At 80, the Empire State Building strikes back
Born in the roaring boom of Icarus-like speculation that soon crashed to earth, this phoenix of the Great Depression gave locals in the nation's crippled financial capital symbolic hope in the bleak year of 1930. Empire became a totem of the city in many ways: classic, resilient and ambitious, thriving on the confidence that it can survive the city's travails. And like the experience of so many New Yorkers, this lighthouse of commerce had rough times, especially in the beginning. Less than half occupied when the building opened, it was nicknamed "The Empty State Building" and took about two decades to become profitable. In its first year it managed to just cover expenses from the observatory's $2 million revenue.
Like falling in love
"This...is...amazing." "Oooh!" "Wow!" "Oh my god!" "Wee!" "Look at that!" "Crazy!" "¡Manifique!"
Those were some of the wide-eyed reactions of my fellow visitors as we stepped off the elevator at the 86th floor. We took in 360 degrees of unobstructed views - the five boroughs, the bridges and rivers, the ocean, even downtown (a sight denied at the top of Rockefeller Center, blocked by Empire). On a clear day you can see 80 miles and five states and on an overcast one you are floating in the clouds, detached from the world below. It is impossible to take a bad picture from up there.
On a visit in April the temperature was only a few degrees cooler than the ground and not windy on the lee side. I watched the sun set over New Jersey and then saw Manhattan twinkle to life as dusk settled.
You get lightheaded and floaty being outside at that height, a bit like falling in love, which is probably why Empire is the scene ender in classic love stories like An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle (in homage to Affair) and King Kong (yes, it is a love story). The observation desk is also witness to proposals of marriage almost daily, according to unofficial tallies. The building even hosts an annual essay contest for couples looking to get married on the 86th floor.
I must have been feeling something like love, because I shelled out another $15 for the more exclusive and slightly better view from the 102nd floor. The elevator up the spire is manually operated and represents its progression in feet, not floors. As we ascended, I thought again of the building's history - how the original intent of the 17-story high spire was as a dirigible anchor and passenger gate. The current top observation deck at 1,250 feet is enclosed, but in the original plans it was an outdoor platform where you loaded on and off trans-Atlantic dirigibles parked over midtown. The 86th floor was where you would have bought your blimp tickets, had the plan not been permanently scuttled by high winds.
From the top deck you take in the quiet, miniature city. New York is adorable from that height, and puzzling. It seemed far too small to encompass so many different lives, rising and falling fortunes, history and myths. The peaks and valleys of the southern tip put the grid in bas relief. Looking down on the nearby Chrysler Building and the nose of the Flatiron Building was unreal, like Google Earth or tilt-shift photography jumping into reality. I scanned for Brooklyn's tallest building, the old Williamsburg Savings Bank, which had towered over my old apartment, and it was a mere toothpick from that vantage point. Once you descend back to the surface of the city, you will never look at it quite the same again.