At 80, the Empire State Building strikes back
New York's Empire State Building, see from an observation deck at Rockefeller Plaza. (BBC)
It is so obvious, so cliché and so visible that visiting the Empire State Building gets, ironically, overlooked. Like the single slice meal, blue Yankee cap and yellow cab, the skyscraper is in the city’s DNA, so familiar you feel as if you have been there even if you have never stepped foot on the observation deck. Or maybe you have written it off as an over-priced tourist trap, which is not entirely off-base. But as the gray monolith turns 80 years old on May 1, it is worth giving it a second — or first — try.
The Empire State Building inspires the imagination, its views are the highest and best in the city, its history revelatory, and makeovers to the lobby and observatories deserve a fresh look. All you need to do is avoid the headaches and traps of a visit so that nothing detracts from the marvel.
Avoiding the lines
There are four famously-lengthy lines (tickets, security, elevator up, elevator down) but there are just as many ways to avoid them. You can visit during more predictably crowd-free times, particularly between the 8 am opening and the pre-lunch rush, and after midnight until the 2 am close. For other times, call ahead. I scored a lineless visit on a Wednesday just before sunset by calling 212-736-3100 and asking for the wait time. If the estimate exceeds your patience you can purchase an Express Ticket for $24 extra and get the velvet rope treatment at the front of each line. Or, for only a $2 online fee, you can at least buy and print out the normal ticket in advance and avoid the ticket line, which is often the longest.
With those hurdles leapt you are free to enjoy the gleaming lobby, nearly half a block of prime Art Deco design. The illuminated celestial-meets-industrial scene of gold and aluminium leaf spheres and lines, modern by 1930s standards, had been obscured for decades by florescent lights that were modern by '60s standards. Its recreated glory, accomplished by historical architects and artisans, is classic Gotham. It left me feeling woefully underdressed without a fedora and pinstripe suit.
The Empire Room, an old-school-styled cocktail lounge of mohair, velvet, ebony and embossed leather that opened last year, extends that retro feel. The vibe is reminiscent of the early '60s-set television show Mad Men, though the soundtrack alternated between appropriate Harry Connick Jr tunes and mood-shattering Sade and Queen remixes. The cocktail menu includes classics such as the Ramon Gin Fizz, Waldorf and Martinique Daisy, all elaborately and proficiently executed.
The bar's signature drink is a sweet, bubbly variation on the Empire State Cocktail -- gin, vermouth, Royal Combier Liqueur, lemon juice and raspberry-orange marmalade crowned tableside in a chilled martini glass with Moet & Chandon champagne. As an aside to the bartender shaking mine out, one pearl-necklaced hostess characterized the concoction as "stupid". And while it is an admittedly convoluted, fruity concoction Don Draper would not be caught dead sipping, the champagne was a nice addition to the classic recipe. It gave me a fizzy rush that aped the ascent of the building's dizzying height.
When you are ready to head up the city's tallest building (and the world's tallest for about half of its 80 years), move quickly through the photo booth, past the Kevin Bacon-voiced virtual "Skyride", and hop into the marble elevators up, up and away. As you soar 1,050 feet to the observatory deck on the 86th floor, consider the giant office building's unlikely history.
"How high can you make so it won't fall down?" John Jacob Raskob, Empire's builder, asked its architect, William Lamb, as the story goes. This would have been around the peak of the stock market in the late 1920s when everything must have seemed possible. But construction (on the site of what was once the fabled Waldorf-Astoria hotel) began just months after the 1929 crash. Counter-intuitively, this aided its construction. The lucky-to-be-employed workforce efficiently built it in a little more than a year (at times as rapidly as a floor a day), with steel girders still hot from Pennsylvania mills, riveted together 15 to 20 hours after they were forged.