Fun Places to Visit, Little-Known History
The Empire State Building's 80th Anniversary
By Richard Grigonis — February 4, 2011
“We should not build in accordance to the size of Man, but in accordance with the spirit of Man.”—Frank Lloyd Wright
It was once said that even if a building a mile high were ever to be constructed, the Empire State Building would still be the King—or Queen, if you prefer—of Skyscrapers. At 1,250 feet (381 meters) at the “top of steel” of its flat roof above the 103rd floor, and including the 203.71-foot (62.09-meter) pinnacle antenna mast, the full height of this “Cathedral of the Skies” reaches 1,453 feet, 8 and 9⁄16th inches, which is 1,453 feet, 8.5625 inches, or 443.092 meters. Thus, it is currently the 2nd tallest building in Manhattan (The Freedom Tower, otherwise known as One World Trade Center, became the tallest at the site of the old World Trade Center at 2:09 p.m. on April 30, 2012), 5th tallest freestanding structure in the Americas and 16th tallest in the world.
there has always been something special about the empire state building, right from its beginnings, when it was built in record time (a record that still stands, by the way). Although its rich history is woven into the cultural fabric of new York, america and even the world, the empire (as the workers there call it) has its own mythos born of skyscraper culture. it is the paul bunyan of great buildings, the eighth wonder of the world, a tower so high that an airplane accidentally flew into it, a structure so huge and sturdy that it could attract another enormous, though purely fictional entity, king kong.
(Photo © Gary718 | Dreamstime.com)
Set apart from other tall buildings in New York, the Empire State Building’s solid, distinctive presence dominates the New York skyline, particularly at night. It surely is “the Great Inland Lighthouse,” or “the Pharos of New York,” a reference to one of the tallest buildings of the ancient world, the Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria, which stood about 350–450 feet tall.
And just as the ancient Pharos of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, so too the American Society of Civil Engineers declared in 1955 that the Empire State Building was one of the seven greatest engineering achievements of America. (The others were the Colorado River Aqueduct, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge—and the sewerage disposal system of Chicago!) In fact, the north corridor of the building’s lobby sports eight illuminated 5 foot wide, 7 foot high panels, created in 1963 by Roy Sparkia and his wife Renée Nemorov (sister of photographer Diane Arbus and American Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov), depicting the building as the Eighth Wonder of the World, along with the seven ancient wonders. The artists used a then-novel technique involving crystal resin and stained glass panels which permited them to paint with light as well as color.
The imposing fifth avenue entrance to the empire state building in new york city, as seen from street level
(Photo © Dgrilla | Dreamstime.com)
It is fitting that the tallest building in the Empire State (New York) be called the Empire State Building. New York is called “The Empire State” because of its wealth and variety of resources, and the state’s motto is “Excelsior”, or “ever upward.”
Stylistically, the Empire State Building is essentially an Art Deco building. It was, after all, designed in the late 1920s in the heyday of Art Deco. However, though it has the characteristic setbacks and indentations vaguely reminiscent of a ziggurat, it lacks the more outlandish “zigzag” decoration of earlier Art Deco buildings. Thus, the Empire State Building actually sits stylistically between Art Deco and the stark, unornamented “glass-and-metal-box” International Style as exemplified in the first great skyscraper built in that style, the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, also known as the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building, or PSFS Building, constructed in Center City, Philadelphia, in 1932. At least one architectural critic has remarked that the design of the Empire State Building is such that “one never gets tired looking at it.”
The first building to exceed the 481 foot height of the ancient Great Pyramid of Giza was Lincoln Cathedral in England, the central spire of which ascended to 525 feet (160 meters) and stood from 1311 until 1549, until a storm destroyed it. For the next several centuries various cathedrals held the record (see the sidebbar). Finally a secular building achieved the record: The Washington Monument, at 555 feet (169 meters), was the tallest man-made structure on earth from 1884 until 1889. But then the colossal Eiffel Tower was erected in Paris in 1889. It was (and is) 986 feet (or 300 meters) tall. Surely nothing could surpass that in height, or so thought pundits of the era..
For 20 years prior to the great skyscraper race of 1929–1931, the tallest freestanding structure on earth was the eiffel tower. at the time of its construction few people thought it could ever be surpassed in height.
(Photo © Diane White Rosier | Dreamstime.com)
Obviously, that was not the case. The development of structural steel enabled the first office skyscrapers to be built: The 130-foot (40-meter, 7.5 story) The Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City in 1870, and the 138-foot (ten-story) Home Insurance Building in Chicago 1885 (two more stories were added in 1890). In 1899, the 391-foot (29-story) high Park Row Building was built at the convergence of 15 Park Row, Ann Street and Theater Alley in New York. Later, in 1909, the Metropolitan Life Tower soared 700 feet (50 stories), followed in 1913 by the Woolworth Building at 792 feet (57 stories), and then the 927-foot (72-story) 40 Wall Street in 1929, at the time known as the Bank of Manhattan Building (and today known as the Trump Building).
Another side, another “look” to the EMPIRE STATE building. unlike many other structures POSSESSING nondescript or even blank side walls (to fit against other buildings), the empire state building has four attractive facades, not just a principal one facing fifth avenue. One never tires of looking at THE STRUCTURE. (Photo © Tifonimages | Dreamstime.com)
During the fateful years, 1929–1931, the race to build the world’s tallest skyscraper came to a climax, against the backdrop of the dramatic Stock Market crash of 1929 and the unfolding Great Depression.
On September 19, 1928, groundbreaking had taken place on the New York’s Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Alen and personally paid for and owned by automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler. Meanwhile, construction of the Bank of Manhattan Building at 40 Wall Street had also begun in 1928 (designed by Van Alen’s former partner and archrival, H. Craig Severance), with a planned height of 840 feet (68 stories, 260 meters), making it 135 feet (41 meters) taller than the Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, and taller than the projected 808 foot height of the Chrysler Building—but then the height of the Chrysler Building was revised upward to 925 feet (78 stories).
old photo of 40 Wall Street, constructed as the bank of the manhattan company building, later known as the trump building. it was briefly the tallest building in the world in 1929 before it was surpassed by the chrysler building, which in turn was surpassed by the empire state building. (photo in the public domain, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)
During 1929, Severance and his associates, wanting to ensure that 40 Wall Street would be taller than the newer Chrysler Building still under construction, suddenly announced that their building would have three more stories and a 50 foot flagpole, so that their building would now rise to 927 feet (282.5 meters, 71 stories) in height—two feet taller than the Chrysler Building. And so, upon its completion on May 30, 1930, 40 Wall Street would be the tallest building in the world.
However, uptown at 405 Lexington Avenue, William Van Alen and Walter P. Chrysler had formulated a plan to alter the Chrysler Building as it approached 925 feet in height. In August 1930, Van Alen unveiled “the vertex,” a 125-foot chrome nickel steel spire, the four sections of which were secretly assembled inside the fire shaft of the building.
in this photo taken from the 102nd foor of the empire state building in new york, one can see at the center the chrysler building at lexington avenue and 42nd street, atop which is the spire that was raised up from within it in 1929 to make it taller than the building at 40 wall street. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
On October 23, 1929, over a period of just 90 minutes, Van Alen’s workmen installed the first section of the spire by raising it up from within the Chrysler Building, lowering it into the dome, and setting it onto the 66th floor, then hauling up the other three sections and attaching them on top of each other, making the structure taller than 40 Wall Street. Upon its completion on May 27, 1930 (opening ceremonies were held on May 28, 1930), the Chrysler Building stood at 1,050 feet (some early sources give it as 1,046 feet), taller even than the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, it was the first man-made structure to stand taller than 1,000 feet.
Envy + Money + Opportunity = Empire State Building
However, during all of this commotion, John Jakob Raskob (1879–1950), a treasurer and vice-president of General Motors, looked with envy at the height of Walter P. Chrysler’s building. He wanted to be associated with the construction of an even taller building.
Early 20th century postcard depicting the original waldorf-astoria hotel at 350 Fifth Avenue In New York City. this would become the construction site of the empire state building in 1929.
As it happened, an opportunity arose in the unlikely form of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
In 1890 William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) had razed his family mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street and commissioned Henry J. Hardenbergh to build, quite simply, the largest, most luxurious hotel in the world. Towering 13 stories and having 450 rooms, the Waldorf Hotel opened to great acclaim on March 4, 1893, spurring William’s cousin, John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912), who owned the other half of the block, to demolish his house and build an adjacent, though connected, hotel. The Astoria was also designed by Hardenbergh (during his illustrious career he designed the Dakota Apartments in 1884 and the Plaza Hotel in 1906). Although the Astoria was five stories taller than the Waldorf, the two hotels merged and became connected into essentially a single building. Renamed the Waldorf-Astoria (known colloquially as “the Hyphen”), it was the largest hotel in the world at its opening on November 1, 1897. Aside from serving well-heeled travelers, its 40 public rooms hosted the fashionable, wealthy and powerful Four Hundred social set of New York (and indeed, the world). Here they gathered to dine, discuss, entertain and generally fraternize in luxurious comfort. There were nearly as many staff members as the 1,500 guests that registered daily in its 1,300 rooms.
if the waldorf-astoria hotel had not relocated to this magnificent new location on new york’s park avenue (seen here On this postcard), the empire state building could never have been built to the size desired by its builders.
Prohibition and a migration uptown of the younger Jazz Age “cafe society” led the owners of the aging, declining Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to cash in on their large, valuable parcel of land and move to a new and more fashionable location on Park Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets.
At first the Waldorf-Astoria was sold to the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation, Floyd Brown, President. He planned to build a 50 story building on the site. However, he defaulted on the payments optioning the property. A syndicate organized by one of Brown’s creditors, Louis G. Kaufman, president of the Chatham and Phoenix National Bank and Trust, bought out Brown.
In the summer of 1929, Kaufman proposed to Raskob and Pierre S. du Pont, president of E.I. Du Pont de Nemours, that they become the principal stockholders of the development corporation—they did.
The empire state building’s north and south sides are broader than those facing the east and west.
(Photo © Jan Prchal | Dreamstime.com.)
Soon the project changed into the construction of an extremely tall “Class-A” office tower of 80 stories. Raskob was the chief proponent of making the project the biggest and highest building in the world.
Despite not knowing what the final height would be of either the Chrysler Building or 40 Wall Street, Raskob nevertheless decided to join the skyscraper race with a monumental structure that would definitely surpass the competition. The financing for the colossal edifice would come mostly from Raskob and Pierre S. du Pont. (Raskob had at one time been du Pont’s private secretary and later assisted him in purchasing a financial stake in General Motors; Raskob remained with the DuPont Corporation in various capacities until he retired from the company in 1946.)
day and night views looking east from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observatory 1,224 feet, or 373.075 meters, above ground level. (left photo © richard grigonis, right photo © Tctomm | Dreamstime.com)
In 1929 a corporation to construct and operate the new building was formed, Empire State, Inc., headed by Raskob, Coleman du Pont, Pierre S. du Pont, Louis G. Kaufman, Ellis P. Earle and Alfred E. “Al” Smith (1873–1944), former Governor of New York and unsuccessful U.S. Presidential candidate in the bitter 1928 election. Smith, then age 55, was made president of Empire State, Inc. with an annual salary of $50,000. Smith announced to reporters on August 29, 1929 at his suite in Manhattan’s Biltmore Hotel that he was now heading up a company that would erect the world’s tallest building on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Back in the early 1880s, from his Lower East Side boyhood home, Al Smith had seen another great New York landmark take shape: the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Empire state building was actually in a strange location, not near the offices of midtown, nor of rail or subwaYs, but right in the middle of a shopping district populated with low-rise, fashionable stores. Herald square and macy’s department store, for example, are less than a block away. (Photo © Stuart Monk | Dreamstime.com)
Raskob had supported Democratic Presidential candidate Al Smith in the 1928 election; Smith then induced Raskob to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Alfred Sloan, the head of Raskob’s company, General Motors, supported Republican Herbert Hoover and demanded that Raskob resign either from GM or the DNC. When the GM board supported Sloan’s position, Raskob left GM, liquidated his GM stock, and used part of the proceeds to finance the Empire State Building’s construction. Raskob made Smith president of Empire State Inc., based on a promise to do business together the night Smith lost the presidential election.
