Prior to the 1929 stock market crash, a race was on to build the tallest building in the world in New York City.
Of all the proposed buildings, one pushed through the depression and took the title of the tallest building in the world and held on to it for forty years.
Even though it has since been surpassed in height, it still remains the iconic building of the New York skyline.
Learn more about the Empire State Building, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
By the 1920s, The United States was the world’s largest economy and New York was the largest city on Earth.
New York was the financial center of the country and people and money were both flowing into the city.
Given the limited amount of land on the island of Manhattan and the growing demand for real estate, the solution was to start building up.
New steel construction techniques and the development of the elevator allowed for buildings to be constructed taller and taller. These buildings became known as skyscrapers.
Starting in 1908, the world’s tallest skyscrapers were located in New York City. This started with the Singer Building which reached 192 meters or 630 feet.
In 1909 the Metropolitan Life Tower reached 213 meters or 699 feet.
And in 1913, the Woolworth Building hit 241 meters or 791 feet.
The Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world throughout the roaring 20s, but there were many plans to build something taller. Something taller than even the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was the tallest structure in the world.
The corner of 5th Avenue and West 34th Street was landed owned for a hundred years by one of New York’s first tycoons, John Jacob Astor. In 1893, his grandson opened the Waldorf Hotel, which was joined in 1897 by the Astoria hotel, and together they formed the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, probably the poshest hotel in New York.
By the 1920s, New York’s elite had migrated further uptown and a new Waldorf Astoria Hotel was built. The property was sold to the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation in 1928, and the hotel was demolished in 1929.
The original plan was to build a 25-story office building on the site, but financing fell through for the project.
So, the land was sold again to a consortium of wealth investors which called themselves Empire State Incorporated. The name came from the nickname for the state of New York, which is known as the Empire State.
The company was fronted by Al Smith who was the Democratic Party nominee for president in 1928, but the real power behind the scenes was John J. Raskob, who was an executive at DuPont Chemical and General Motors. He was also the campaign manager for Al Smith.
They hired the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon to design the building. According to legend, Raskob went in to meet with William Lamb, pull out a pencil, held it up, and asked, “Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?”
They purchased some more land nearby and in August 1929, they announced that they were going to construct an 80-story building that would be the tallest in the world.
Before the public announcement, they had originally planned a 50-story building, then a 60-story one, and then finally an 80-story one.
The reason for continually increasing the height was because there was a competition going on for the title of the tallest building in the world. In 1929, there were two buildings under construction that were vying for the title: the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building and the Chrysler Building.
There were five other proposed buildings announced by this time as well.
If you know your history, you probably realize that August 1929 was a horrible time to announce a brand new construction project.
Because, on October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed and it ushered in the Great Depression. All of the other announced buildings that hadn’t started construction were canceled.
There was a lot of gamesmanship going on with these buildings because everyone wanted to have the tallest building. No one knew what the final height of the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building or the Chrysler Building would be.
Walter Chrysler changed the design of the Chrysler Building. He changed the top from a rounded top to one with a metallic spire to make it taller.
The initial plan for the Empire State Building would only make it 1.2 meters or 4 feet taller than the Chrysler Building. Raskob was worried that Walter Chrysler would put some metal spike at the top to claim the record, so they changed the design once more in December of 1929. The final design was for a 102-story building with a metallic spire at the top.
The idea for the spire came from Raskob himself when he realized that the building needed a hat. They added a 200-foot, 61-meter metal tower at the top which was designed to be a mooring post for airships and dirigibles, and in 1929, everyone knew that airships were the future.
The construction firm of Starrett Brothers & Eken were given the job of building the skyscraper. When Raskob was interviewing construction companies, one of the questions he asked everyone was if they had enough equipment on hand to actually complete the project.
They all said yes, except for Paul Starrett, the owner of Starrett Brothers. He said they owned, “Not a blankety-blank thing. Not even a pick and shovel.”
He further elaborated and said, “Gentlemen, this building of yours is going to represent unusual problems. Ordinary building equipment won’t be worth a damn on it. We’ll buy new stuff, fitted for the job, and at the end sell it and credit you with the difference. That’s what we do on every big project. It costs less than renting secondhand stuff, and it’s more efficient.”
Because he was honest and transparent, they got the job. He also said they could do the job in just 18 months.
By January of 1930, the Waldorf-Astoria was gone, and the process of purchasing all the steel began.
