All You've Ever Wanted to Know About the Empire State Building
Humans like to do amazing things just because we can. Things like landing on the moon, inventing the Cronut, and building the tallest building in the world in 14 months at the height of the Great Depression.
The Empire State Building is one of the most recognizable landmarks in New York City, beloved for its Art Deco style and colorful lights. For 41 years it was the tallest skyscraper in the world. Although its record has long since been broken, the Empire State Building still stands on Fifth Avenue as a testament to the power of human imagination and ingenuity, and hosts millions of visitors each year.
When it Was Built
The Empire State Building was started on March 17, 1930, and officially opened on May 1, 1931. The idea for the skyscraper came from Alfred E. Smith, former governor of New York, and John J. Raskob, a businessman who had supported Smith in his 1928 run for president. For the design they hired the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon, who based it on one of their previous designs, the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Building and Construction
The construction of the building was completed in record time thanks to an assembly line style building plan. Teams of riveters built the steel framework of the building, with other laborers following right behind to complete the masonry, stonework, plumbing, and electrical work. Then the plasterers, painters, and carpenters would complete the floor as the other teams worked above them. Many of the bottom floors were complete before the steel had even been placed for the higher levels. The steel framework went up at a rate of four and a half floors per week.
How Many People Died?
Along with the speed of construction came a lot of risk. Amazingly, official records show that only five men died, out of the more than 3,000 who worked on the building. At the time, however, there were rumors that hundreds of men died during construction.
Since the building opened, there have also been a few dozen suicide attempts, most of them successful. Fourteen people also died in an incident on a foggy morning in 1945. A B-25 Mitchell bomber on its way to Newark Airport crashed into the building when the pilot became disoriented in the haze. He, a second pilot, and one passenger, as well as eleven people in the building.
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How Tall is it?
When it was completed, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world at 1,250 feet. It surpassed the 1,046-foot-tall Chrysler Building, which had been completed less than a year prior. Soon after the building opened, television and radio broadcasting began from antennas erected on top of the tower, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that the antenna tower was added to the building, bringing the total height to 1,454 feet.
Although it was surpassed by the Griffin Television Tower Oklahoma as the tallest structure in the world in 1954, it remained the tallest skyscraper in the world until the North Tower of the World Trade Center was completed in 1972.
Fun fact: The Empire State Building is so large that it has it’s own zip code!
OK, But How Many Stories?
The Empire State Building has 102 stories, with all floors above the 86th in the towering mast at the top of the building. Most of the floors are taken up by office space, but the 86th and 102nd floors are open to the public as observation decks.
Visitors also pass through exhibits about the history of the building on the 2nd and 80th floors as they wait in line for their elevator ride to the top. Above the enclosed upper observation deck, there is a 103rd story, which includes a narrow open-air deck. It is mostly used for maintenance, and isn’t accessible to the public, but celebrities are sometimes allowed up for a photo op.
It’s a commonly held belief that the mast was designed to be a mooring mast for dirigibles, and this 103rd floor is where passengers would disembark. This is likely false, although Al Smith, one of the driving forces behind the building, may have genuinely believed it to be possible. The updrafts created by the building, among other things, would have made it an impractical plan even if dirigible flight had taken off in popularity. The real purpose of the mast was more likely to ensure the building’s title as the tallest in the world.
The Observation Deck
The observation decks of the Empire State Building are open every day of the year, from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Visitors enter through the expansive lobby, which includes a striking marble depiction of the building, and a ceiling mural that was damaged when the building was modernized in the 1960s, and restored to its original splendor in 2009 after two years of work by artisans and historians.
On the second floor, visitors learn about the building’s recent sustainability upgrades and take an elevator up to the 80th floor, where they can learn about the history of the building before taking another short ride up to the open-air observation deck. On a clear day, the views from the observation deck include not just Central Park and the Statue of Liberty, but five states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. For an extra fee, visitors can take a manually-operated elevator up to the enclosed 102nd floor observatory for an extra-spectacular view.