Also in 1929, Raskob and his partners spent about $16 million to acquire Waldorf-Astoria Hotel property and other parcels of land forming a two-acre property at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. Such a site was unusually large, about twice the size occupied by most major midtown buildings. The site is 197 feet long (the full block), on Fifth Avenue and it extends 425 feet west on 33rd and 34th Streets. Two acres is quite impressive and because of the 1916 zoning laws, one-quarter of the site’s area could be occupied by a tower of unlimited height.
view of macy’s department store (at top center, ringed in red decoration) as seen from the Empire State building’s 86th floor observatory.
(Photo © susan c. stein)
It was decided that the architects of 40 Wall Street, Shreve and Lamb, had proven how well they could work with builders in quickly assembling a skyscraper, and so they were hired to work on what would become known as the Empire State Building. Canadian Richmond Harold Shreve (1877–1946) graduated from Cornell University in 1902 with a degree in architecture. William Frederick Lamb (1883–1952) studied architecture at Columbia University and L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Arthur Loomis Harmon (1878–1958) officially came into the partnership in 1929, after the Empire State Building project was already in progress, thus forming the firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. Harmon had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, before graduating from the Columbia University School of Architecture in 1901. He shared design development with Lamb. (Lamb, however, was awarded in 1931 the Architectural League’s Medal of Honor “for his masterful treatment of an office building” with regards to his work on the Empire State Building.)
The legend goes that in the firm’s first meeting with their new client, John Jacob Raskob, architect William Lamb inquired as to Raskob’s “vision” for the great building. Raskob tended to write with the kind of jumbo pencils used by little kids in elementary schools. He reached into his desk drawer, removed one, stood it on end and asked Lamb, “Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” The great architectural enterprise had begun.
anohter view from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observatory, looking north by northwest. new York’s central park is visible at upper right, and at the top can be seen the hudson river and george washington bridge in the distance. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
Camel Cigarettes Made Possible the Empire State Building?
In order to produce the blueprints for the building as quickly as possible, a greatly expanded and modified version of exiting plans were used belonging to two buildings: The R.J. Reynolds Building at 401 North Main Street in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the Carew Building of Cincinnati, Ohio.
An inadvertent practice run for constucting the emPire state building: The 1929 Reynolds building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
(Photo © Katherine Welles | Dreamstime.com)
The Reynolds Building stands 22-stories (314 feet, or 96 meters, not including the flagpole that brings its height to 380 feet) and has attached ten-story office wings on its north and east elevations. Its four tiers have an exterior of Indiana limestone (somewhat akin to the Empire State Building) with brick and structural clay tile backup. The building was the headquarters of R.J. Reynolds, which had become the largest and most prosperous tobacco company in America by making and selling a single brand of pre-rolled cigarette—Camel.
Upon its opening on April 27, 1929, the Reynolds Building was the tallest building in the United States south of Baltimore, Maryland. It soon garnered the 1929 National Association of Architects’ “Building of the Year” award and its design helped the firm of Shreve and Lamb to win the Empire State Building commission. (However, Hammill-Walter Associates was also involved in the Reynolds building’s design.) Compared to its enormous offspring, the 313,995 square-foot, $2.7 million Reynolds Building is just a toddler, but every year the Empire State Building’s staff sends a Father’s Day card to the staff at the Reynolds Building to pay homage to its role as the “architectural foundation” to the Empire State Building.
the Empire State Building's other stylistic predecessor, the Carew Tower of Cincinnati, Ohio, was completed in 1931. This building was designed by Walter W. Ahlschlager and Delano & Aldrich. (The Photo at left was shot by Derek Jensen [“Tysto”], August 9, 2005. The 6.5-inch tall medium bronze reproduction on the right can be purchased from infocustech’s website, www.replicabuildings.com on this page.)
The other stylistic predecessor of the Empire State Building, the much larger Carew Tower at 441 Vine Street in Cincinnati, Ohio, stands 574 feet tall with 49 floors. There is an outdoor observation deck on the 48th floor. The building was designed by the architectural firm Walter W. Ahlschlager and Associates and Delano and Aldrich and developed by John J. Emery. Emery took on as partner Colonel William A. Starrett (Starrett Investment Corp.) and Starrett Brothers, Inc. as general contractors, who would also work on the Empire State Building.
The Carew Tower was part of a mixed-use, mini-Rockefeller Center-type “city-witin-a city” called the Carew Tower Complex. The original concept was a large development including a department store, a theater, office accommodation and a hotel to rival the Waldorf-Astoria. Specifically, the complex as designed consisted of the 49-story (574-foot) Carew Tower, the 31-story (372 foot) Netherland Plaza Hotel with 800 guest rooms, and the 27-story (342-foot) Carew-Netherland parking garage. The garage, the tallest structure ever built devoted entirely to automobile parking, was demolished in the late 1980s.
reproduction of The Carew Tower Complex, a predecessor of both the empire state building and rockefeller center. (This 4.5-inch tall pewter reproduction can be purchased from infocustech’s website, www.replicabuildings.com on this page.)
Thus, the building originally had three towers, the tallest housing offices, the second the hotel, and the third serving as a parking garage which employed an elevator rather than conventional ramps for access. Interestingly, a turntable was used to point delivery trucks in the proper direction, a system that was later dismantled. During the mid-to-late 1980s, the building’s owners, cognizant of its relationship to the Empire State Building, affixed a giant inflatable gorilla to the upper floors.
left-to-right: reproductions of The r.j. Reynolds Building, carew tower and the empire state building of new york city, all shown here in the same scale to illustrate the actual buildings' relative hights. (These reproductions can be purchased from infocustech’s website, www.replicabuildings.com)
Using these two buildings as a basis, Lamb was able to come up with the blueprints for the Empire State Building in a mere two weeks. One bit of strange, dubious lore is that the building was designed from the top down.
“We thought we would be the tallest at eighty stories,” said Hamilton Weber, the project manager. “Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to eight-five stories, but only four feet (1.2 meters) taller than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Walter Chrysler would pull a trick—like hiding a rod in the spire and then sticking it up at the last minute.” And that’s exactly what Chrysler did.
To be precise, the design of the Empire State building at one point would have made it a total of 1,050 feet high, or 125 feet taller than the Chrysler Building and 123 feet taller than 40 Wall Street. John Jakob Raskob, however, aware of the competition between the backers of the Chrysler and 40 Wall Street buildings, felt that Chrysler would pull some kind of trick. In fact he did, producing a spire that boosted the building’s height to about 1,046 feet (today, the Chrysler building is listed as being 1,050 feet in height). Fortunately, Raskob’s paranoia led him, while looking at a scale model of the then 86-story building, to utter four words that resulted in the building’s most differentiating feature. He exclaimed, “It needs a hat!”
photo of the top of the empire state building, including the 86th floor observatory at the top of the building proper, and “the hat”—the 200-foot would-be dirigible mooring mast topped by the 102nd story observatory, itself surmounted by the 203.71-foot antenna tower.
(Photo © Stuart Monk | Dreamstime.com.)
Raskob suggested that “the hat” be a dirigible mooring mast that would extend 200 feet above the 86th floor, enabling airships such as transatlantic zeppelins to dock there and disembark passengers right into the building. More importantly, it would ensure that the Empire State Building was indisputably taller than the Chrysler Building.
In late 1929, Alfred E. Smith announced that the Empire State Building would be increased in height to 1,250 feet from 1,050. At the time, Al Smith denied that the reason for the change in height was competition with the Chrysler Building. “We are measuring its rise by principles of economic investment rather than spectacular standards,” he told The New York Times.
this photo by Mikael damkier captures the visual ambiguity of which the empire state building is capable. by changing one’s perspective slightly, the structure can take on a wholly different character. (Photo © Mikael Damkier | Dreamstime.com )
Scraping the Sky
As it happens, a mere 27 months elapsed between the time Raskob asked Lamb his “pencil question” to the opening of the Empire State Building. Construction by the general contractors, the Starrett Brothers and Eken (the construction division of the Starret Corporation), lasted one year and 45 days, instead of the 18 months originally planned, far ahead of schedule.
A contract with Starrett Brothers and Eken was signed on September 20, 1929 and the wrecking of the old Waldorf-Astoria began September 22nd. Excavation of the site began on January 22, 1930, before demolition of the Hotel had been completed, which was nothing unusual for the “fast-track” construction practrice used on the project. Irishman Al Smith made sure that actual construction began, symbolically, on March 17th—St. Patrick’s Day. The first steel columns were set in place on April 3, 1930 (several individual columns would end up bearing a load of more than 5,000 tons or 10,000,000 pounds, in excess of any previously constructed skyscraper). The structural engineer, the man “who made the Empire State Building stand” was Cornel University-trained Homer Gage Balcom (1870–1938).
telephoto shot of rockefeller center and central park beyond, taken from the 102nd floor observatory of the empire state building. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
Up to 3,500 workers at a time toiled on the project under the auspices of architects Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates with John W. Bower serving as project construction superintendant. The workmen included 328 arch laborers, 290 bricklayers, 384 brick laborers, 225 carpenters, 107 derrick operators, 105 electricians, 249 elevator installers, 194 heating and ventilation installers, 192 plumbers, 285 steelworkers and several other specialists, along with some clerks, foremen, inspectors, and water boys. The $15-a-day rate paid to these workers was considered quite good in the early 1930s (Based on the Consumer Price Index, $15 in 1930 would be the equivalent of $193 in 2011 dollars.)
The steel framework rose at the extraordinary rate of about 4.5 stories a week, a feat that has yet to be surpassed. There was a good reason to achieve and maintain this startling pace: The building had to be finished by May 1, 1931, since in the 1920s, annual leases for office space began on May 1. A delay of a day could cause a whole years’ revenue to be lost.
telephoto shot of the united nations and the east river, taken from the empire state building’s enclosed 102nd floor observatory. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
Paul Starrett would later write: “I doubt that there was ever a more harmonious combination than that which existed between owners, architects, and builder. We were in constant consultation with both of the others; all details of the building were gone over in advance and decided upon before incorporation in the plans.”
Masonry work on the building’s exterior began in June 1930 and was completed on November 13, 1930. About 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone and granite was used in construction. (The Indiana limestone and granite panels trimmed with mullions of sparkling stainless steel clad the building from the sixth floor to the pinnacle.) Also used in construction were 62,000 cubic yards of concrete; 10 million bricks, 27 miles of elevator rails, 10,000 square feet of Rose Famosa and Estrallante marble; 6,500 windows, whose spandrels were sandblasted to blend their color into the tone of the windows; and 300,000 square feet of Hauteville and Rocheron marble for the elevator lobbies and office floor corridors.
view northwest from the 102nd floor observatory of the empire state building. united nations building is at the center of photo, east river and queens are beyond, and the chrysler building is at extreme left. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
The 37 million cubic-foot building weighs in at approximately 370,000 short tons.
The elevators at the time only moved at 700 feet per minute, and the building’s architects really needed the Empire’s express elevators to move at 1,200 feet a minute. They went ahead and built the structure with the faster elevators but ran them at 700 feet per minute for the building’s first six months of operation. Luckily, new rules were adopted by the the Board of Standards and Appeals and express cars speed could be cranked back up to 1,200 feet a minute.
Looking south at the midtown skyline, the empire state building is easy to spot as it is the tallest building in the vicinity. (Photo © William Perry | Dreamstime.com)
In September of 1930, as construction passed the 86th floor, the Empire State Building surpassed the Chrysler Building to become the world tallest skyscraper.
Thanks to the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression, the estimated $43 million dollar construction project not only came in ahead of schedule, but also for the amazingly low cost of $24,718,000 million. The cost of the whole project including the land and demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria was $40,948,900.
Entrance hall in the lobby of the empire state building. (Photo © Elena Yakusheva | Dreamstime.com)
On May 1, 1931, Al Smith’s two grandchildren, Mary Warner and Arthur Smith, cut the ribbon stretched across the building’s Fifth Avenue entrance. At 11:45 a.m., President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in Washington, D.C. which symbolically pressed a button that turned on the Empire State Building’s lights and officially opened the building for business (there was no actual connection between the button in Washington and the electrical power—someone else threw a switch in the building at that instant).