Constructing a building of this size is a massive project. Starrett Bros.& Eken had to hire workers from 60 different trades. Steel and other materials had to arrive at the site on the day it was needed, not before or after. Moreover, as the building rose, different projects would be overlapping at on different floors.
The erection of the steel skeleton began on March 17.
Just a few weeks later, the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building was completed making it the tallest building in the world at 283 meters or 928 feet.
It held the record for only a month when in May the Chrysler building was completed, topping out at 318.9 meters or 1,046 feet.
Construction was incredibly efficient. They developed unique techniques to get materials to the site and to get them up to the right height.
Workers were working 24 hours a day, which was necessary to make the ambitious schedule. Also, because of the Great Depression, it was easy to find people to work, so labor wasn’t a problem.
There were 3,500 workers on-site at its peak, with many Irish and Italian immigrants. Of special note were the construction workers from the Mohawk Tribe. The Mohawk ironworkers are known as skywalkers and they have been working on skyscrapers for four generations.
The Empire State Building opened its door for occupancy on May 1, 1931. It was completed 45 days ahead of schedule, and $9 million dollars below the $50 million dollar budget. Something completely unheard of today.
The lights were turned on in a ceremony by President Herbert Hoover who was in Washington.
The final height was 381 meters or 1,250 feet, and it had 102 floors. It was the tallest building in the world and significantly taller than its competitor, the Chrysler Building.
When it opened it was initially a financial flop. It had nothing to do with the building and everything to do with the economy that it opened in. Only 25 percent of the building was occupied when it opened.
However, it was a huge hit with the public. For 10 cents you could go up to the observation deck and look out at the city. The building made $3,000 dollars in just 6 months from the observation deck, which was not bad for the Depression.
The legendary status of the building was cemented in 1933 when it became the central location of the finale of the movie King Kong.
The mooring mast for dirigibles was never used as the winds at that elevation were too high. There was a single case of a blimp that tethered itself in September 1931 for a few minutes. The Hindenburg disaster forever ended all plans for using it as it was originally intended.
The building eventually reached 98% occupancy by World War II, and it made its initial investment back by the 1950s.
One of the most significant moments in the history of the Empire State Building occurred on July 28, 1945, when a B-25 bomber crashed into the north side of the building between the 79th and 80th floors. Thankfully, it happened on a Saturday morning, so the building was mostly empty. Nonetheless, 14 people were killed.
A fire broke out and there was an 18 by 20-foot hole in the side of the building.
Of special note, was elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver. She was thrown from her elevator on the 80th floor. When rescue workers found her, they put her in another elevator to go down to the ground floor.
That elevator was damaged in the accident and fell 75 stories.
Believe it or not, she survived with a broken pelvis and fractured vertebrae, and she holds the record for the longest survived elevator fall.
In 1950 a 222-foot or 68-meter radio antenna was added to the top of the building which was used by several local radio stations.
In 1966, it lost its title as the tallest freestanding structure to the Ostankino Tower in Moscow, and it then lost its title as the world’s tallest building to the World Trade Center in 1970.
As of the time I am recording this, it is currently the 50th tallest building in the world.
Every year since 1978 there has been a race held inside the building called the Empire State Building Run-Up. Contestants have to run up the 1,576 steps to the top. The record is 9 minutes and 33 seconds set in 2003.
Even though it has long lost its claim to being the tallest building, it is still probably the most iconic skyscraper in the world.
More than 4 million people visit the Empire State Building every year.
It has been dubbed “America’s favorite building” in a poll conducted by the American Institute of Architects. It has been listed by many sources as one of the seven wonders of engineering and one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
It has been heralded as an icon of American design and it is considered perhaps the most iconic building in New York City.
The Empire State Building has appeared as a location in literally hundreds of movies, television shows, books, and video games.
While there are now 49 buildings taller than the Empire State Building, most people would be hard-pressed to name more than a few of them.
When it was built, how it was built, and where it was built have over the course of 90 years, made the Empire State Building the world’s most iconic skyscraper.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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I sincerely believe this is the greatest podcast I’ve ever listened to and Gary might very well go down as the Greatest Podcaster of All Time (GOAT). Perhaps this calls for an episode on goats… I suggest a movement to get Gary and his podcast trending online. Maybe he’ll be alongside the latest Kanye and Elon Musk tweets.
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