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June 11, 2017

The Empire State Building Was Constructed Incredibly Fast, It Was Built In Just 13 Months!

There aren’t many buildings more famous than the Empire State Building. It’s been featured in many movies over the years; it’s one of the most photographed buildings on social media, and 110 million people have visited its observation deck.

In the late-1920s, as New York’s economy boomed like never before, builders were in a mad dash to erect the world’s largest skyscraper. The main competition was between 40 Wall Street’s Bank of Manhattan building and the Chrysler Building, an elaborate Art Deco structure conceived by car mogul Walter Chrysler as a “monument to me.” Both towers tried to best each other by adding more floors to their design, and the race really heated up in August 1929, when General Motors executive John J. Raskob and former New York Governor Al Smith announced plans for the Empire State Building.

The speed with which they built the Empire State Building.

Upon learning that the Empire State would be 1,000 feet tall, Chrysler changed his plans a final time and fixed a stainless steel spire to the top of his skyscraper. The addition saw the Chrysler Building soar to a record 1,048 feet, but unfortunately for Chrysler, Raskob and Smith simply went back to the drawing board and returned with an even taller design for the Empire State Building. When completed in 1931, the colossus loomed 1,250 feet over the streets of Midtown Manhattan. It would remain the world’s tallest building for nearly 40 years until the completion of the first World Trade Center tower in 1970.

It was modeled after two earlier buildings.

When he drew up its plans in 1929, architect William Lamb of the firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon is said to have modeled the Empire State Building after Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Reynolds Building—which he had previously designed—and Carew Tower in Cincinnati. The two earlier Art Deco buildings are now often cited as the Empire State’s architectural ancestors. On the Reynolds Building’s 50th anniversary in 1979, the Empire State Building’s general manager even sent a card that read, “Happy Anniversary, Dad.”

North Carolina’s Reynolds Building. (Credit: Gabriel Benzur/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

The building was finished in record time.

Despite the colossal size of the project, the design, planning and construction of the Empire State Building took just 20 months from start to finish. After demolishing the Waldorf-Astoria hotel—the plot’s previous occupant—contractors Starrett Brothers and Eken used an assembly line process to erect the new skyscraper in a brisk 410 days. Using as many as 3,400 men each day, they assembled its skeleton at a record pace of four and a half stories per week—so fast that the first 30 stories were completed before certain details of the ground floor were finalized. The Empire State Building was eventually finished ahead of schedule and under budget, but it also came with a human cost: at least five workers were killed during the construction process.

An odd photographic trick placed this steelworker's finger on the lofty pinnacle of the Chrysler Building, September 29, 1930. This view was taken from the Empire State Building, the world's tallest building, which is now rising on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. A mooring mast for dirigibles will cap this 1,284-foot structure." (Bettmann/Corbis)

Its upper tower was originally designed as a mooring mast for airships.

By far the most unusual aspect of the Empire State Building’s design concerned its 200-foot tower. Convinced that transatlantic airship travel was the wave of the future, the building’s owners originally constructed the mast as a docking port for lighter-than-air dirigibles. The harebrained scheme called for the airships to maneuver alongside the building and tether themselves to a winching apparatus. Passengers would then exit via an open-air gangplank, check in at a customs office and make their way to the streets of Manhattan in a mere seven minutes. Despite early enthusiasm for the project, the high winds near the building’s rooftop proved all but impossible for pilots to negotiate. The closest thing to a “landing” came in September 1931, when a small dirigible tethered itself to the spire for a few minutes. Two weeks later, a Goodyear blimp dropped a stack of newspapers on the roof a part of a publicity stunt, but the airship plan was abandoned shortly thereafter.

Goodyear blimp flies near the Empire State Building, October 01, 1931. (New York Daily News Archive)

It was initially considered a financial flop.

The Empire State Building was primarily designed to house corporate offices, but it got off to a rocky start thanks to the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Less than 25 percent of the building’s retail space was occupied upon its opening in 1931, earning it the nickname the “Empty State Building.” The building’s owners were reduced to engineering publicity stunts to draw renters—including hosting a 1932 séance that tried to contact the ghost of Thomas Edison from the 82nd floor—but the skyscraper’s upper half remained almost entirely vacant for most of the 1930s. At times, workers were even told to turn on lights on the higher floors to create the illusion that they were occupied. It wasn’t until World War II that the building finally became profitable.

Postcard view of the Empire State Building, early 1930s.



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