A luncheon was held that day in the 86th floor observatory. The party included the colorful and flamboyant James Walker, then New York City mayor; Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of the state of New York; and the inimitable Al Smith, ex-governor of New York and president of the Empire State Corporation.
view southeast of downtown manhattan, the east river, and brooklyn in the distance. (somewhere in the distance is coney island.) photo taken from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observatory. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
Upon its opening, The Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world, and remained so from 1931 until 2:51 p.m. on October 19, 1970, when a three-story high wall panel was placed on the World Trade Center’s North Tower, extending it to 1,254 feet, thus surpassing the Empire State Building’s height by four feet. It was the World Trade Center’s 103rd floor, but seven more were yet to be constructed (Eventually, the 110 stories of the World Trade Center’s North Tower reached 1,368 feet. The South Tower, completed a year later, topped out its 110 stories at 1,362 feet.)
The Empire State Building rises to 1,250 feet (381 meters) at the very “top of steel” above the 103rd floor, and including the 203 foot (62 meter) pinnacle, its full height is 1,453 feet, 8–9⁄16 inches (443.092 meters).
another view from the 102nd floor observatory of the empire state building, looking east towards queens borough and the rest of long island. black bar in the foreground is a component of the building’s master fm antenna. (Photo © richard grigonis)
The Empire State Building is an office building, not a luxury condo or convention hall, having 85 stories of commercial and office space occupying 2,158,000 square feet (200,500 square meters). On the 86th floor is an indoor and outdoor observation deck—terraces on the outside surround a glass-enclosed, heated observatory, the ceiling of which just happens to be 1,050 feet above street level, exactly the current height of the whole Chrysler building. The remaining 16 stories represent the Art Deco tower, which is capped by a small, circular, 102nd-floor observatory.
Between 3.5 and 4 million people visit the main 86th floor Observatory and deck, but only about 600 per day pay the extra money to go to the little 102nd floor observatory.
public, coin-fed binoculars on the deck of the 86th floor observatory. (Photo © Pedro Antonio Salaverría Calahorra | Dreamstime.com)
And while the view from the main deck is awesome, the higher views at the 102nd floor are even more spectacular. Some visitors bring their own high-powered binoculars to ogle at the remarkable and unsuspected number of roof gardens and swimming pools unseen from ground level. On occasion, particularly in the old days, nude sunbathers have been observed unawares by Empire State Building Observatory sightseerers toting suitable optical equipment.
The Mysterious 103rd Floor and the Dream of an Airport in the Sky
Visitors who pay an extra fee can take another elevator ride from the 86th floor observatory to the 102nd floor observatory (its ceiling or “top of steel” is 1,224 feet or 373.075 meters above the ground). The 102nd floor is billed as the tallest point one can stand in Manhattan—until the Freedom Tower is completed at the site of the old World Trade Center, that is.
view of the upper floors of the Empire State Building, showing “the Hat”— the 16-story structure designed as mooring mast to allow docking by transatlantic airships. the top circular floor is the 103rd floor, a would-be entrance to the building for airship Passengers, and the floor below that is the 102nd floor observatory which, unlike the 103rd and 86th floors, does not have an exterior terrace. (Photo © Matthew Apps | Dreamstime.com)
However, most people don’t realize that there is a 103rd floor to the building (called the “HH level” in the original plans, though it now appears to be designated the “JJ” level), where some of the building’s media transmitters and other equipment can be found. Only a few celebrities and dignitaries are allowed to visit there—and even some of those folks are too afraid of heights to walk out onto the narrow terrace.
The 103rd floor was originally meant to be a place where international travelers would disembark from the nose of a zeppelin docked on a mooring mast situated above. The mast was part of the building’s original design and construction. It was to be fitted with a dirigible gangplank.
artist’s depiction of germany’s graf zeppelin, a 776-foot (236.53 meter) long and 100 foot (30.48 meter) in diameter airship that could carry 20 passengers across the atlantic ocean, seen here in a fanciful docking with the mooring mast atop the empire state building. it never came to pass. (modern mechanix, april, 1930.)
Former Governor Smith Goes To Washington. An article in the Friday, December 13, 1929 edition of the New York Evening Post, (“Smith In Capital; Explains Air Mast”) described how, “Amid scenes reminiscent of his political campaign last year, former Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York arrived at the Navy Department this morning [in Washington, D.C.] to discuss with Secretary Adams the feasibility of placing a dirigible mooring mast on the eighty-five-story building which his company is constructing in New York City.”
The date of Al Smith’s visit to Washington, Friday the 13th, was perhaps an omen of what was to come. His taxi driver had accidentally dropped him off at the State Department, several blocks from the Navy Building, so he had to walk in a drizzle and was late in arriving there.
lighter-than-air craft really had docked at the tops of buildings, albeit very small buildings. Here we see a U.S. Army mail blimp having landed on a school in Newport News, Virginia, in 1927, as reported on page 10 of the Fredonia Censor, Fredonia, New York, for Wednesday, November 9, 1927.
Upon reaching the Navy Building, he found a large and equally wet crowd waiting outside, which shouted a boisterous welcome. The ever-smiling Smith, protected by several guards and wearing his signature brown derby hat, fought his way up the steps past the cheering, excited crowd (mostly women) to the Secretary’s office. As Smith entered the huge building, almost all the personnel present lined the corridors and gave the former Democratic Presidential candidate a tremendous ovation.
Amusingly, just prior to Smith’s arrival, Dwight W. Morrow, Ambassador to Mexico and an American delegate to the London Naval Conference then being held, walked into the Navy Department, “unaccosted and unrecognized.”
u.s. navy emblem and The U.s. navy department building visited by former new york governor alfred e. smith in 1929. smith attempted to interest the navy into docking their airship “los angeles” to test the empire state building’s mooring mast. this government photo dates from around 1941. (Photo in the public domain.)
At this point Smith was accompanied by William P. Kenny, New York contractor, and one of Smith's most ardent backers in the 1928 Presidential campaign. Smith’s conference with Naval Secretary Adams was attended by Assistant Secretaries Jahncke and Ingalls and the noted Rear Admiral William Adger Moffett (1869–1933) long-time Chief of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics (“BuAer”). Moffett was a dirigible enthusiast, both in Naval operations and commercial aviation, and secured for the Navy the airships Los Angeles, Akron and Macon. (Moffett would perish just after MIdnight on April 4, 1933 when the Akron—an airship he had called “the safest dirigible ever built”—crashed in an electrical storm off the New Jersey coast.)
Secretary Adams told Smith he wanted to help him with the Empire State Building mooring mast project and had turned technical consideration of the proposal over to Admiral Moffett for study.
the U.S. government assigned u.s. medal of honor winner rear admiral william a. moffett to look into the feasibility of mooring the navy’s airship “los angeles” at the top of the empire state building in new York. moffett, the architect of modern naval aviation, was nominated by Harding to become the first Chief of the Bureau of Naval Aeronautics on july 26, 1921, a position he held until his death in the crash of the airship “Akron” off the new jersey coast in 1933.
At the conference’s conclusion, Smith and Adams posed for photographs. Adams kept glancing at his watch, since Smith’s tardiness was making him late for a White House Cabinet meeting. One picture was taken of the Governor sitting at a desk in Adams’s office. Smith and Rear Admiral Moffett then posed for pictures, and Smith emerged from Adams’ office, only to encounter the crowd of women workers still gathered at the door. As the Evening Post reported, “Their outburst of cheering brought hundreds of others from their offices and before the former Governor reached the lobby he again was surrounded by an excited crowd of women who insisted on shaking his hand, and this time he stopped to greet many of those in the crush about him.”
“I am glad to see I have so many friends in the Navy Department,” Smith said, smiling broadly.
view from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observatory, looking eastward and downward. airship passengers would have experienced such extraordinary views as they walked down a gangplank to the terrace on the 103rd floor. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
The former Governor declined most invitations to make calls around town, saying he knew what “these busy men down here are up against and did not feel like taking up their time.”
view from the 86th floor observatory deck, Looking up at “the Hat”— the 16-story structure designed as mooring mast to allow docking by transatlantic airships. the top circular floor is the 103rd floor, a would-be entrance to the building from the airships, and the floor below that is the 102nd floor observatory which, unlike 103rd and 86th floors, does not have an exterior terrace. (Photo © Susan C. Stein)
Smith did meet a few politicians while in Washington, but said that politics was not a topic of conversation. “I am interested in constructing buildings and landing airships now and not politics,” he said, and arranged to leave for New York that afternoon.
As Alfred E. Smith announced when the Empire State Building’s plans were officially changed to include the Art Deco spire, “The directors of the Empire State, Inc., believe that in a comparatively short time the Zeppelin airships will establish trans-Atlantic, trans-continental and trans-Pacific lines, and possibly a route to South America from the port of New York. Building with an eye to the future, it has been determined to erect this tower to land people directly on Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue after their ocean trip, seven minutes after the airship connects with the mast.”
Cross-section of the empire state building’s mooring mast. giant searchlights in the existing space above the 103rd floor would have guided in the airship. winches in the tower just above the 86th floor observatory would have pulled in the mooring cables and the attached airship. passengers would have to get on and off the airshp (swinging in the wind, no doubt) via a gangplank attached to the perilous terrace on the 103rd floor. they would then have to walk down to the 102nd observatory and take another elevator to the 86 floor observatory to collect their luggage and paperwork, then take at least one more elevator to the lobby. If the idea wasn’t so terrifying, it would be hilarious. (illustration from popular science, April 1931.)
An electric winch would haul in a line from the front of the airship and affix it to the mast. The airship would swing in the breeze, but passengers could enter and leave the vehicle by walking down an enclosed gangplank and through a small door to the single room that made up the 103rd floor.
The travelers were supposed to walk down the steep stairs from the 103rd floor to the 102nd Floor observatory where they would wait for an elevator to the 86th floor. There they would process their paperwork with customs, collect their luggage, enjoy the view and watch other travelers purchase tickets for an outbound flight. The travelers would then board a swift express elevator to take them directly to the lobby, then step out right onto New York’s Fifth Avenue, all without experiencing a lengthy, traffic-congested ride to-and-from Lakehurst, New Jersey, the American Naval air station used by the German intercontinental airship, Graf Zeppelin and later, the Hindenburg.
A RARE privilege is for a visitor to tour the 103rd floor, normally closed to the public. here is where passengers getting off giant transatlantic airships would have walked down a gangplank from the airship’s nose to this 3-foot, 4.5-inch terrace, then through the door at left. similarly, passengers boarding the airship would have to walk up the gangplank this point. scary prospect, eh? (The dark t-shaped bars are components of the building’s master fm antenna.) (Photo by Katie Sokoler.)
A Mast Too Tall? Even before Smith had arrived at the Navy Department, however, newspapers were quoting naval officers at Lakehurst, New Jersey and Goodyear dirigible officials about the plan to actually use the Empire State Building’s mooring mast for transatlantic airship flights.
The New York Evening Post for Friday, February 6, 1931, page 3, recounted how Al Smith’s representatives claimed to have received definite assurance from Admiral Moffett that the Navy would attempt to moor their big (658.3 feet long, 90.7 feet in diameter) airship the Los Angeles at the Empire State Building’s mast.
the windowless, circular room of the 103rd floor. visitors coming down the gangplank would have entered through the narrow door at the right, then walked across this area to the stairs (out of the frame at left) leading to the 102nd floor observatory, where they could catch an elevator to the 86th floor observation area to collect their luggage, have their passports stamped, etc., then take another elevator to the ground floor. the 103rd floor is now filled with television and radio transmission equipment. (Photo: flickr.)
These “accredited representatives,” quoting Smith, said that Raskob had convinced the board of directors of the desirability of erecting the mooring mast only after discussions with Goodyear Zeppelin experts.
