Designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon; completed 1931
New York City, New York
The Empire State Building is arguably the world’s most famous skyscraper, and has
been since its completion in 1931. Although it relinquished the title of world’s tallest
building in the early 1970s, the Empire State Building epitomizes the commercial
skyscraper, a late 19th-century American invention that captured public attention and
imagination around the world as a symbol of America’s rise to global economic
The Empire State Building was the brainchild of two men: John Jacob Raskob, former
chief financial officer of General Motors, and Alfred Smith, former governor of New
York. In the late 1920s, Raskob and Smith decided to build the world’s tallest building as
a way to attract tenants to a midtown Manhattan site on Fifth Avenue that had been
owned by the Astor family. They began to raise money for their building in 1929. Raskob
and Pierre du Pont, the latter of the famous chemical family, were the main investors. The
project was entirely speculative, proceeding without a guaranteed “anchor tenant,” unlike
the Chrysler or Woolworth buildings. Raskob and Smith’s gamble was seriously
threatened in October 1929 when “Black Thursday” struck, inaugurating the Great
Depression just two months after the first public announcement of the Empire State
Building project. Construction continued in the hope that an economic turnaround was
near, but even after its completion in 1931, the building faced adversity. The Empire
State Building was only half full when it opened, and throughout the 1930s the
occupancy rate never exceeded 25 percent. Critics coined the nickname “The Empty
State Building” to describe the spectacular but barely used Goliath. The fact that the
building was able to survive these lean years adds to the Empire State Building’s fame,
just as its continued construction during the Depression made it a public symbol of hope
for better times ahead.
In 1929, Raskob and Smith enlisted the New York architectural firm of Shreve and
Lamb to design a 65-story building for the site. William F.Lamb, chief designer for the
project, created a building in the popular “setback style” to comply with the prevailing
New York zoning laws. These laws required a building to become thinner as it rose
higher; theoretically, a skyscraper could reach any height as long as it covered less than
one-quarter of its site. Lamb responded to the restrictions by creating a simple, elegant
building that gradually stepped skyward to a flat top. However, Raskob not only wanted a
towering skyscraper, he also wanted to trump corporate foe Walter Chrysler, who was
building a headquarters just blocks from the Empire State Company’s Manhattan site. In
August 1929, as the Chrysler Building was rising, Raskob’s dream of a 1000-foot, 80-
story tower had been announced to the public. Chrysler kept his architectural plans secret,
depriving Raskob and others of knowing just how tall his new building would be. As it
neared completion, Chrysler decided to add a needlelike spire to the top to bring the
height to 1048 feet. Raskob retaliated by ordering his architects (now Shreve, Lamb and
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Harmon) to add six stories to the Empire design, making the building 1050 feet and
topping Chrysler by less than a yard. By December 1929, Raskob was insecure about this
slim margin of victory; the architects and engineers appeased him by proposing a 200-
foot dirigible mooring mast to crown the building. As constructed, the Empire State
Building’s 102 stories soared to a height of 1250 feet, just over 200 feet taller than the
Chrysler Building. Raskob had won the battle.
The Empire State Building was designed to satisfy the setback
requirements by rising in a series of ever-narrowing blocks. The exterior
was sheathed in Indiana limestone with a minimum of decoration.
Geometric designs in the aluminum spandrels and fluted stone corners are
the only ornamentation. The darkened spandrels are contrasted with light,
continuous mullions to emphasize verticality. Although the Empire State Building’s attractive setback style and
amazing height draw the most attention, its interiors were equally impressive. The
building contained an incredible 2.1 million square feet of rentable space—almost twice
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the amount of Manhattan’s second-largest building. The opulent lobby was a shining
example of Art Deco design, with marble walls; aluminum, platinum, and chromium
finish; reflected light; and a stainless-steel relief of the building against the outline of
New York State.
In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, the Empire State Building was a marvel of
construction. Its steel skeleton was state of the art for the period. More spectacular was
the speed with which the building was constructed—only 18 months passed from the first
sketches to the opening ceremonies. Actual construction was accomplished in an almost
unbelievable 11 months. The structural frame took only 25 weeks. Much of the praise for
this rapid erection goes to the organizational scheme developed by the general
contractors, Starrett Brothers and Eken.
On 1 May 1931, President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in Washington, D.C., and
the lights went on in the Empire State Building, officially opening the world’s tallest
building. During an opening ceremony at the building, attended by New York Governor
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Mayor Jimmy Walker, Al Smith aptly described the new
architectural wonder as “a monument for generations to come.” It stood tall and
unchallenged over midtown Manhattan, proudly proclaiming the triumph of American
corporate capitalism even on the verge of its darkest hours.
Despite the lack of tenants in its early days, the Empire State Building has been a
critical and popular success from the very beginning. During the lean years, income from
the popular 86th- and 102nd-floor observation decks helped keep the building open.
Beyond its place in the climax of the movie King Kong, it has remained a tremendous tourist
attraction for over half a century. The building became a cultural icon, symbolizing New
York and American prosperity and ingenuity. The Empire State Building lost the title of
world’s tallest building after a 41-year reign when the New York’s World Trade Center
opened in 1972, but it has never lost its mystique. The Empire State Building is the
archetypal skyscraper; although subsequent buildings have been built higher, none have
equaled it in grace and beauty or approached it in the public’s imagination.

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