famous light shows.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. New York's most famous skyscraper turns 75 tomorrow. The Empire State Building lit up the skyline for the first time on May 1, 1931. Reporter Dave Johns takes a tour of the building with the man who keeps the lights on today.

DAVE JOHNS reporting:

Bill Tortorelli, the Empire State Building's chief electrician, starts his work day from a windowless basement office down below the tower, one of the few places in the building with zero chance for a decent view.

Mr. BILL TORTORELLI (Chief Electrician, Empire State Building): We're in the lower lobby right now, and we're, ah, say about 60 feet below the waterline, I call it. So we're going up in the elevator now. We're gonna first go to 81.

JOHNS: The Empire State Building has 73 elevators. For the chief electrician, that means a lot of up and down all day.

Mr. TORTORELLI: You know, and it's quite a, quite a building. It's, I call it like a castle in the sky, you know, really built well. You put your level on a wall and it's off, you throw the level away because the building is right.

JOHNS: Up on the 72nd floor, Tortorelli opens a door to a nondescript office and walks to the window. You want a hand?

Mr. TORTORELLI: No, I got it. I think I got it.

(Soundbite of window creaking)

Watch it doesn't fall on you. All right, we just opened a window, and we're gonna climb out onto the balcony.

JOHNS: The balcony is a six foot wide ledge that wraps around the building. A waist-high stone railing is all that prevents a plummet to 34th Street some 700 feet below.

Mr. TORTORELLI: And we're looking north right now. It's a little hazy. To the right you see the Chrysler Building. It's always gleaming. There's MetLife.

JOHNS: From up on the ledge, Manhattan Island and its surrounding waterways spread out like a map. The Empire State Building has been called New York City's lighthouse. If that's the case, then Bill Tortorelli is New York's lighthouse keeper.

Mr. TORTORELLI: Well, what you're looking at here is a plastic disk and underneath it is the actual floodlight. It's about a foot-and-a-half in diameter. It looks like a giant pizza, and there's a thousand watt light bulb. There's about approximately 200 of them, so we burn about 200,000 watts a night.

JOHNS: In the mid-'70s, workers installed hundreds of these huge floodlights on ledges around the building. They're fitted with gels to light the tower in colors for holidays and special occasions like Saint Patrick's Day, when the building turns green.

Mr. TORTORELLI: I remember when Sinatra passed away, they did the building all blue for blue eyes...

JOHNS: Oh, that's great. That was great.

Mr. TORTORELLI: ...you know, for Old Blue Eyes. Yeah, that was a nice one. When the pope came, we made them gold. We have all different, you know, national holidays for the different nations. Israel, Greece, Germany, all of them. So, you know, we put the colors upside-down, it could probably cause an international incident.

JOHNS: It takes Tortorelli and his crew of six several hours to swap out the colors, come rain, shine, updrafts of freezing snow, or swarms of ladybugs, which have at times peppered the building. Still, Tortorelli relishes his job, lighting up his hometown for the whole world to see.

Mr. TORTORELLI: You can't feel more a part of New York as to work here, you know. It doesn't get anymore New York than this.

JOHNS: Not at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORTORELLI: Right, Pete? There's another paisano.

JOHNS: For NPR News, I'm Dave Johns in New York.

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