It’s true that Goodyear-Zeppelin’s Jerome Clarke Hunsaker (1886–1984), vice-president (and eventually president) of the Goodyear Zeppelin Company, defended the project as worth developing from an engineering standpoint.
he 103rd floor at the top of the empire state building’s mooring mast. airship passengers would have made their way down the stairs at left to get to the 102nd floor observatory, just the same way workmen and celebrities do today. the yellow stairs leading up go to a space above the floor where searchlights were to shine out in various directions for 80 miles or more. there is also a hatch up there leading to the roof. The copper pipes are apparently waveguides for tv and microwave transmissions. (Photo: flickr)
But Hunsaker also said that, “At present, there is no intention of making any attempt at a test mooring, which would be premature, and unsafe. Such experiments are better done elsewhere than over the heart of the metropolis. When, however, such repeated tests conducted elsewhere give full assurance of safety and practicability, the Empire State Building mooring tower can be equipped with the necessary appliances. Not until then is there any idea of using the tower for mooring airships. The vision of the builders of this great structure includes an appreciation of the probability of a revolution in transportation overseas. The mooring tower can be made ready for use when required by transatlantic airships.”
Moreover, experts at the Lakehurst naval air station’s dirigible hanger noted that a large airship such as the Graf Zeppelin would at some point jettison hundreds of gallons of water ballast at once to maintain an even keel or to rise above the skyscraper. Pedestrians could find themselves being washed down Fifth Avenue, 33rd or 34th Streets.
another view southeast from the 102nd floor observatory of the empire state building. The huge section of red brick buildings in the upper right of the photo, in front of the four-chimney power plant, comprise stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper village. (Photo © richard Grigonis.)
Nonetheless, Smith’s representatives claimed that “every effort” would be made “to do this in the spring or summer , with the Los Angeles.”
Airship experts feared that a “premature” attempt to moor the Los Angeles to the Empire State Building’s mooring mast would be a dangerous stunt for an airship. As it happened, the Navy was familiar with airship disasters involving stunts. It had lost the Los Angeles’ sister ship the Shenandoah in a line squall on September 2, 1925 having bowed to political pressure to tour Midwestern State fairs during the thunderstorm season. The 682-foot long, 79-foot diameter Shenandoah, America’s first rigid airship (a zeppelin), had crashed in Ohio, killing Commander Zachary Lansdowne and 13 of the crew. (Although, to be fair, part of the problem lay with the Shenandoah’s designers, who inadvertently and slavishly copied the design of a captured World War I German “Height-Climber” class zeppelin, the LZ-96, which had a very light structure to improve altitude. The strength of the Shenandoah’s frame was therefore compromised, which proved disastrous when ship flew into a storm.)
Looking west to the massive black slab that is one penn plaza. The circular form of madison square garden is peeking out from behind the building at left. photo taken from the 102nd floor observatory. (Photo © richard Grigonis.)
Another, similar disaster over midtown Manhattan would surely involve the thousands of bystanders attracted to the spectacular demonstration of the Los Angeles being winched in and secured to the upper cone of the Empire State Building’s mooring mast.
As for the Germans, the most experienced country at designing and flying airships, they hadn’t asked for such an urban zeppelin airport, nor did any of them consider the idea practical. That opinion was shared by the world’s greatest zeppelin expert and most experienced airship commander, the German Dr. Hugo Eckener, commander of the Graf Zeppelin.
People in the 1920s and ’30s thought that long-distance luxury air travel could only be achieved by using enormous airships. germany’s graf zeppelin was used for scientific purposes, commercial passenger service, and for general publicity in championing the idea of airship technology. shown here is a hungarian postage stamp commemorating a scientific expedition by the graf zeppelin to the north pole, to meet up with a submarine sent by the hearst newspapers as a publicity stunt. The sub couldn’t break through the icecap, however. (photo: istockphoto.com)
“I would never try it with the Graf Zeppelin,” Dr. Eckener told the Evening Post’s correspondent in Berlin, H. R. Knickerbocker. In “Eckener Opposes Mooring Test,” a sidebar to the main February 6, 1931 article, Knickerbocker summed up Eckener’s comments regarding the mooring mast: “Ingenious, excellently constructed, and, in fact, magnificent, but nevertheless as hazardous as clever, and, finally, quite useless for all practical purpose… For architects, Dr. Eckener thinks, the mast was a first-class invention, and for artists who love to depict New York’s skyline, a godsend. But for practical airmen, he asserts, it must remain one of those risks which have to be avoided—like mountain craigs, spotty air, or winds across a hangar front.”
Eckener noted that the Empire State Building’s mooring mast happened to stand in the worst possible location—in the middle of an island of skyscrapers.
the view looking down and west-southwest from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observatory. One penn plaza and madison square garden are at upper right. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
“As anyone knows,” Eckener said, “air over irregular ground is also irregular. Over skyscrapers it is about as rocky as can be, and particularly at the level of the building tops. Different temperatures between tall buildings and the streets below result in violent air currents pouring vertically at different speeds. This is the worst possible air for airships.”
“Mind you, however, I don’t say it is impossible to tie up at such a mast,” added Eckener. “It is perfectly possible on a quiet day when there is almost no wind, but with any wind whatever I should say it is almost impossibly risky. Even on the quietest days I would consider it dangerous… I cannot help having the conclusion that, despite its ingenuity, it as a mast has little significance in practical flying.”
looking down and northeast from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observatory, the ceiling of which is 1,224 feet, or 373.075 meters, above ground level. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
Eckener was correct about the winds in the air above skyscrapers being too turbulent for airship travel, as was confirmed in George Ross’ syndicated column “In New York” that appeared in the Wednesday, September 13, 1939 edition of The Poughkeepsie Star-Enterprise (page 6). Ross wrote of the three Goodyear blimps operating out of New Jersey’s Bendix Field that flew about New York during the World’s Fair held at that time. They were conducting sightseeing mostly by day (the blimps could take six passengers apiece) and for promotional purposes at night using crimson neon signage that spelled out advertisements, local weather information and a “periodic chatter item” or two.
Interestingly, in a section entitled, “Skyscrapers and Airships Don’t Get Along,” Ross quoted the commander of the blimp battalion, Captain Jack Boettner, a World War I air veteran, who explained that, “The blimps like to travel directly above the Hudson, the East and Harlem rivers where the atmosphere is smooth and the ride is, too. Skyscrapers, it seems, distress the blimp and aeroplane because they cause an updraft which produces pitch and toss in the air.”
Because of severe air currents over midtown manhattan’s skyscrapers, advertising blimps like this one have always tended to fly over the hudson, harlem and east rivers. experts feared what would happen if a giant airship filled with passengers tried mooring at the top of the empire state building, surrounded by thousands of onlookers. (Photo © Joshua Haviv | Dreamstime.com)
As Mitchell Pacelle wrote in his insightful book, Empire: A Tale of Obsession, Betrayal, and the Battle for an American Icon, “Tall buildings break breezes into incalculable currents. City streets act like chimneys. Roofs reflect the sun and generate minisqualls, turning the air turbulent and untrustworthy.”
Dr. Eckener, in commenting on the practicality of the Empire State Building’s mooring mast, observed that approaching the sheer height of the mast in proximity to skyscrapers would lead to collision problems.
north-northeast view from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observatory. the 63-story (808-foot) metlife building (formerly the pan-am building) is in the foreground. beyond is the slanted roof of the 900-foot tall citicorp building, the fourth tallest structure in new york. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
“So close to the other buildings, the ship would be in constant danger of veering off and ripping its sides on some cornice or other,” said Eckener. “I am acquainted with the mast atop the Empire State Building, having seen pictures and having studied drawings of it.”
“You see you can’t draw any comparison between such a mast placed at that height and a similar mast placed on the ground,” explained Eckener. “The wind on the ground is much quieter, while precisely at the level of the Empire State Building’s peak it is usually at its worst… Of course, if one did succeed in tying up there on a quiet day, then one would be comparatively safe. But not absolutely!”
“You remember the English also have been using high masts—not so high as the Empire State mast, but higher than ours. But the English always have the rear end chain attached to the ground, so that the airship’s vertical motion is checked if a storm comes up. As far as I can see, such a check would be impossible atop a skyscraper, and you’d have a situation in which, if high winds came up, the airship might bounce up and down and even stand on its head, with all sorts of damage.”
The navy disliked the idea of sending their airship the USS “Los Angeles” (zr-3) to test the docking capabilities of the empire state building’s mooring mast—or any tall mooring mast for that matter—owing to an august 25, 1927 incident at lakehurst, New Jersey. On that day the “los angeles” stood on end while moored in a breeze to a mast just a tenth the height of the empire state building, as seen here. (photo in the public domain, US Naval Historical Center, Photo #NH 84568.)
In fact, the 658-foot airship Los Angeles, once tied to a tall mooring mast at Lakehurst, did stand briefly on end, a freakish event that has never occurred to any other airship before or since. It was August 25, 1927, and 25 officers and men were aboard. It was a calm afternoon. Suddenly, a cold sea breeze hugging the ground came in from the opposite direction. Instead of swinging around the mast to be parallel to the new wind direction, the wind caught the ship under the tail, lifting it. Before ballast could be shifted or dumped, the Los Angeles was standing on its nose, the tail up at an 85 to 90 degree angle. The ship swiveled on its nose spindle as chairs and other items in the ship fell the length of the keel and out of the front. The Los Angeles then it settled back down again, now facing the Atlantic Ocean.
The Navy quickly removed the tall mooring mast at Lakehurst, replacing it with a stubby model, far less than 100 feet high, which permits anchoring of an airship’s stern to a carriage that travels on circular rails.
wide-angle shot from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observation tower looking north, across midtown manhattan, past rockefeller center and uptown to central park. citicorp building and its white slanted roof is at the upper right, hudson river is at the upper left. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
Dr. Eckener surely knew what had happened to the Los Angeles when it was connected to a tall mast and undoubtedly had severe misgivings about the idea of having the ship dock 1,250 feet in the air at the top of the Empire State Building. However, he had spent his whole life promoting lighter-than-air travel, and when asked directly whether he would recommend that the Los Angeles attempt the feat, Eckener replied diplomatically: “I would not like to give unasked advice to my comrades at Lakehurst. I would leave it to them. I can only say I wouldn’t do it with the Graf Zeppelin.”
More foreign comments appeared, this time from Britain’s leading dirigible expert, Commander Sir Charles Dennistoun Burney, the driving force behind Britain’s 1924 Imperial Airship Communications Scheme, which called for the construction of two large rigid airships, the R-100 and the R-101, and setting up of commercial service. Interviewed by Raymond Gram Swing in another Evening Post sidebar published on February 6, 1931, Burney basically said that the feasibility of mooring the Los Angeles to the Empire State Building was “Possible experimentally, but unwise as practice.” (It now appears, however, that Burney had as early as 1929 given up on the idea of using airships as long range passenger carriers, regardless of whether they were docked on short or tall mooring masts.)
looking down and northeast from the empire state building’s 102nd floor observatory, the ceiling of which is 1,224 feet, or 373.075 meters, above ground level. (Photo © richard Grigonis)
It was a Britisher, after all, who had invented the mooring mast: Major George H. Scott, who was commander of the British airship R-101 and died on its maiden flight in 1930 when it crashed and burned near Beauvais, France. Raymond Gram Swing wrote that, “Although he cannot be quoted, it is believed here that he [Scott] corresponded with United States naval authorities regarding this project and expressed a doubtful view [of using the Empire State Building mooring mast for docking airships].”
Another expert, preferring anonymity in face of the heated mooring mast debate, said simply, “You can’t fly an airship right into a spike.”
The shadow of the empire state building is cast over lesser skyscrapers. (Photo © Mikael Damkier | Dreamstime.com)
Swing then explained the British procedure for mooring airships:
British dirigibles do not fly right into the mast. They come up into the wind with the mast up-wind, then drop a cable at least 300 feet long to the ground. This cable then is attached by a ground crew to another cable, which has a radius around the mast of four or five hundred yards. This arrangement gives the navigators plenty of range.
When the British ship is being hauled in, once the mooring mast cable has been linked up with the airship’s cable, it is drawn in until it is about two hundred feet above the mooring tower.
