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As Lara Pellegrinelli reports, the building is getting a $550 million environmental upgrade and renovation.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Even before the Empire State Building opened in 1931, its main attraction for sightseers was somewhere up above the sidewalk.
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BLOCK: Already, she's higher than any other building in the world. And when she's finished, she'll be 102 stories.
PELLEGRINELLI: Unidentified Man #2: All observatory guests, please use the revolving doors.
PELLEGRINELLI: Specifically, the Celestial Mural. The collection of golden panels runs across the ceilings of the entire lobby.
JEFF GREENE: It was an urban legend. Those preservationists and historians knew that it was there, but the general public had forgotten about it. It was covered over for 46 years.
PELLEGRINELLI: Jeff Greene is the president of EverGreene Architectural Arts. A team of artists from his studio started their work to restore the mural by removing a dropped ceiling that had hidden it since the early 1960s.
GREENE: The World's Fair was coming to New York, people wanted to modernize. They wanted to improve the light levels. The Chrysler Building, they just stuck down lights right at the Edward Trumbull mural.
PELLEGRINELLI: What EverGreene's team found in the Empire State Building's lobby was in even worse shape. It had been riddled with holes and covered in layers of white paint. They stripped small sections and eventually hit gold leaf.
GREENE: Knowing what it was made out of didn't tell us what it looked like.
PELLEGRINELLI: Under the sterile UV lights in the old white ceiling, the lobby's gray and pink marble corridors used to look a little like cold roast beef. Now they conjure up a champagne cocktail.
LISA KERSAVAGE: It looks like they're doing just a wonderful job - and I'm not one that often says that.
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PELLEGRINELLI: Lisa Kersavage is senior director of advocacy and public policy for the Municipal Art Society, a century-old organization that fights for intelligent urban planning, design and preservation.
Y: that it's better to demolish old buildings and erect new green ones.
KERSAVAGE: About 55 percent of New York City's building stock was built before 1940. And what's important about that is that pre-1940 buildings were built before the era of cheap energy and also before the era of mechanical systems like air conditioning and heating. And so they were built to work with the environment better than later buildings.
PELLEGRINELLI: Take the Empire State Building's windows.
KERSAVAGE: Windows tend to be the first thing people want to change when they want to do an energy retrofit. And there's so many ways to repair and improve the efficiency of existing windows instead of throwing them into a landfill. It's really important in terms of the efficiency, but also in terms of the architectural character of the building.
PELLEGRINELLI: So the Empire State Building Company decided to refurbish its 6,500 thermopane windows. Anthony Malkin heads the company.
ANTHONY MALKIN: We're taking them out, we're breaking the seals, we're inserting a mylar sheath. And then we are resealing them with krypton argon gas and reinstalling them. All of this will be done without the windows ever leaving the building.
PELLEGRINELLI: For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.
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