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The Empire State Building: American icon

About the author

Jonathan Glancey is a journalist and broadcaster. Formerly Architecture and Design correspondent of the Guardian and Architecture and Design Editor of the Independent, he writes for the Daily Telegraph and works with the BBC on radio and television documentaries. His books include The Story of Architecture, Lost Buildings, Spitfire: the biography, Nagaland and Giants of Steam.

  • American idol
    The Empire State building is a classic of American design. It was named one of the wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers. (BBC)
  • Grand opening
    Building work began on 22 January 1930, and involved 3,400 construction workers. It was declared open by President Herbert Hoover. (Getty Images)
  • Tall story
    It was completed in 1931 and was declared ‘the tallest building in the world’, a status it kept until the World Trade Center’s North tower was finished in 1972. (Getty Images)
  • Ahead of the game
    The 102-floor skyscraper stands at 1, 454ft (443m). It was constructed in just 410 days, and was completed three months ahead of schedule. (Getty images)
  • ‘Empty state building’
    The opening of the building coincided with the Great Depression, and for many years its floors remained unoccupied. (Jason Kuffer)
  • Size matters
    The building was designed by architect William Lamb to surpass the height of the Chrysler building, which stood at 1,046ft (319m). (Getty Images)
  • In a fog
    On 28 July 1945 a bomber flying through fog smashed into the offices on the 79th and 80th floors, killing fourteen people. (Getty Images)
  • Shine a light
    Floodlights were added in 1964. They are illuminated to mark seasonal occasions, such as St Patrick’s Day, Eid and Independence Day. (Getty Images)
  • Screen idol
    The building has made memorable appearances in flims including King Kong, An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle. (Getty Images)
  • Glowing tribute
    After 9/11 the building once again became New York’s tallest. It had red, white and blue lights illuminated for several months in tribute. (Getty Images)

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It is no longer the world’s tallest building, but the Empire State Building’s charisma ensures it remains an icon of American design.

“Look! There’s the Empire State Building!” First-time visitors to New York have been pointing excitedly to the pencil thin profile of the Empire State Building for more than eighty years. Lit up by night in coats of many electric colours celebrating high days and holidays, its spire sometimes vanishing into low cloud, at others crackling with lightning, this commanding and supremely elegant skyscraper is, beyond doubt, one of the world’s most revered buildings.

In some ways this is surprising. To bring the 1,454-ft (443 m) skyscraper down to earth, the Empire State Building is nothing more than an office block, and for several decades many of its 102 floors were rather shabby. It got off to a less than auspicious start. Declared open by President Herbert Hoover on 1 May 1931, the ‘tallest building in the world’ was hit by the Great Depression. A year on, just a quarter of its floors had been occupied; and it took until 1950 before what New Yorkers dubbed the ‘Empty State Building’ turned a profit.

Worse still, on 28 July 1945 a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber flying through fog smashed into the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council housed on the 79th and 80th floors, killing fourteen people. Today, the Empire State Building – home to some 1,000 businesses – is profitable and, enjoying a major renovation, becoming cleaner and ‘greener’ than it has ever been.

Clad in Indiana limestone, this slim steel-framed 20th Century ziggurat rockets up from the site of the old Waldorf Astoria Hotel. This was bought by a consortium led by John J Raskob, a high-rolling New York financier – a papal knight and father of thirteen children – who worked for General Motors. In 1929, GM’s principal rival, Chrysler, had just put the finishing touches to the svelte 1,046-ft (319m) Art Deco skyscraper that bore its name in central Manhattan.

Empire building

Through Raskob’s towering ambition, GM would go one better than Walter Chrysler. Raskob is said to have asked his architect, Brooklyn-born William Lamb of Shreve Lamb and Harmon, “Bill, how high can you make it so it won’t fall down?” The answer was, of course, higher than the Chrysler Building. Drawing on the design of his earlier 314-ft (96m) Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Lamb prepared his design drawings in a fortnight.

So, up went the Empire State Building at truly breathtaking speed. Construction work began on St Patrick’s Day, 17 February 1930, and with the help of up to 3,400 workers on any one day, it was completed in just 410 days, three months ahead of time and, at $40.9m, comfortably within budget. Fifty-eight passenger elevators, ‘going up’ at a new record speed of 1,200-ft (366m) a minute rushed the first visitors to sensational observation platforms on the 86th and 102nd floors.

Airships, some having crossed the Atlantic, were to have moored on the building’s steel mast looming even higher into the Manhattan sky; they never did as potential dangers were too great for anyone’s peace of mind. It was up here, though, that King Kong fought for his filmic life in the famous Hollywood epic of 1933: the Empire State Building has never been less than the stuff of epic drama.

Tall tales

As for its popularity, this has never been in doubt, even when in 1972 it lost the title of the world’s tallest building to the North Tower of the World Trade Center soaring above Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. When, on 11 September 2001, the Twin Towers were destroyed by a pair of hijacked airliners in a horrific and world-changing terrorist attack, the Empire State Building was once again New York’s tallest.

Today, though, such is the worldwide race for the sky by property developers and city governments that New York’s finest is just Number 22 in the skyscraper charts. Since 2010, the world’s tallest building has been the Burj Khalifa, designed by the New York and Chicago architects SOM, while last year the up-and-rising One World Trade Centre at ‘Ground Zero’, the site of the erstwhile Twin Towers, overtook the Empire State Building.

What the Art Deco skyscraper has, though, is charisma, a central location - the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street - a dramatic history and a look that never fails to catch the eye. There have been thousands of skyscrapers since, yet the Empire State Building remains the mother of them all.

Profitable, polished, efficient and as elegant and as popular as ever, the Empire State Building fully deserves its place in the pantheon of the world’s greatest buildings. Others may rival it in different ways, yet none has toppled it in terms of simple wonder and global affection.

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