Then the hauling in is interrupted and yawguys are dropped from the airship and linked with stationary concrete blocks on the ground at an angle to the tower as side cables from the nose of the airship. If the winds are at all variable this is an essential to safe mooring.
Dropping yawguys to the ground and then hauling them into the mooring tower is easy. Dropping them to a mast perched on the pinnacle of a skycraper is a much greater problem, experts say.
Comments also came from Carl B. Fritsche, head of Aircraft Development Corporation (ADC) of Detroit, Michigan, which developed (with funding from Henry and Edsel Ford) the ZMC-2 or “Tin Bubble,” a remarkable 149-foot metal-clad airship built for the U.S. Navy made from aluminum alloy plates one-hundredth of an inch thick.
It appears that winds deflecting both up and down along the sides of the structure would preclude the use of the empire state building as the world’s tallest airship mast. (Photo © Gerald Mothes | Dreamstime.com)
Fritsche said, “It is well known that skyscrapers magnify turbulence and intensify the gustiness of air currents. I consider it unimportant that docking facilities be provided in the heart of the city,” adding that the Empire State builders, “deserve commendation for the enterprise in building the dirigible mooring mast, but if passengers save four days or more via dirigible from Europe or South America, an hour’s drive to or from an outlying airship base is a negligible delay, about which no person can justifiably complain.”
Fritsche had a point: Why go through so much trouble—and place so many of New York’s citizens in mortal danger—just to shave off another hour of airport commute time for about 50 travelers who would have already saved days crossing the ocean via airship?
Even so, the Empire State Building had been reinforced to withstand an extra 50-tons of push-and-pull that a wind-buffeted Graf Zeppelin-sized airship would exert on the mooring mast. (The building itself was designed to withstand a wind of 220 miles an hour.)
attractive Marble walls clad the empire state building’s ground floor entrance hall, upon which are affixed 19 magnificent inlaid brass medallions that honor the building trades responsible for the building's construction—steelworkers, elevator mechanics, electricians, carpenters, and so forth. These medallions are the work of the now largely forgotten German-American metal craftsman, Oscar Bruno Bach (1884-1957) (Photo © richard grigonis)
Jerome C. Hunsaker of Goodyear-Zeppelin stated that, “The structure of the mast is complete and room has been allowed for the installation of necessary winches and machinery when the time comes to equip the mast to receive transatlantic visitors by air. During the life of the building and perhaps early in its life, we are confident that the control of airships and means for their mooring will be perfected to the point where the Empire State tower can be actually used.”
For his part, Al Smith, head of Empire State, Inc., tried to brush off concerns and was adamant in his contention that the U.S. Navy (American masters of airships) was a partner in the project and its airship Los Angeles would dock at the mast. But the navy said as little as possible.
Everyone knew, however, that the larger the airship, the more ground crewmen were required to grab and hold retaining ropes at the fore and aft of an airship, as opposed to simply using a winch pulling at a rope attached to the ship’s nose. In March 1931, in an apparent effort to humor Al Smith and Empire State, Inc., Dr. Eckener visited the tower, and gave some lip service to the project by saying that the matter would require further study.
Still, by the time the building had opened in May 1931, the developers admitted that the winching machinery had not yet been designed, yet alone deployed in the mooring mast, just above the ceiling of the 86th floor Observatory.
Eventually Smith admitted that, “You can hitch one of those babies [airships] all right, but they won’t stand hitched like a horse… If there’s a wind blowing—and there always is up here where we are—the dirigible would be whirled around like a top, and that wouldn’t be so good. Elsewhere when the airships are moored to masts they are weighted down at the stern, with enormous lead weights, so that they will stand hitched even against a stiff wind. But I don’t believe they would stand for that here. Half the population of Manhattan Island would get the heebie-jeebies at the thought of forty or fifty tons of lead swinging over their heads. But there must be some way to work the thing out, and if there is our engineers will find it.”
There was a rumor that, had there been no Great Depression and the Empire Building had been a great success right off the bat, the Empire State, Inc. builders would have constructed another equally tall building nearby. That would in theory have allowed the back end of an airship to be secured to the neighboring building, but even if true, two skyscrapers would simply have generated twice as much air turbulence.
Moreover, the few experimental attempts to dock airships up on the Empire State Building’s mooring mast did verify how severe the winds could be near the building, making the whole idea seem ridiculous.
the navy dirigible j-4 does a fly-by of the empire state building’s mooring mast, seen here still under construction, on tuesday, december 17, 1930. Neither the J-4 nor the mast was capable of a mooring there. it was a stunt brought about by a newsreel company.
At 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday, December 17, 1930, at the behest of a movie newsreel company not affiliated with either the Empire State Building company or the U.S. Naval Air Service, the Navy’s dirigible J-4, a “semi-rigid” (basically a blimp with a solid keel), commanded by Lieutenant S. M. Bailey, approached the Empire State Building’s mast, which was still a skeleton but solid. The J-4, 196-feet long and 44.5 feet in diameter, hovered briefly, but its twin 150 horsepower engines were no match for the treacherous 30-mile per hour winds, and it had to withdraw. The J-4’s appearance had caused a frenzy because of an erroneous rumor (perhaps spread by the movie company) that it was going to moor to the Empire State Building. In fact, the J-4 was not outfitted to handle such a mooring.
Not Exactly a “Shoe-In”
Then, in 1931, the most dogged attempts made to dock at the mooring mast using a blimp were sponsored by—a shoe company!
the dunn & mccarthy shoe company made a brand of ladies’ shoes called enna jettick. at left is a vintage enna jettick shoe, probably from the 1940s. at right is a pocket advertising mirror from Gold & Co., a Lincoln, Nebraska-based department store. (Items were found on ebay.)
The Dunn & McCarthy Shoe Company of Auburn, New York made Enna-Jettick shoes. There were a quality line of women’s shoes that sold for $5 and $6 a pair and were and made in Auburn. The company’s slogan was, “You need no longer be told you have an expensive foot.”
The company was heavily into publicity, making Enna Jettick shoes the most advertised product of New York’s Finger Lakes region. For example, the company hired major stars of the era such as Will Rodgers to reach 30 million radio listeners. In 1928 it ordered for its stores 2,800 neon signs, then a novelty. The company would send to prospective customers expensive junk mail: musical advertisements for its shoes on little 4-inch diameter 78 rpm records. Dunn & McCarthy even spent $250,000 to buy Lakeside Park, a trolley park, from the Auburn & Syracuse Electric Railway. They made many improvements, renamed it the Enna Jettick Park when it reopened in the summer of 1930, and it became one of the best family parks in New York State prior to World War II.
Shortly after Lindbergh’s sensational solo transatlantic flight, Dunn & McCarthy’s president, Fred L. Emerson, sponsored aviator Thor Solberg and a plane called the Enna Jettick that flew from New York to Norway. At some point the shrewd, workaholic Emerson, with his knack for publicity, decided that an advertising blimp would be a great idea. The company approached the master makers of blimps in America, Goodyear.
One of the first privately-owned airships of its kind, the Enna Jettick blimp (TZ-7) was a TX type blimp originally designated the NC-13A when Goodyear completed manufacturing it in their plant in Akron, Ohio, on May 23, 1930. Its original name was Neponset. The $122,000 craft was 138 feet long, 38 feet in diameter, filled with 86,000 cubic feet of helium costing $10,000 and was powered by two 83 horsepower Siemens-Halske engines giving it a top speed of 65 miles per hour. Capable of carrying four passengers, it was one of 64 Goodyear blimps built between 1919 and 1978.
The Neponset was really built for The New England Airship Corp. (later called the Dartmouth Airship Corp.) a pioneering company founded in 1929 that was the first commercial enterprise to employ blimps for advertising and aerial photography. (Their first client was a rugs and roofing company called Bird & Son Inc. that hired them in 1930.)
Enna gettick blimp made by goodyear and owned by The Dunn & McCarthy Shoe Company of Auburn, New York, Not “enna jettick shoes inc.” as enna jettick was simply the company’s most popular brand. note the blimped-shaped “aerocar” in the foreground and the truck carrying the portable mooring mast at right.
The Neponset was later re-christened the Enna Jettick by Elizabeth Emerson, daughter of the Dunn & McCarthy President Fred L. Emerson, at a brief ceremony at Auburn, New York at Noon on Thursday, July 2, 1931. The blimp was also re-registered as the NC-18A when it was chartered in 1931 to Dunn & McCarthy, which rebranded the blimp with “Enna Jettick Shoes Inc” painted on its sides, from 1931-32. During those years the Enna Jettick went on an extensive barnstorming tour of the U.S. to advertise Enna Jettick shoes. Indeed, the blimp became the first commercial airship to fly cross-country (with intermediate stops and an Army Air Corps Reserve crew) to Los Angeles during 1931–1932.
It was rare for Goodyear not to have operated its blimps, but the Enna Jettick appears to have been run by Army Air Corps Reservists: Major Arthur G. Wadsworth commanded the craft, while Lieutenant William James McCracken (1897–1950) and Lieut. Daniel J. Bule (some sources give the second pilot’s last name as Bowie) were the pilots.
Photo of the blimp “Enna Jettick” at the Springfield, Illinois, Commercial Field, November 11, 1931. It had run into air turbulence while traveling from Chicago to St. Louis and was forced to land. At left is pilot Lt. William James McCracken; to his right, Major Arthur G. Wadsworth. One of the people on the right may be the other pilot, Lt. Daniel J. Bule (or Bowie), though they are probably members of the airport’s ground crew.
In what should have been the shoe company’s biggest publicity stunt, the Enna Jettick was to have become the first airship to dock at the Empire State Building’s mooring mast.
One ongoing myth is that the Enna Jettick was the only blimp to successfully dock at the mooring mast for about three minutes at 9 a.m. on September 15, 1931, after spending 30 minutes battling 45 mile per hour winds. No one got on or off the blimp.
The truth is a bit more complicated in that, technically, the blimp didn’t really dock onto the mooring mast.
the crew of the “enna jettick” traveled in advance of the blimp in both this “aerocar” (which looks for all the world like a blimp itself) and a special mooring tower motor truck. at night, the craft was fastened to the tower. the blimp, aerocar and truck made a long tour around the u.s. during 1931-1932.
According to an Associated Press report also filed that day, the Enna Jettick had struggled to dock a week before but because of a high wind, it had “narrowly escaped being blown out to sea.”
In its second attempt on September 15th, as described by the article “Airship ‘Moors’ on Empire Mast,” that appeared in the Tuesday, September 15, 1931 edition of the New York Evening Post (page 3), “Months of preparatory maneuvering resulted this morning in the dropping of ropes from a blimp to the tower of the Empire State Building long enough for photographs to be taken, making it appear that the airship was moored there. The stunt was arranged by Paramount News, with two planes carrying photographers circling about and other pictures being taken on the tower.”
the empire state building mooring mast in 1931.
The person masterminding the stunt was Stuyvesant Wright of Paramount News, who had formulated the scheme in conjunction with the the offices of the Empire State, but without the assistance of the corporation owning the building, Empire State, Inc. With Lieutenant McCraken piloting and Major Wadsworth in command, Wright arranged for the Enna Jettick to leave Lakehurst the previous day and spend the night at Armonk, New York. When the haze lifted that morning, the blimp took to the air, headed for Manhattan and hovered over the Empire State Building for about half an hour, starting at about 8:15 a.m.
The Evening Post reported that “Office-bound crowds jammed the walks of Fifth Avenue and the nearby cross streets while the blimp maneuvered.”
The New York Times reported that “traffic was tied up in the streets below for more than half an hour” as McCracken jockeyed for position in the “half gale” as two airplanes carrying newsreel cameramen manuvered overhead. (“Moors to Empire State,” The New York Times, September 16, 1931.)
On the narrow terrace of the 103rd floor above the regular observation platform, were Wright, three men to act as “ground” crew, and a steeplejack at the very top of the building, standing next to the wind gauge. The steeplejack was there to cut the ropes dangling from the blimp if they became entangled. The wind registered 45 miles an hour and upward blasts of air came sweeping up the tower’s sides.
