Monday, 16 September 2013

The History of the Empire State Building

“Like little spiders they toiled, spinning a fabric of steel against the sky” (The New Yorker) In the late 1920’s, John Jakob Raskob, former vice president of General Motors, wanted to build his own skyscraper and compete in the race for the tallest building. He bought the land where the Waldorf=Astoria stood for $16 million and hired architectural company Shreve, Lamb and Harmon to design it. Raskob reportedly asked William Lamb, “Bill, how high can you make it so it won’t fall down?” The construction demonstrated the height of efficiency - builders worked in fours, making the rivets and placing them on the steel frames over a thousand feet in the air. A railway was built to transport materials back and forth and bricks were laid down on an express line which was stored underground. Every week, roughly four stories were completed – the use of steel and pre-assembled materials aided the fast construction of the building. It took three thousand men one year and 45 days to build, and official records state that five workers died. On average, over 2,400 tons of steel was put in place every week, an astonishing feat that resulted in the building being finished one month early. Richmond Shreve described the construction as “a parade in which each marcher kept pace and the parade marched out of the top of the building, still in perfect step”. In May 1931, the Empire State was officially opened by President Herbert Hoover lighting the building from Washington D.C. (although someone flicked a switch in New York, lessening the romantic image somewhat.) 

There are thousands of stories that surround this iconic building, but two in particular stand out. In July 1945, Lt. Colonel William Smith was flying a U.S. Army B-25 Bomber through New York, planning to land in Newark. The weather was poor, and as Smith dropped lower to gain better visibility, he collided with the Empire State. The plane smashed into the 79th floor, causing a hole 20ft high and creating fires down to the 75th floor. Fourteen people died, and one survivor described how “three quarters of [one] office was consumed in this sheet of flame”. Part of the engine hit an elevator, and the two women inside were only rescued because the emergency elevator procedure kicked in. The crash caused $1 million in damages, nearly $11 million today. 

Two years later, a famous photograph would make headlines. Evelyn McHale jumped from the 86th floor of the Empire State to her death. A handwritten note declared to her fiancé "I wouldn't make a good wife for anybody." Robert Wiles took a picture of her body a few minutes later, and it became known as the “the most beautiful suicide”. (

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