The Cost of Construction
At the time, the Empire State Building cost just under $41 million to build, including the cost of buying and demolishing the Waldorf-Astoria hotel that used to sit at the site. In today’s dollars, that’s more than $673 million. Because of the Great Depression, construction costs ended up being much lower than initially planned.
The Depression also made it hard for the building to find tenants, so it would be two decades before the building was profitable. These days, the building’s two largest revenue streams are office space leases and observation deck tickets.
Who Owns the Building?
When the Empire State Building was built, it was owned by Empire State, Inc., the corporation started by Raskob and Smith to oversee the construction and operation of the building. It has changed hands only a few times over the years, and is currently owned by the Empire State Realty Trust, a publicly traded company formed in 2013 by the then-owners of the building, Peter and Anthony Malkin. Anthony Malkin is still the current Chairman and CEO of the Trust.
In 2009, the owners of the Empire State Building completed a sustainability retrofit to reduce the energy used by the building and save money. In addition to updating the heating and cooling systems and switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, all 6,514 windows in the building were refurbished.
Each window pane was removed and brought to a refurbishment center inside the building to be updated before being replaced. This literal in-house process meant that there was very little waste, and no need for thousands of new windows to be manufactured. This work was done at a rate of 50-75 windows per day, causing minimal disruption to the building’s tenants. The 2nd floor exhibit detailing the process is also available online. In 2011, the building was awarded LEED Gold certification, making it the tallest building in the country to achieve LEED certification.
Those Colorful Lights
Although easy enough to spot during the day, the iconic tower lights make the Empire State Building really stand out after the sun sets. The first time they lit up in color was in 1976, when new lights were installed so the building could be lit up in red, white, and blue to honor the country’s bicentennial.
In 2012 the lights were replaced with computer-driven LEDs, allowing for much more complex lighting schemes that can change in an instant to sixteen million different colors. The lights are changed frequently, and if you’re wondering what colors will be lighting the tower tonight, you can check the building’s official website or the easy-to-remember whatcoloristheempirestatebuilding.com.
The Empire State Building in Popular Culture
If a movie or television show takes place in New York City, you can bet there will be a shot that includes the Empire State Building. Although it is often used only in establishing shots, it has also played a starring role—in more than 250 films, according the Empire State Building itself.
In 1933, just two years after the building opened, it featured in the iconic final scene of “King Kong,” with Kong clinging to the top of the mooring mast and swiping at the biplanes that successfully shot him down in the end. The 2005 remake of King Kong is set in the 1930s, and features an updated version of the scene. Although the special effects and camera work of the 2005 version are modern, it copies the original quite closely.
Its Role in “An Affair to Remember”
The 1957 film “An Affair to Remember,” starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, is about a couple who fall in love and plan to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months, after they have ended their current relationships. The film is a near exact remake of the 1939 film “Love Affair,” which was also remade in 1994 with the same name and a modern setting.
Its Role in “Sleepless in Seattle”
Nora Ephron’s 1993 film calls back to “An Affair to Remember” multiple times. More than one character makes references to it, and it is the inspiration for the final meeting between the two main characters, which takes place on the 86th floor observation deck. If you’ve already met your special someone and you’re looking for your own romantic moment high above the city, the Empire State Building hosts a contest every year to allow a few couples to get married on the observation deck on Valentine’s Day.
How to Take the Stairs
Although most visitors take the elevator to the 86th floor observatory, there is one opportunity every February to take the stairs. The Empire State Building Run-Up is an important event in the sport of tower running, which is exactly what it sounds like—running very fast up a man-made structure. Competitors in the Run-Up climb 1,576 steps, rising more than a thousand feet. The current women’s record for the event is held by Andrea Mayr, who made the climb in 11 minutes and 23 seconds, and the men’s record is held by Paul Crake, who got to the top in 9 minutes and 33 seconds. The 2017 event, held February 1, will be the event’s 40th anniversary.