Several attempts were made by the Enna Jettick to drop its ropes onto the platform, and at one point it came down into the wind at a position roughly 15 feet above the building, giving everyone the impression that it was going to strike the mooring mast and cause a disaster. When the ropes touched the platform the three men forming the “ground crew” (actually more of a “terrace crew”) grabbed them.
As the blimp faced the 45-m.p.h. wind and the engines were racing, the men held the rope for about a minute or a minute-and-a-half. Straining with all their weight, the blimp swayed in response to their tugging.
The exercise was somewhat foolhardy in that the mooring mast was still not equipped to moor airships since the winching mechanism was never installed. The Evening Post noted that, “Many have approached it but none have made contact. Army and Navy aviation chiefs have forbidden members of the services to try to tie their craft there.”
The winds were too strong and shortly the men became too exhausted. They released the mooring rope and the blimp heaved away.
As the Times reported in their Sept. 16 article, “While no permanent contact was made with the building, McCracken and his associate, Major A.G. Wadsworth, said later that the mast culd be used for landing mail and express.”
The Enna Jettick went on to Buffalo, New York, then flew over Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls Gazette (“Blimp Circles Falls on Tour,” Friday, October 16, 1931, p. 25) reported that, “Word was spread here today that the ship was to attempt anchorage at the mast atop the Rand building in Buffalo. It has been spending its idle time moored to a mast carried about on a truck.”
The Enna Jettick visited various places in the U.S. Then, on March 15, 1932, it developed a serious leak after departing El Paso, Texas, and crashed near Clint.
The Enna Jettick’s remains were sold to J. Lansing Collins of Hammondsport, New York. It was junked, never returning to service.
Two weeks after the Enna Jettick’s final encounter with the Empire State Building, on Monday, September 28, 1931, the Goodyear blimp Columbia hoisted up a stack of copies of the commemorative 35th anniversary edition of the Evening Journal, then travelled from the newspaper’s printing plant at 210 South Street to the Empire State Building’s mast and attempted to be pulled in and lower the bundle of newspapers to a man on the tower, with celebrities (including Al Smith) and photographers watching and waiting around the mast. Steeplejack Ellis Lewis was assigned to grab the mooring line from the blimp, which had been maneuvering for about an hour or so. The winds almost flipped over the blimp, however, and came close to sweeping away celebrities in attendance off the top of the building, but it finally landed them on the parapet. Furthermore, when the blimp let loose its water ballast to gain altitude, it rained down to drench pedestrians for several blocks around the building
The Columbia attempted to execute the maneuver again the following day, Tuesday, September 29, 1931, and this time succeeded, according to a report in The New York Times (“Blimp Lands Papers on Empire State Mast,” September 30, 1931). It took to attempts by a member of the blimp’s ground crew to hook the newspapers onto the line lowered to the printing plant’s roof. With Captain Frank Trotter piloting, the blimp repeated its previous journey to the Empire State Building’s mooring mast, where the celebrities and reporters were once again in attendance on the 102nd and 103rd floors. As before, thousands of people were gathered in the streets below, creating a huge traffic jam on the streets surrounding the building, but several hundred were fortunate enough to be stationed on the 86th floor observatory where they were just a little over 200 feet below all of the action.
The blimp came ever closer to the mast, the stack of newspapers tied to the end of a hundred-foot rope still dangling beneath the control car. Chief Rigger Andrew V. Kelley of the Columbia’s ground crew leaned over the short parapet on the 103rd floor, grasping a penknife and quietly uttering the words, “Hold my legs, somebody, in case I get pulled.” Incredibly, it was John J. Raskob himself who took the initiative and strode out onto the windswept and perilously narrow, 3-foot, 4-inch wide terrace and held Kelley fast.
On the third attempt, the line bumped against the parapet, and Kelley grabbed it with one hand, sawing it like mad with the other. Captain Trotter idled the Columbia’s twin engines. Roskob held onto him for dear life, no doubt hoping that neither the unpredictable wind nor the rope would suddenly send them over the parapet and into midair. Fortunately, before the line could again grow taut and pull away, Kelley managed to sever it with his penknife. Celebrities, reporters, photographers and thousands of onlookers had just witnessed the world’s first roof-to-roof airship delivery of newspapers. Perhaps it was not as exciting as seeing 20 passengers disembarking from the Graf Zeppelin 103 stories above Fifth Avenue, but it provided some much-needed publicity for the Empire State Building in general and the dirigible mooring mast idea in particular.
Kelley handed the stack of Evening Journals to former Governor Al Smith, who beamed and remarked that the job had been “very well done.” Smith then walked down the steep, narrow stairs to the 102nd floor observatory and took the lone mooring mast elevator down to the 102nd floor observatory, where he made a short speech for both radio and the newsreels, congratulating The Journal on its 35th anniversary being celebrated that week.
The Times in its September 30th article ended its coverage with, “If weather conditions are satisfactory today, it is planned by the Columbia’s owners to pick up a bag of mail from the Empire State tower and deposit it on the liner President Hardin beyond Quarantine.” No evidence exists to suggest that the blimp ever managed to do this.
the navy’s airship USS “Los Angeles” (ZR-3) flying over southern Manhattan Island, New York City, in 1930. Although the “Los Angeles” flew over the empire state building’s mooring mast in november 1931, the mast was never equipped for docking and the turbulent air currents above the skyscraper proved to be too dangerous for the ship to linger in the area. (photo in the Public domain, U.S. Naval Historical Center, Photo #NH 944)
The Columbia’s 1931 effort was the last known attempt to make use of the Empire State Building’s mooring mast as an actual airship mooring mast. The U.S. Navy’s zeppelin Los Angeles eventually did make a run at the Empire State Building, put it merely passed over the mooring mast at 10 p.m. one night in November 1931 without attempting to dock there. (An impressive fake photo depicting a docking of the ship was made later by some enterprising hoaxer.) The winds threatened to push the Los Angeles into the spires of other skyscrapers, and it was reported that the captain of the great airship was afraid to take his hands off of the controls for an instant.
These aerial encounters by lighter-than-air craft with the Empire State Building demonstrated once and for all just how dangerous the “airport in the sky” concept really was. As it happens, the publicity stunts could just even more dangerous than actual attempts at docking. For example, the September 15, 1931 approach by the Enna Jettick used small airplanes to both photograph and attract public attention by generating smoke, with surprisingly disturbing consequences, as reported in James Aswell’s “My New York” column that appeared in the Monday evening, October 5, 1931 edition of the Binghamton Press (page 16): “The airplanes laying the smoke screen around the baby blimp over New York the other day were instructed to avoid dropping the stuff on the aerial sausage because the acid would eat holes, but no one thought of pedestrians below, many of whom appeared to have come from a moths’ convention afterwards.”
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia would soon ban docking attempts on the mooring masts of any Manhattan skyscraper. (As for the Dunn & McCarthy Shoe Company, it is long gone; its main manufacturing site on Washington Street in Auburn, New York is now an empty lot.)
The Empire State Building “Changes Hats”
On December 22, 1931 RCA rented half of the otherwise vacant 85th floor, set up a laboratory and began experimental television broadcasting from a small antenna placed atop the tower. Thus, the true calling of the mast as the tallest broadcasting location in New York was recognized right from the beginning.
Today, one reaches the Empire State Building’s hidden 103rd floor via an unmarked, locked door at the 102nd floor observatory that opens to some steep stairs you ascend to a cluttered, basement-like room about 25 feet in diameter, filled with large pipes (waveguides for TV and high frequency transmissions), electrical boxes, wires, and two large black box-like structures which presumably connect to the 203-foot antenna tower above. A hatch on the ceiling allows access to the truncated cone-like space just below the roof where giant lights were to shine out in all directions to guide in passenger airships. The ceiling of that space is the metal of the very top of the building, at 1,250 feet, or 381 meters, which serves as the base of the present-day antenna tower.
Across the little circular room of the 103rd floor, a door opens onto a terrace only 3 feet, 4 inches wide that encircles the mast, as does a parapet of about the same height that’s supposed to keep the wind from blowing you over onto the 86th floor observation platform, 190 feet below. It is at this terrifying location where arriving and departing passengers (along with their luggage) would have walked up and down a gangway connected to the nose of an airship. In the September 23, 2010 edition of The New York Times, Christopher Gray wrote that the terrace is “…like standing on the raised lip of a Campbell’s soup can, a quarter-mile up. And because the terrace is circular, each side disappearing left and right, there is an uncomfortable sensation of being pushed outward… But it is an intoxicating view.”
Visiting celebrities such as Susan Boyle, Mariah Carey, Tom Cruise, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer have never ventured to the Empire State Building’s fabled 103rd floor, even when given the opportunity to do so. It could be that it’s just too scary up there for anyone having even a hint of a fear of heights.
The Antenna Pinnacle
Above the 103rd floor, on a space described as being “about the size of a pitcher’s mound,” a pinnacle mast-like structure was constructed in 1950 (it was completed late in 1951) to support antennas for radio and all seven New York television stations. The 57-ton tower, beginning at above the 103rd floor level, where its girders are riveted to the building’s upper cone-like shell, stretched upward another 222 feet, bringing the building’s total height to 1,472 feet. Signals from antennas affixed to that tower could reach an area in which one out of every ten people in America lived. In later years antennas were moved to the World Trade Center (then back again after 9/11).
In 1985 the antenna was replaced and reduced in size, thus decreasing the building’s height from 1,472 feet (448.7 meters) to its present 1,453 feet, 8–9⁄16th inches (443.092 meters). A little lightning rod at the very top of the building is struck by lightning at least several dozen times a year. In fact, it was once struck by lightning eight times in 24 minutes. (Who says that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place?)
The only “fly in the ointment” when it came to the Empire State Building was the that had been built during the onset of the Great Depression. The business boom decade ended in an economic implosion and New York’s real estate market crashed and burned. Nearly half of its vast interior remained unused during the 1930s, contributing to New York’s 92 percent increase in inventory during that time. It picked up the nickname of “the Empty State Building.” Janitors would leave the lights on round unleased floors, making it appear to distant onlookers that thousands were working through the night in acres of leased space.
brass “elevators” medallion on the ground floor, the work of oscar bruno bach. (Photo © richard grigonis)
Then things began to change, both for the building and for America. By 1944 the Empire State Building had attained an 85 percent occupancy rate. By 1946 it was fully tenanted. In 1950 the building was grossing $10 million a year and netting about half that.
There is some poignance in all of this: The last original tenant who maintained a continuous business until his death was Irven Jack Brod (1909– 2008), born in Newnan, Georgia. The son of Russian immigrants who hand changed theri name from Brodsky, he attended the University of Alabama, moved to New York with his family before graduation, and started a used diamond and jewelry business. He lived to see his rent increase 30-fold over the years.
An Illuminating Experience
Dazzling nighttime illumination of skyscraper tops is commonplace today, and yet for many years the Empire State Building was the solitary pioneer in this area.
From 1931 until 1945, the empire state building’s illumination was confined to the mooring mast.
In its original design, powerful searchlights were supposed to shine at night through the circular, porthole-like features on the Empire State Building’s upper metal cone, projecting in the various directions of the compass to serve as a guide for incoming airships. The configuration would have resembled a scene right out of the science fiction movie, Metropolis.
Ironically, the first light to cast its beam from the top of the Empire State Building was a searchlight beacon proclaiming the November 1932 election of New York-born President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man whose liberal policies would be bitterly denounced by the Empire State Building’ driving force, John Jakob Raskob.
when the empire state building’s Television and radio antenna mast was completed in 1951, it was fitted with four red airplane warning lights and there was increased illumination of the mooring mast and upper floors. .
Nighttime lighting atop the Empire State Building has had a long history of its own, having evolved from revolving a lone revolving beacon to powerful white floodlights to a combination of colored floodlights and fluorescent lamps and thence to Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs).
