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The Empire State Building

The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark

JOHN TAURANAC With a New Epilogue by the Author
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Empire State Building
    Book Description:

    The Empire State Building is the landmark book on one of the world's most notable landmarks. Since its publication in 1995, John Tauranac's book, focused on the inception and construction of the building, has stood as the most comprehensive account of the structure. Moreover, it is far more than a work in architectural history; Tauranac tells a larger story of the politics of urban development in and through the interwar years. In a new epilogue to the Cornell edition, Tauranac highlights the continuing resonance and influence of the Empire State Building in the rapidly changing post-9/11 cityscape.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7109-4
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-8)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 9-10)
    (pp. 11-14)
    (pp. 15-29)

    Before we set out on the story of the Empire State Building, I want to make one point perfectly clear: This book is about the building in Manhattan at 350 Fifth Avenue, on the west side of the avenue between Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth Streets, block number 835, lot number 41. The building is 102 stories high, 1,250 feet tall—1,454 feet if you include the television antenna. You might think me oddly pedantic to point out these facts, but I want to reduce the chance for any misunderstandings.

    There was, and still is, another Empire State Building in Manhattan, the...

    (pp. 30-49)

    If you ask the man in the street to defineskyscraper, he will no doubt wonder what kind of jerk you are. “It’s a very tall building,” he would probably say, which is a perfectly acceptable answer. Inherent in the wordskyscraper, after all, is the essence of the building—it has to be tall, it has to “scrape the sky.”

    Campaniles, steeples, and minarets are tall, but ordinarily there is only enough space within the structures for staircases. The rest is the structure itself. The reverse is the case with domes. They are shells, with vast interiors for effect....

    (pp. 50-66)

    Until the end of the nineteenth century, man had lived and worked close to the ground. Only in his temples of worship did he lift domes and spires to dizzying heights in the skies. By the turn of the twentieth century, all that changed. Engineering and architecture teamed up to make skyscrapers so practicable, so feasible that they were popping up like mushrooms on a damp forest floor. Suddenly, working ten or twenty stories up in the air was not such an exceptional thing.

    There is the movie myth that if you build a baseball field, the players will come....

    (pp. 67-85)

    If the business of America was business, as Calvin Coolidge would have had you believe, then the business of New York in the twenties was real estate. Business was booming, and developers and realtors had every reason for continued optimism. Real estate values, they said, rested on the firm bedrock of population, and New York City—world metropolis, center of finance, industry, and art—had new people locating there all the time. With its limited supply of space and an ever-increasing demand, realtors believed that New York property values would always be rising.

    Like other Americans, realtors were certain that...

    (pp. 86-98)

    The man primarily responsible for the Empire State Building was not trained as an architect, city planner, or engineer. He was not in the construction business, nor in the real estate business. His only direct dealings in real estate were of a personal nature—a mansion here and an apartment or summer home there—until he made the momentous decision to build the world’s tallest building. The man he chose to be his colleague in the venture, the man who would act as his front man, was not in the real estate business either. He was a politician.

    John J....

  9. 6 THE FIRM
    (pp. 99-110)

    Career decisions for architects are similar to career decisions for anyone entering corporate life. It’s wise to join a young firm on its way up, not one that is already ossified. And, unless you are on the fast track for top management or partnership, don’t work for the same firm very long. Otherwise you are liable to become one of the ossified yourself.

    Unlike manufacturers whose start-up costs can be prohibitive, architects can strike out on their own or join in partnership to start their own firm with little more required than a sense of purpose, a drawing board, and...

  10. 7 THE SITE
    (pp. 111-135)

    For the first half of the nineteenth century, the future site of the Empire State Building was on the edge of development. It has been in the limelight ever since, first as a center for New York society, then as a center for national and international society, and finally, from the 1930s forward, as a great commercial and tourist center. Its fate started to change in 1827, when William Back-house Astor plunked down $20,500 and bought a nothing little farm on a parallelogram of land that roughly stretched from Madison Avenue at Thirty-second Street to Sixth Avenue at Thirty-sixth. Astor...

  11. 8 THE STYLE
    (pp. 136-152)

    The romantic image of a 1920s architect is a Raymond Massey character standing atop a hill with the wind blowing in his tousled hair. He gazes out over the fruits of his labor, a dream city where freestanding towers shoot a thousand feet and more into the clouds. Lighter-than-air craft cast off from the tops of buildings, and double- and triple-decked streets serve as high-speed motorways where sleek cars glide efficiently and silently along. Pedestrians ride elevated moving sidewalks that connect one skyscraper with another, and sidewalks built of glass permit light to penetrate the lower levels. These megastructures house...

  12. 9 THE DESIGN
    (pp. 153-170)

    Who made the first graphic depiction of the Empire State Building depends on who’s telling the story, but either Raskob or Lamb pulled out a big pencil and held it skyward. That, it was decided, was the way the Empire State Building should look. To accomplish the task was daunting. Nobody had ever successfully navigated the uncharted and treacherous shoals of completing an eighty-five-story building, but architects Shreve, Lamb & Harmon did not hit a reef, they did not run aground, they did not founder.

