American History

The Empire State Building: A History

The Empire State Building is an iconic American building with enduring and enormous popularity. Built in the 1930s, it was the world’s tallest building for decades and is still a must-see NYC tourist attraction today for its Art Deco architecture and high, open observation decks. Here is what you need to know about the building’s construction and history.

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I enjoy visiting, reading and photographing architecture and the Empire State Building is arguably the most famous building in the United States. While no longer the tallest, it is no less impressive than it was the day its construction was completed. A large part of the 20th century history of New York City is connected to this famous building. It is still considered a must-see destination for anyone on a first-time trip to the city. Here are the fascinating details of its construction and history.

At 102 stories, the Empire State Building is an Art Deco-style skyscraper located in the Manhattan borough of New York City. It was designed by architectural firm Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon, with construction beginning in 1930 and being completed in 1931. It is 1,250 feet tall before you count the antenna, and 1,454 feet tall with the antenna. While it was the tallest building in the world for a few decades, it is now the fifth tallest building in the United States and the twenty-eighth tallest in the world.

The site where the building stands, on the west side of Fifth Avenue, between West 33rd and 34th Streets, used to be a private family farm in the 1700s. By the late 1820s, the land was purchased by the wealthy and well-known Astor family. Patriarch John Jacob Astor’s descendants built the internationally famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on the land in the 1890s. The hotel remained in operation in its original location until the late 1920s, when the Astors sold it to the Bethlehem Engineering Company. The Bethlehem Engineering Company flipped the building to Empire State, Inc. This company was part of a business venture spearheaded by a famous businessman named John J. Raskob, as well as members of the du Pont family. Former New York governor Al Smith was given the position as head of the Empire State company.

A worker bolts beams during construction; the Chrysler Building can be seen in the background. (Wikipedia)

A worker bolts beams during construction; the Chrysler Building can be seen in the background. (Wikipedia)

The Empire State Building was originally supposed to be a fifty-story building, to be used by businesses for their offices. The design for the building was re-done fifteen times, and by the final version, it was eighty-six stories with an airship mast atop it. Interestingly, the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street were being built at the same time, and all three projects were going for the distinction of being the tallest buildings in the world. The final design for the Empire State Building ensured it would win.

Before it could be built, however, the Waldorf-Astoria building had to be demolished. This was done in October of 1929, and the foundation of the Empire State Building was dug while demolition on the hotel was still being done. Actual construction on the skyscraper began on March 17, 1930. It was built quickly, with an average of four and a half floors being completed each week. The eighty-six floors were completed on September 19, 1930, and the airship mast was finished on November 21 of that year. After the exterior of the building was completed work on the interior began and was finished quickly enough that the building was opened on May 1, 1931.

Then-US President Herbert Hoover held an official opening ceremony for the building in Washington, D.C., and pressed a button that turned on the lights of the building remotely. There was substantial publicity around the construction of the Empire State Building, and it was a well-known building and tourist attraction from the beginning. Its iconic Art Deco architecture and open observation deck brought in about four million visitors a year soon after opening. It continues to draw similar numbers of visitors today, and the building now includes a 102nd floor observatory, as well as the original one on the 86th floor. However, it was not until the 1950’s that the building began to make a profit.

The building was the world’s tallest from its completion in 1931 until the World Trade Center’s North Tower was completed in the late 1970s. After this building and its sister building fell in the September 11, 2001 event, the Empire State Building once again became the tallest building in New York (though no longer the tallest in the world), and remained so until the new One World Trade Center building was completed in April of 2012.

The highest floor within the building proper is the 86th floor. However, there are 16 stories’ worth of Art Deco spire on top of the building, which is hollow, except for the very top. There are no floors between the 86th floor and the 102nd, with it all being hollow inside the spire, and then there is an observation deck on the 102nd floor in the spire. There is a 203-foot pinnacle on top of the spire, which has a large number of broadcast antennas on it, as well as a lightning rod.

The building is regarded as an American cultural landmark and icon today and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. The American Institute of Architects’ List of America’s Favorite Architecture ranked it #1 in its 2007 volume. The building has also been featured in more than two hundred fifty TV shows and movies, with the first being the movie King Kong in 1933. The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Empire State Building one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Height comparison of New York City buildings, with Empire State second from left. (Wikipedia)

Height comparison of New York City buildings, with Empire State second from left. (Wikipedia)

Other interesting facts about the building are that it has 1,860 steps from the first floor going to the 102nd. It is estimated to weigh 365,000 tons and has 37,000,000 cubic feet of space in its interior. Its construction required the use of ten million bricks, 730 short tons of aluminum and stainless steel, and 1,272 miles of elevator cable. There is room in the building for 20,000 tenants. It can also accommodate up to 15,000 visitors at a time.

There is no question the Empire State Building is iconic. It is almost as closely associated with the United States as the Statue of Liberty. Even though it is no longer the tallest building in the world, it is still just as popular as it always was.


Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.