Sunday, July 3, 2016

History of the Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is one of the signature landmarks of New  York City.  Primarily admired for its height, the Building has a long and interesting history.

The original land on which the Empire State Building sits was used as farmland until 1859 when John Jacob Astor, Jr. built a mansion there.  His brother, William Backhouse Astor, Sr. also built a mansion on another part of the land a few years later.

William Backhouse Astor's grandson, William Waldorf Astor, tore down his mansion to build the Waldorf Hotel in 1893.  His  relatives in the mansion next door were not happy about this as they really didn't want to live next to a hotel.  A few years later in 1897, after William Backhouse Astor, Jr. died, the family tore down the other mansion and replaced it replaced with the Astoria Hotel,   Originally, the Astoria was mostly built to annoy the owner of the Waldorf by creating more competition.  Eventually, however, the two hotels were combined into a single complex known as the Waldorf Astoria.

By 1918, ownership was a mess. Astoria owner John Jacob Astor IV had died on the Titanic a few years earlier, and Waldorf owner William Waldorf Astor had moved to England to get away from family politics.  The family sold the hotel complex and land to Coleman DuPont, a rival hotel owner. Ten years later, DuPont decided to close the hotel and sold the land to the Bethlehem Engineering Group, to build an office building  A new Waldorf Astoria Hotel would be build a few years later at another location. It is possible that if Astor had not died on the Titanic, history might have been very different and the Empire State Building never built.

Original Waldorf and Astoria Hotels
The Bethlehem Engineering Group did not have any particularly exciting plans for  the new building. They planned to build a 25 story office building.  The Group ended up having money troubles and the bank took back the property.  It was then resold in 1929 to Empire State, Inc.  A group founded by former GM executive John Jakob Raskob, former Waldorf owner Coleman DuPont, and others.  Former NY Gov. Alfred Smith headed the corporation.

Despite lofty plans, the new team got to work on the new construction project with amazing speed. The architect William F. Lamb produced plans for the building in two weeks, basing their drawings on the Reynolds building on North Carolina.  They even had to deal with some not insignificant changes, such as increasing the building from 80 stories to 102.

Not even the Great Depression, which began in October 1929, slowed down progress.  The investors apparently had wisely sheltered their investment capital from the market crash.  In fact, the Depression actually reduced building costs as construction workers and others could be hired for much lower wages.  Total cost of the building was just under $41 million, and $24.7 million of that was for the building materials.  In inflation adjusted dollars that would be about $637 million.

Construction at about the 40th floor
Construction moved at an alarming pace, 4 1/2 stories per week.  Construction began in March 1930 and was complete by April 1931.  The construction crew of nearly 4000 workers assembled 57,000 tons of steel columns and beams, poured 62,000 cubic yards of concrete, and installed 6,400 windows, and 67 elevators in 7 miles of shafts.  Five were killed during construction.  On May 1, the Empire State Building officially opened for business.  By comparison it took four months longer to renovate the Building's lobby in 2008.

The Building was the tallest building in the world at the time.  Its builders thought it would contribute to a futuristic world.  The top of the building was designed to be a dock for dirigibles. People could fly into New York, dock at the top of the Building without worrying about a place to land, and simply take an elevator down to the center of the city. Sadly, this plan never worked.  Winds hitting the side of the building created updrafts that prevented dirigibles from docking safely.  Those plans had to be scrapped.

Although construction was a great success, the Building itself was a financial failure for many years. The Building itself was popular, but it was too far from the business district and nowhere near major transportation  hubs.  Often derided as the "Empty State Building" many of its floors went unoccupied.  In its first year, the Building made more money from tickets to its observatory than it collected in rent.  It was not until well after WWII that the building got close to full occupancy and became profitable.  The owners sold the Building at a loss for $34 million in 1951.

Fire following the 1945 plane crash.
The Building almost did not survive into the post war era.  In 1945, a B-25 bomber flying through fog crashed into the 79th floor.  Three people on the plane were killed as were 11 in the building.  Many more were injured.  The building was damaged terribly but survived.

The most notable feature of the building remains its height.  For 23 years, it was the tallest building in the world.  It remained the tallest building in New York until the World Trade Center surpassed it in 1972.  For a time, there was a plan to build several more stories on top of the Empire State Building in the 1970's in order to overtake the Word Trade Center. However, those plans never came to fruition.  Instead, the Building once again became the tallest in New York after the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.  It lost that title again with the completion of the new World Trade Center.

The iconic building has played a central role in numerous movies, beginning with King Kong in 1933.  In 1982 the Building was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.  In 1986 it became the National Parks Service recognized it as a National Historic Landmark.

One open secret about the Empire State Building is that the 102 story building has a 103rd floor. There is an area above the observation area originally designed for dirigible passengers to enter and exit their airships.  However, it is only accessible by building personnel.  As with many things in New York, the only way you will see it is if you know somebody. Above that is a series of TV and radio antennae for most of the City's broadcast stations.

The Building's official height is 1,250 ft. to the roof / 1,454 ft. to the top of antenna spire.  It has  2,768,591 sq. ft. of floor space. It has so many addresses that in 1980 it received its own zip code (10118).

Throughout the years, ownership in the iconic building has changed ownership numerous times. Even Donald Trump attempted to acquire an interest in the building in the late 1990s.  Today the building is owned by the publicly traded Empire State Investment Trust.


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