In the 1930s the American advertising executive, lighting designer and outdoor advertising pioneer, Douglas Leigh (1907–1999)—the man who gave us the Times Square Camel cigarettes billboard that blew smoke rings for 26 years—was working with the Coca-Cola Corporation. He was trying to persuade them to rent the top floor of the Empire State Building and proposed that Coca-Cola could change the colors of the lights on those floors so that the building could display a color-coded weather forecast. Coca-Cola would then affix a little label on its bottles explaining the kind of weather indicated by each color scheme. Coca-Cola thought it was a brilliant idea, but the deal collapsed after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. government, suddenly in need of additional office space, leased those very floors. (However, as it turns out, until the late 1970s, the whole multistory “step-pyramid” atop the Gulf Tower of downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was illuminated by different colors of neon lighting, providing a weather forecast for observers miles away. Today, only the Gulf Tower’s beacon at the pyramid’s pinnacle glows blue for rain and red for fair weather.)
in 1956 the four large “freedom lights” were installed at the base of the empire state building’s mooring mast, these powerful searchlights would remain until 1964.
An examination of old photos of the New York Cioty skyline indicates that the only section of the top of the building fully illuminated in those days was the mooring mast. From its dedication on May 1931 until 1945 the mooring mast of the building was illuminated with reflector-based lights.
As a consequence of the B-25 Mitchell bomber air crash (see sidebar at left), from July 1945 until 1956, the Empire State Building’s mooring mast was illuminated in its interior, and added light for the airplanes’ orientation. When the 203-foot television tower was completed in 1951, more lighting (four red warning lights) for the airplanes were on the antenna mast and additional lighting was added to the building.
seen here is an oversize (6-inch by 9-inch) postcard of the Empire State Building and its Freedom Lights. Below the picture on the postcard is the text of a poem by MacKinlay Kantor written for the May 3, 1956 dedication of the Freedom Lights, part of “operation: Light up the sky.” . These words were also placed on plaques in the building.
On May 3, 1956 the building dedicated four large revolving beacons installed at base of the mooring mast just above the 86th Floor Observatory. Installed as part of “Operation: Light up the Sky,” the mercury lamps were five feet in diameter (some sources claimed seven feet), weighed a ton each, and were allegedly the most powerful in the world at that time. They were called Freedom Lights because they would be “not only a welcome to this country but also the unlimited opportunities in America and the hopes and prayers of the American people for peace.”
Maria Elena Velardi, author of The Empire State Building and Manhattan Skyscrapers, wrote that, “The idea [behind the Freedom Lights] was to have the Empire State Building compete with the Statue of Liberty as the monument welcoming immigrants and visitors to the land of opportunity as more and more were arriving by air than by sea.”
April 1964 the freedom lights were removed and the empire state building’s upper 30 stories (including the mooring mast) were now illuminated for first time with floodlights. the four red aircraft warning lights remained on the antenna mast.
It was claimed that the lights could be seen for 300 miles—a dubious assertion, considering that the curvature of the earth limited views at that altitude to a horizon that was at most about 42 miles away. Ironically, in a preliminary test of the lights at 3 a.m. on March 30, 1956, the United Press reported that when engineers turned them on they did work perfectly, but a thick, low-hanging cloud bank blotted them out, making them invisible to observers only 10 miles away. Even so, the four huge searchlights scanning the night sky probably gave the Federal Aviation Authority the jitters, since they could be distracting to pilots of commercial airliners and smaller private planes.
The Freedom Lights managed to stay on the building until April 1964, when billboard and lighting genius Douglas Leigh got another crack at the Empire State Building, and devised new illumination while serving in a commission by the Empire State Corporation to honor the inauguration of the 1964 World’s Fair. The new floodlights were big ones, 1,000 watt, iodine-quartz lamps similar to those used at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to light up the rockets and launch pads. There were known for their high intensity, long throw, and fine beam control capabilities, The Freedom Lights beacons were removed and the new floodlights strategically installed on the upper setbacks of the building at the 72nd and 81st floor levels, and the base of the mooring mast.
on June 29, 1976 the empire state building assumed a more “colorful” ambiance when it was lit with red, white, and blue filters over its lights to both celebrate America’s Bicentennial and to welcome attendees of the Democratic National Convention to new york city.
And so, starting on April 1, 1964 visitors at the New York World’s Fair in Queens were startled to see the upper 30 stories of the distant Empire State Building ablaze in light.
Although these lights were designed to shut off at midnight (later they were set to go off at 2 a.m.), Leigh added 32 high-pressure sodium-vapor lights of just 70 watts each above the 103rd floor so as to imbue a golden “halo” effect around the top of the mast from dusk until dawn, jokingly referred to by one reporter as “a little nightlight for the city that never sleeps.”
Normally, on patriotic occasions, the empire state building is lit in a red/white/blue pattern, with red on the bottom. occasionally, however, as in this 1978 photo, it is lit in the opposite manner, blue/white/red.
These floodlights continued to illuminate the building each night until the installation of colored lighting in 1976, when Douglas Leigh was called upon to design a colored lighting scheme.
In 1976, Douglas Leigh was made chairman of City Decor to welcome the Democratic Convention. He introduced the idea of color lighting, first employed on June 29, 1976 when the top of the Empire State Building was lit with red, white, and blue to both celebrate America’s Bicentennial and to welcome attendees of the Democratic National Convention in town.
Leigh had achieved this feat via colored plastic filters affixed to the floodlights. The color lights were a huge success, and they remained red, white, and blue until the end of 1976.
A sunset view of the Empire State Building illuminated in the seasonal Christmas holiday colors of red and green. (Photo © Stuart Monk | Dreamstime.com)
In 1977, the Empire State Corporation (in the embodiment of Harry B. Helmsley, who then controlled the building), and Douglas Leigh decided to devise a more sophisticated filter system that allowed for a wider range of colors to illuminate the upper 30 floors. The lighting system was also updated to comply with energy conservation initiatives that had appeared as a result of the 1970s Energy Crisis. The installation included 207 metal halide high intensity discharge (HID) lamps and 304 fluorescent lamps illuminating the building from the 72nd floor to the base of the TV tower. Leigh also formulated a permanent color light scheme for the Empire State Building floodlights that was to be used for special American and International events. The new system made its appearance on October 12, 1977, when blue and white lights flashed to proclaim the New York Yankees’ victory at the World Series. Colored floodlights now began illuminating building’s top on a regular basis.
Leigh’s next brainstorm was to use the colored lights not just to celebrate special events, but to associate particular color configurations with specific holidays. Leigh’s basic “color coding” of holidays and special events was a success and it continues in its essential form to this day.
an orange/orange/white configuration of lights atop the empire state building to commemorate the 34th Annual Empire State Building Run-Up sponsored by the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (Photo © Michael Iwasaki | Dreamstime.com)
The next addition to the building’s lighting occurred in 1984 when an automated lighting system, which included 880 vertical 75 watt fluorescent tubes and 220 horizontal fluorescent tubes, were installed on the upper portion of the TV tower mast. The horizontal bulbs were organized into different panels and produce the various colored lighting that one sees today. Leigh refined the system by designing an automated color-changing system so vertical fluorescents in the mast could be changed by merely flipping a switch. It was an early form of automated lighting. This system made it comparatively easy to honor national holidays, the various ethnic populations of New York, special local and national observances, and charitable causes.
There are three tiers of the building that are illuminated by colors: the upper two setbacks (starting at the 72nd and 81st floors) and the mooring mast The proper way to describe the Empire State Building’s lighting scheme on any particular night is to read off the colors of the three sections from the bottom up. For example, the colors for Thanksgiving are red on the bottom, orange in the middle and yellow on top, or “Red/Orange/Yellow.”
an Example of unusual, complex “private lighting,” most likely for a corporate event or party. this Photo of the Empire State Building was taken from brooklyn on 11/21/2010. (Photo © Radoslaw Drewek | Dreamstime.com)
The color scheme generally adheres to a self-imposed limit of three colors, but it does occasionally make spectacular exceptions. In 2009, a psychedelic rainbow of colors was generated to honor the Grateful Dead exhibit at the New York Historical Society.
When nothing special is happening, the Empire State Building reverts to its natural lighting, or “non-event lighting,” officially called “ESB Lighting.” This is simply white light illuminating all three upper sections of the building.
The lights normally come on at dusk and are extinguished at 2 a.m. During bird migration season, however (generally September 1st to October 31st), the lights are turned off at midnight—or turned off altogether in foggy weather—so that the migrating birds flying at night aren’t distracted by the lights and run into the building. (About 90,000 birds a year die in collisions with New York skyscrapers.)
the empire state building normally assumes a green/green/green lighting configuration for saint patrick’s day, Earth day, rainforest awareness week, and even National Runaway Prevention Month. In recent years however, it has used all-green lighting to celebrate the islamic holiday Eid-al-Fitr. Moreover, on january 6, 2011, green was used to announce the day that the Empire State Building Became the Largest New York City Commercial User of 100 percent Clean Energy. (Photo © Lyes Dirami | Dreamstime.com)
Although Douglas Leigh’s color-changing apparatus in the mooring mast enabled lighting colors to be changed by just flipping a switch, working with the other lights has always been a bit more challenging. For all of these years, the color changes to the main floodlights had to be handled personally by maintenance workers, operating in teams over a six-hour period. To change the tower lights’ colors, plastic gels are fitted manually over metal halide lamps or floodlights and fluorescent tubes in various color combinations. Over 200 holidays and special events each year have called for these workers to brave inclement weather and manually install the plastic gels on the current 208 10,000-watt floodlights on the 72nd and 81st floors, and some of the lights in the mooring mast.
Nine different colors can be used to the light the building including blue, red, green, yellow, white, black, orange, pink and purple resulting in 405 possible color combinations.
Though the Empire State Building’s exterior lighting has not been radically changed since the 1980s, the interior lighting underwent substantial “greening” in the spring of 2009. The Empire State Building contains 3,194,547 light bulbs, so developing an environmentally friendly lighting solution for the building’s vast light system was both a necessity and a challenge. The $100 million dollar greening project included the replacement of old incandescent light bulbs with more energy efficient ones as well as the installation of motion detector systems to only light rooms when they are occupied. These energy efficient renovations, including lighting renovations, are projected to cut the building’s energy consumption by 38 percent and save it $4.4 million dollars annually.
As for the colorful exterior lighting, in 2007, the Empire began experimenting with light emitting diodes (LEDs) and, after testing systems in a competion involving four companies, appears to be heading for a full conversion to “intelligent illumination,” that employs advanced computer-controlled LEDs capable of producing millions of colors, from subtle to bold, in myriad patterns.
The basic seasonal ritual (such as yellow and white in the springtime) and holiday ritual (such as blue and white for Hanukkah, red and green for the December Christmas holiday season, green for St. Patrick’s day, lavender for the anniversary of Stonewall, purple and white for the March of Dimes) is often punctuated by special, even unforeseen events, such as when the building went blue in honor of the 80th birthday and subsequent passing of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
The lights are used to bring attention charities and other good causes too. The building has lit up in pink and white for breast cancer awareness on certain days since 1990, and in other colors for the March of Dimes, the National Osteoporosis Society and Alzheimer’s disease awareness.
In 1995, the release of Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system was inaugurated with a $300 million ad campaign—and blue, red, green and yellow lighting for the top of the Empire State Building. In retrospect, perhaps an even bigger event in 1995 was when the building’s top became a glowing sapphire to mark the rollout of blue M&Ms.
After the destruction of the World Trade Center, the lights burned red, white, and blue for several months, then reverted to the standard schedule and New York sports team colors on home game nights (orange, blue and white for the New York Knicks, red, white and blue for the New York Rangers, etc.). Tennis-ball yellow appears during the U.S. Open tennis tournament in late August and early September.
When actress Fay Wray of the original King Kong movie died in 2004, the building stood dark for a full 15 minutes.
Also in 2004, a green-hued exuberance represented Popeye’s fondness of spinach on his 75th anniversary.
In August of 2006, the Empire State Building’s official Lighting Partner program was established in order to carefully screen and approve requests for particular lighting configurations on certain days.
Students graduating from New York University have been honored by purple and white lighting, and the building has been lit in scarlet twice to support nearby Rutgers University: once for a football game against the University of Louisville on November 9, 2006 and again on April 3, 2007 when the women’s basketball team played in the national championships.
The first lighting of the Empire State Building for a Muslim holiday occurred over three nights in October 2007., when the building glowed green for Eid ul-Fitr. This was intended to be an annual event and was repeated in 2008.