    In his Joe Friday-like recitation of the facts behind the design of the Empire State Building,...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 171-183)

    The developers of the Empire State Building were hardly sleazy speculators whose goal was to build a schlock building with the intent of unloading it on some gullible buyer at the first opportunity. They wanted a first-class building that they would hold on to, a building that they would care for as stewards. They had entered the construction and real estate business for the long haul. They had made no little plans.

    The developers needed a first-class builder, a general contractor who could successfully carry out the plans of their architects and their structural engineer, H. G. Balcom. They had...

    (pp. 184-197)

    On December 11, 1929, Al Smith announced the news that the Empire State Building would not be the tallest building in the world by a mere two feet. It would be the world’s tallest building by 202 feet, rising to the astonishing height of 1,250 feet. The difference in height between it and its nearest competitor was so dramatic that one comic said, “If it was bein’ put up by just a regular politician and not Al Smith, wouldn’t any of us believe it. We would demand a recount.”

    What so satisfied Raskob and his colleagues was that they could...

    (pp. 198-226)

    Before Starrett Bros. & Eken could start work on what would be the world’s tallest building, they had to tear down what had been the city’s largest hotel, and everyone agreed it would be no easy task. The wrecking business had changed in the twenties. Wreckers had formerly either paid for the privilege of removing a building or they had done it free of charge, which they could afford for the value of the materials they salvaged. By the twenties, however, some wreckers started charging as much as $200,000 to do a job.

    Buildings built in the previous thirty years were...

  17. 13 THE OPENING
    (pp. 227-248)

    Opening day, May 1, 1931, was a cool day with a slight haze, but the chill and less-than-ideal visibility did little to restrain Al Smith’s exuberance for the consecration of the house. There was a warmth manifested at the occasion, an almost small-town intimacy that the press ascribed in large measure to the fact that this was “Al Smith’s building,” or, as theBrooklyn Eagledescribed it, “The House That Smith Built.”

    True to his sentimental nature, Smith thought it only fitting that two of his grandchildren should start the ceremonies by cutting the red ribbon at the Fifth Avenue...

    (pp. 249-266)

    The day-to-day running of the Empire State Building fell to the building’s manager, Chapin L. Brown, who operated as if he were the mayor of a small town. Brown supervised about 350 service employees (full tenancy would have called for one thousand), including fire and sanitation departments and a police force, as well as elevator operators and mechanics, engineers, plumbers and pipe fitters, electricians, painters, cabinetmakers, a house smith, and a staff for the general welfare of the workers, which included a nurse.

    Brown laid out schedules for his department heads that he expected to be followed to the letter,...

    (pp. 267-311)

    General Motors stock was selling at 67½ on October 1, 1929, the day demolition began on the Waldorf-Astoria. A few weeks later, on Black Thursday, the stock market crashed. Less than a year and a half later, on the day the Empire State Building opened, GM stock had lost more than a third of its value and was selling at 40⅛. Compared with other blue-chip stocks, GM seemed a winner. Other stocks that were likewise considered the backbone of the American economy had fared far worse: United States Steel, down from 221¾ to 114¼; du Pont de Nemours, down from...

  20. 16 THE WAR
    (pp. 312-331)

    Almost from the day the Empire State Building opened, the nation seemed to be preparing for war. On May 24, 1931, the army air force sent 672 planes into the air over New York City to simulate an air attack on the city, an event covered by a host of radio announcers for stations WABC and WJZ. The tops of some of the city’s best situated buildings were used as observation posts, with the Empire State Building the most favored. Peggy Hull, the first newspaperwoman granted a pass into a battle sector by the U.S. War Department in World War...

  21. 17 SINCE THE WAR
    (pp. 332-366)

    By the time the war was over, renting manager H. Hamilton Weber sensed that the Empire State Building was on its economic feet in ways that were not reflected on the books. Prospective tenants had started asking whether he was interested in a Cadillac, or if his wife wanted a new fur coat. In 1944, the building was 85 percent rented. By 1946, the building was home to about five hundred organizations and about fifteen thousand office workers—two thousand of them in twenty-one federal agencies—and it was said to be fully tenanted. By 1950, Time magazine said the...

  22. EPILOGUE: AFTER 9/11
    (pp. 367-370)

    I ended this book quoting the late Jack Brod, who praised the Empire State Building while dismissing the World Trade Center. That complex vanished in two fireballs and a cloud of dust after the terrorist attack on the morning of September 11, 2001, an attack that changed American society.

    An obvious and immediate change in the wake of that disaster was to the city’s skyline. With the World Trade Towers gone, the Empire State Building reigned again as the tallest building in the city. The Empire State Building held that title for more than a decade, until One World Trade...

    (pp. 371-378)
  24. INDEX
    (pp. 379-388)