It was constructed during a race to create the world’s tallest building.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945.
On the morning of July 28, 1945, while flying an Army B-25 bomber toward New York’s La Guardia Airport, Army Lt. Col. William F. Smith became disoriented in heavy fog and drifted over Midtown Manhattan. The World War II combat veteran managed to dodge several skyscrapers, but he was unable to avoid plowing into the 78th and 79th floors of the Empire State at 200 miles an hour. The crash triggered a massive explosion and sent debris careering through the building’s interior. Smith and two crewmen were killed, as were 11 people inside the building. A four-alarm fire broke out on several floors—it was then the highest building fire in New York’s history—but firefighters managed to extinguish it in just 40 minutes. Amazingly, the undamaged sections of the building were reopened for business just two days later.
A woman survived a 75-story plunge in one of the building’s elevators.
During the 1945 bomber crash, several pieces of the B-25’s engine sliced through the Empire State Building and entered an elevator shaft. The cables for two cars were severed, including one containing a 19-year-old elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver. The elevator plummeted from the 75th floor and soon crashed into the subbasement, but luckily for Oliver, more than a thousand feet of severed elevator cable had gathered at the bottom of the shaft, cushioning the blow. The fall may have also been slowed by a pocket of compressed air generated by the car’s rapid descent. Despite suffering severe injuries including a broken neck and back, Oliver survived.
There was a short-lived plan to add 11 floors to the Empire State Building.
Shortly after the World Trade Center towers were erected in the early 1970s, an architect at the firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon concocted a scheme that would allow the Empire State Building to keep its crown as the world’s tallest skyscraper. The proposed plan called for the building’s 16-story tower to be demolished and replaced by a new top section that would increase its height to 113 stories and 1,495 feet. If completed, the renovation would have made the Empire Building taller than both the World Trade Center and the Sears Tower—which was then under construction—but the idea was quickly dropped due to cost concerns and complaints that it would destroy the building’s iconic look.
A few daredevils have parachuted from the building’s observation deck.
In April 1986, British thrill seekers Alastair Boyd and Michael McCarthy concealed parachutes under their coats, bought tickets to the Empire State Building and then hurled themselves off its 86th floor observation deck. The pair landed safely more than 1,000 feet below on 33rd Street, but while McCarthy was quickly arrested, Boyd simply hailed a cab and escaped. He soon turned himself in, however, and both men were charged with “reckless endangerment” and “unlawful parachuting.” Twelve years later, Norwegian parachutist Thor Alex “The Human Fly” Kappfjell repeated the stunt by jumping off the building’s 34th street side. Kappfjell managed to escape and parachute off the Chrysler Building a few days later, but he was eventually arrested after jumping off the World Trade Center.
An inflatable King Kong was attached to the Empire State Building for the film’s 50th anniversary—with mixed results.
Of the more than 90 movies featuring the Empire State Building, none is more famous than 1933’s “King Kong,” which ends with the titular giant ape scaling the skyscraper and being attacked by swarming biplanes. The original scene was shot in a studio, but for the film’s 50th anniversary in April 1983, a balloon company president tried to recreate it by attaching a inflatable King Kong to the Empire State’s mooring mast. Unfortunately, the $150,000 stunt didn’t go as planned. The 84-foot Kong balloon suffered a tear while being inflated, ruining a plan to have it buzzed by vintage aircraft. It was finally inflated a few days later, but it only stayed on the building for a short time before another rip forced the project to be scrapped altogether.