In December 2007, the building was lit yellow to mark the home video release of The Simpsons Movie.
From April 25–27, 2008, to announce the release of Mariah Carey’s eleventh studio album, E=MC2 and to celebrate that international pop diva’s accomplishments in the world of music, the building shone in lavender, pink, and white, her favorite colors.
In late October 2008, the building was lit green in honor of the fifth anniversary of Kerry Ellis and Stephen Schwartz’ acclaimed Broadway Musical, Wicked.
Starting in 2008, the building along with New York City and many other cities worldwide, participated in Earth Hour. As its name implies, the skyscraper’s floodlights were turned off to conserve energy for exactly one hour.
On April 23, 2009 the tower glowed green to honor the 25th anniversary of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book.
Spotlighting a Controversy
Only in New York can something as innocuous as the nighttime illumination of a skyscraper cause heated controversy. The Empire State Building’s lighting program has managed to achieve that unenviable condition over the years. After ignoring six years of petitions to light the building purple in honor of Gay Pride, the building’s managers finally relented and lit it up in 1990. The colors designating this soon officially changed, however, to lavender and white, and are now displayed on the night of the city’s Gay Pride Parade.
The Empire State Building’s official Lighting Partner program was acutely assailed when it rejected the idea of honoring Mother Teresa in lights on what would have been her 100th birthday. The Catholic League, a religious advocacy group, applied to have the building adorned in white and blue lighting on August 26, 2010, but its request was denied by Anthony E. Malkin, the building’s owner.
“The Empire State Building celebrates many cultures and causes in the world community with iconic lightings, and has a tradition of lightings for the religious holidays of Easter, Eid al Fitr, Hanukah, and Christmas. As a privately owned building, ESB has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations,” reads the statement by Anthony E. Malkin of Malkin Holdings, which operates the skyscraper on behalf of building owner Empire State Building Company.
Critics quickly noted that such a policy appeared to contradict its past behavior in this area, such as when the building was illuminated in white and gold in honor of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New York in 1995, as well as the dimming of the lights to mark his death in 2005. Cardinal John O’Connor was posthumously honored in 2000 with a display of a Cardinal’s colors, red and white.
Of course, the Empire State Building is privately owned, and as such, they can do whatever they please, including lighting the building up with ultraviolet bulbs for National Seasonal Affective Disorder week, if they ever so desired.
Runners vs. Gravity
There are 1,576 steps to the 86th floor Observatory of the Empire State Building (1/5th of a mile vertically), and 1,860 steps to the 102nd Floor Observatory, each step having a seven-inch rise. (There are also some steep stairs leading to the mysterious 103rd floor, but that does count as far as the public is concerned, since it is off-limits for just about everyone.) Naturally, it was only a matter of time before the more energetic among us would attempt to test their physical prowess by walking or even running up the building’s stairs.
It is said that the first person to walk up all of the stairs was probably a building guard, named Pete McGuire a building guard, followed by two boys who snuck up past McGuire’s fellow guards.
In 1937, the observatory’s manager, Julia Chandler, heard that a 49-year-old Vermont farmer and mountain climber named A.W. Aldrich desired to make the arduous climb, and so she granted him permission to do so, at the same time turning the whole affair into a major media event. He climbed the full 1,860 steps in 36 minutes.
In 1978 an annual footrace to the top was organized by the New York Road Runners, a club of footrace enthusiasts. The first such event was won by former New York City fireman August Gary Muhrcke, who dashed up the 85 flights in 12 minutes, 32 seconds. However, it was soon discovered (by the media, no less) that Muhrcke was drawing a tax-free disability pension of $11,822 a year from the fire department for a back injury. The following year he failed to defend his title.
Today, the annual Run-Up even attracts hundreds of participant athletes from around the world each year, each one eager to clamber up the 1,576 steps to the 86 floor Observatory in record time. The current record, incidentally, is held by Australian Paul Crake, who in 2003 reached the Observatory in 9 minutes, 33 seconds.
The Empire State Building as Trophy Real Estate
For a number of years the Empire State Building was something of a pawn in a tug-of-war among real estate empires. For any true real estate afficioniado, such a prize is better than having a trophy wife.
the empire state building’s design is so visually powerful that even a casual, contrasty black-and-white photo of it becomes bold graphic art, an image that can serve as anything from a defining corporate symbol to something that the late andy warhol could have silk screened and sold to a private collector or art museum.
It is no wonder that real estate moguls would battle for its ownership. (Photo © Ajv123ajv | Dreamstime.com)
For all its fame, the Empire State Building has had a remarkably low valuation since 1961, when Peter Malkin, his father-in-law Lawrence Wien and Harry Helmsley devised a complex though ingenious form of real estate syndication. The building was leased by these three to Empire State Building Associates, a group of investors that then proceeded to sell the operating sublease that came under the control of Malkin and Harry B. Helmsley’s colorful widow, Leona Helmsley. Finally, Wien and Harry Helmsley sold the building title to Prudential Insurance Co.
Prudential was approached by Japanese billionaire Hideki Yokoi who wanted to purchase the Empire State Building, but rejected the offer, since Yokoi was incarcerated in a Japanese prison owing to gross negligence after one of his Tokyo hotels caught fire, resulting in the death of 33 guests, Prudential being mindful of the prestige and national iconic nature of the facility.
In 1991 Prudential sold the Empire State Building title for $42 million, ostensibly to Oliver Grace Jr.’s E.G. Holding, but it was discovered that E.G. Holding was a mere shell company, the whole arrangement being a smoke screen for none other than Japanese billionaire Hideki Yokoi.
However, shortly after his coup, the Japanese bubble economy popped and Yokoi’s real estate empire was scuttled. Yokoi needed a partner. Beginning in 1994, Donald J. Trump joined forces with Yokoi, creating Trump Empire State Partners, which then attempted to obtain full control of it from those possessing the below-market lease: the Malkins and their partners, in particular Harry B. and Leona Helmsley.
Trump hatched a series of lawsuits in an effort to void the lease and cast out the Malkins, claiming that Empire State Building Associates of poor management and inadequately maintaining the building (claiming the building was overrun with rats, for example) and was therefore in violation of the lease terms. The Malkins countersued, saying Mr. Trump and his partners were engaged in an extortion scheme intended to squeeze money out of the building.
Trump’s lawsuits were unsuccessful, Trump’s plan to create Trump Empire State Building Tower Apartments near the top of the tower never materialized, and Yokoi died in 1998. The Empire State Partners decided to sell but Malkin and Leona Helmsley were also battling in the courts over control of the iconic tower. Malkin’s group could not acquire full control until defeating a lawsuit by Helmsley-Spear COO and Chairman Irving Schneider who owned a single share in Empire State Building Associates, and who in an effort to keep Helmsley-Spear from losing its management and rental fees on the building, took his case to the New York Supreme Court.
brass “masonry” medallion on a marble wall of the empire state building’s entrance hall, also the work of oscar bruno bach. (Photo © richard grigonis)
Trump ended up pocketing something like $6 million in the $57.5 million deal, and the Malkins acquired the entire property. Malkin already holds the master lease on the building through 2076, which means that this is the first time since 1961 that the same group of investors will own the skyscraper and control the long-term lease. Thus, the building can now (or in the future) be sold without any stumbling blocks, which would almost certainly bring about better financing terms.
Visiting the Empire State Building Today
The 86 floor Observatory has a heated, glass-enclosed area, which is surrounded by an outdoor open-air terrace, equipped with high-power binoculars. A new second floor Visitors Center offers large fully air conditioned waiting areas, equipped to expedite the admissions and ticketing processes.
In addition to the restaurants and shops on the ground floor, the artwork in lobby and the magnificent observatories, the Empire State Building also has a motion simulator attraction, situated on the 2nd floor. Called the New York Skyride, It opened in 1994 as a value-add to the observation deck. The New York Skyride is an exciting simulated aerial tour over the city. The theatrical presentation lasts approximately 25 minutes.
Recently, our restaurant critic and action-adventure enthusiast, caitlin doherty, visited the empire state building and couldn’t resist this photo op with the big scale model in the entrace hall. (Photo © Richard grigonis)
The current version of the ride is the second version. The first, which operated from 1994 until 2002, featured James Doohan, better known as Star Trek’s eingineer, Scotty, as the airplane’s pilot, who attempted to keep the flight under control as it bounced through a storm having so much turbulence that it propelled the airplane on an unexpected trajectory through the subway, Coney Island, and FAO Schwartz, among other popular New York landmarks. After September 11th, however, the ride was closed, and a revamped version debuted in mid-2002 with actor Kevin Bacon as the pilot. The new version was rewritten to be of more educational value. In this version, the flight also of the narration attempted to make the attraction more educational. The new flight also goes haywire, but this part of the ride has been rather aggressively trimmed into a short segment.
In Search of the Epical and the Lyrical in the Empire State Building
Perhaps the most extraordinary vision of the Empire State Building came from a person who was quite blind, literally—Hellen Keller. Few people may realize that Keller was present at the opening day cermonies on May 1, 1931. She had no great love for the excesses of American capitalism, and yet, following a subsequent visit to the 86th floor Observatory’s deck, she composed some profound meditations for the January 1932 issue of The New York Times Magazine:
I was pleasantly surprised to find [it] so poetical. From everyone except my blind friend I had received an impression of sordid materialism—the piling up of one steel honeycomb upon another with no real purpose but to satisfy the American craving for the superlative in everything... Well, I see in the Empire Building something else—passionate skill, arduous and fearless idealism. The tallest building is a victory of imagination. Instead of crouching close to earth like a beast, the spirit of man soars to higher regions, and from this new point of vantage he looks upon the impossible with fortified courage and dreams yet more magnificent enterprises.
What did I ‘see and hear’ from the Empire Tower? As I stood there ‘twixt earth and sky, I saw a romantic structure wrought by human brains and hands… I saw it stand erect and serene in the midst of storm and the tumult of elemental commotion. I heard the hammer of Thor ring when the shaft began to rise upward. I saw the unconquerable steel, the flash of testing flames, the sword-like rivets. I heard the steam drills of pandemonium. I saw countless workers welding together that mighty symmetry. I looked upon the marvel of frail, yet indomitable hands that lifted the tower to its dominating height. Let cynics and supersensitive souls say what they will about American materialism and machine civilization. Beneath the surface are poetry, mysticism and inspiration that the Empire Building somehow symbolizes. In that giant shaft I see a groping toward beauty and spiritual vision. I am one of those who see and yet believe.
With its charmed and epic history worthy of a Homer or Virgil, an amalgam of nostalgia, romance, corporate intrigue, brinksmanship, blood, sweat and tears, the Empire State Building was a fervent attempt to make tangible in steel, glass and Indiana limestone the American Dream. It was as if the sheer act of methodically piling up and precisely assembling hundreds of thousands of tons of building materials would somehow dispel our economic and social woes.
One might think a sign at this point would be unnecessary.... (Photo © Vacclav | Dreamstime.com)
What the Empire gave us instead was something less physically concrete and yet in a way more substantial—proof that there is at least the possibility that any and all of our finest aspirations can come true if we all work to make them so. As the historian Arnold Toynbee once said, “Civilization is a collection of wills.” It is what we make it, working together.
If the Empire State Building, that great symbolic edifice born in defiance of the Great Depression, failed to give us everything we desired of it, keep in mind that neither does life, which has little sense of fair play and wreaks havoc with its grand irrationality, by turns subtle and amusing, confusing and annoying, disastrous and heart-rending. In the end, the hope that made the Empire State Building so long ago is the hope that continues to sustain each and every one of us.
the empire state building’s anniversaries may come and go, but the tower is in reality an ongoing celebration of american ingenuity, perserverance and sheer economic might (not to mention a healthy helping of luck). (Photo © Charles Mccarthy | Dreamstime.com)
And so the Empire State Building celebrated its 80th birthday on May 1st, 2011. May it enjoy many more. And may many more millions of its visitors—each one carrying deep within their hardships, triumphs, perils, disappointments, puzzlements and hopes—ascend to its loftiest heights and gaze out to the far horizon of mystery and possibility, and dream their own special dreams.