History Of The Empire State Building

History of the Empire State Building

Photo: amberapparently from Sydney [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Some may know the Empire State Building from the classic movie “King Kong.” Others may remember seeing it in more current movies such as “Elf” or “Sleepless in Seattle.” The iconic building has been a part of downtown New York for almost ninety years.

The land that the skyscraper was built on played a role in the Revolutionary War. It was the site where General George Washington’s troops retreated to after the Battle of Kip’s Bay in September 1776. The land was purchased by John Jacob Astor in 1826. There, Astor’s great-grandson William Waldorf Astor opened the Waldorf Hotel in 1893. Waldorf’s cousin John Jacob Astor IV opened the Astoria Hotel on a nearby lot. The two hotels combined had 1,300 rooms.

Both hotels closed in 1929 to make way for what would become the Empire State Building. The land and hotel were sold to the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation. The land was later purchased by a group of wealthy investors known as Empire State, Inc. The group’s name referred to the state nickname. William F. Lamb from the Shreve, Lamb and Harmon architectural firm was hired to design the new building.

The new building was originally designed to be fifty stories. Those plans were later revised, increasing the skyscraper’s height to eighty stories. The Empire State group faced significant competition in the race to create the “world’s tallest building.” The nearby Chrysler Building and Bank of Manhattan building (later known as 40 Wall Street) were also being designed and built at the same time.

Demolition of the Astoria and Waldorf hotels began in October 1929. The project hit a financial snag due to the Great Depression that began later that month. The ownership group secured a 27.5 million dollar loan from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company so that construction could begin in March of the following year.

Once the steel framework was put into place in April 1930, the rest of the skyscraper’s construction proceeded quickly. The project’s scale was rather impressive. Trucks brought in over 300 bags of lime, 400 cubic yards of sand, 5,000 bags of cement and 15,000 partition tiles daily. Over 50,000 tons of steel were used during the construction. Thousands of workers put in fourteen hour shifts until the project was completed in 1931.

The Empire State Building opened for business on May 1, 1931. The skyscraper opened 45 days ahead of schedule, and came in at almost $20 million under the project’s $60 million budget. President Herbert Hoover and governor Franklin D. Roosevelt were just some of the more than 300 people who attended the grand opening ceremony and luncheon. The building measured at 1,050 feet tall, four feet taller than the nearby Chrysler Building.

Unfortunately, the new skyscraper soon became known as the “Empty State Building.” As a result of opening during the Great Depression, less than a quarter of its available space was rented. Most companies rarely rented more than one office at a time during the building’s early years. Interior lights were often left on at all hours to give the impression that there were more tenants than there actually were.

Marketing efforts for the Empire State Building were soon ramped up. Tourists were drawn to the building thanks to its inclusion in 1933’s “King Kong.” The one dollar admission for the skyscraper’s observatory was promoted heavily on railroad fare tickets and in the local newspapers. Building owners earned over $2 million in income from observation deck tourists during its first year of operation. The observation deck soon became rather crowded. It recorded its five millionth visitor in 1944.

One little known fact about the skyscraper is that it was also intended to be used as a docking station for various airships. Waiting rooms and ticket offices for passengers were supposed to be built on the 86th floor. An elevator would have then brought passengers to the 101st floor. Additional stairs would have been added to bring people to waiting airships outside. However, those plans were scrapped due to the potential dangers that could have been caused by the city’s wind currents, the building’s updrafts and the spires of other nearby buildings.

The building finally started turning a profit in the mid-1950’s. Construction of a large radio antenna, topping out at over 200 feet tall, was added to the tower began in 1950. The Empire State Building was put up for sale in 1951. Businessmen Henry Crown, Alfred Glancy, Robert Stevens and Ben Tobin partnered to purchase the skyscraper for $51 million later that year. The radio tower was completed in 1953, and a half-dozen radio stations decided to pay a combined fee of $600,000 to use the antenna for their radio broadcasts.

Crown became the Empire State Building’s only owner in 1954 after buying out his partners’ ownership shares. He owned the building until 1961, when Lawrence Wien and Harry Helmsley worked together to purchase the skyscraper for $65 million in 1961. The duo raised money to buy the building by single shares of their company Empire State Building Associates to over 3,000 people for the lofty price of $10,000 per share. This new company then subleased the skyscraper to another one of Helmsley and Wien’s companies, which raised the remainder of the necessary funds.

The building underwent significant renovation in the 1960’s. The exterior facade and windows were refurbished and fully cleaned, new floodlights and escalators were installed in some areas and the old manually operated elevators were replaced with modern automatic elevators.

By 1967, the skyscraper could no longer claim the distinction of being the world’s tallest building. That title was awarded to the Ostankino radio and television tower in Moscow, Russia. The newly erected World Trade Center’s north tower became the world’s tallest building when it was completed in 1970. The towers were owned by Wien, Helmsley and their business partner Peter Malkin.

The building received its own zip code in 1980. By then it was averaging nearly two million visitors a year. Its 50th anniversary was celebrated in May 1981. During that month, the skyscraper was named a city landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. It was also declared a national historic landmark in 1986.

Over $50 million was invested in renovations to the Empire State Building in the mid-1990’s. After the United States Department of Justice and several disability rights groups filed a lawsuit in 1992, the skyscraper’s observation deck was remodeled so that it was more accessible for people with disabilities. Air conditioning units, alarm systems, windows, elevators, and the exterior’s limestone facade were also replaced during the decade.

Land underneath the building was sold to the Prudential Insurance company in the 1960’s. They later sold that land to a business partner of hotel owner Hideki Yokoi in 1991. Yokoi later partnered with businessman Donald Trump. The two wanted to break the skyscraper’s lease on the land, with the end goal of owning both the building and the land. Several legal battles between the pair and the building’s current owners ensued. These issues would not be resolved until the next century.

Yokoi and Trump sold their ownership shares in the land to the Empire State Building Associates in 2002. Malkin was now in charge of this company. Security issues became a growing concern after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, but the Empire State Building still brought in over 3 million visitors in 2004. The skyscraper was later owned by the public traded company Empire State Realty Trust. The new business, headed by Anthony Malkin, assumed ownership in 2014.

Another $500 million was spent on remodeling and renovations in the 2010’s. Improving the site’s energy efficiency, waterproofing, air conditioning and the main lobby were the primary focus of this project. A new glass elevator, additional windows, a massive art gallery and a new observation deck on the building’s 80th floor were other noteworthy components. All of these improvements were completed by the end of 2019.

The Empire State Building is the first building in the world to have over 100 floors (it tops out at 102 stories). Inside the skyscraper are over 6,000 windows and 70 elevators. It has a total area of over 2.7 million square feet. Interior office space is leased by over 1,000 different companies.

If you walk by the building at night and look up, you might see some of the windows lit up in various vibrant colors. This is sometimes done to honor recent championships by several of the state’s professional and collegiate sports teams. Special lights have also been displayed to honor noteworthy citizens such as Frank Sinatra after his passing and other noteworthy local and national events.

Whether you’re a New York native or a first time visitor, you should definitely make time to visit this historic building. You can see land for miles covering six states from the observation deck. You can also take a tour or peruse some of the many retail stores. It’s a national treasure that never fails to impress!


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