- Historic Sites
“a Chase Up Into The Sky”
With Al Smith its No. 1 booster, the Empire State Building rose amid the rubble of the Depression. Is its glory at an end?
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
In an article entitled “Cioudbuster” for a 1943 issue of WNYF , the magazine of the New York Fire Department, Peter J. Malier reflected that “when almost everything else was coming apart and tumbling earthward with the stock market … the Empire State, with its gracefully curved mast 1,250 feet in the sky, became a reality.” Two years later Fire Commissioner Patrick Walsh cited Maher’s words in his annual report. Walsh looked back over the bleak years of the Depression and recalled the wonder and the paradox of the period from 1929 to early 1931: while the Western world was slipping deeper and deeper into economic stagnation, the Empire State Building was rising higher than any Other structure in the world.
The economic skies were still bright when, at the end of August in igzg, the announcement was made that an organization headed by former Governor Alfred E. Smith would tear down the elegant but fading Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street and would replace it with the world’s tallest building. Six weeks later the stock market began its catastrophic plunge.
Once the slide started, many sizable ventures were abandoned, but the Empire State project did not falter. Standing behind it was a network of bigmoney men. AIost active among them was John Jacob Kaskob, who had lifted himself out of boyhood penury up through the duPont empire to become cocreator of General Motors. Other backers included Coleman duPont and his cousin Pierre, and two lesser tycoons, Ellis P. Earle and Louis Kauffman.
Alfred E. Smith, with neither money nor business experience to contribute, was drawn into the project by Raskob, who had been chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1928, when Smith unsuccessfully challenged Herbert Hoover for the Presidency. Raskob and Smith, staunch Catholics both, had suffered side by side through bruising attacks on their religion and patriotism; now that Smith had returned to private life, Raskob was there with what he needed most—a job. Smith, like the building itself, was “up from the city streets,” and he had a magnetism of legendary proportions: he would serve as front man and mascot for the project.
The August announcement followed many months of detailed planning, and preliminaries were well under way when the market crashed. Additional lots had been purchased to the west, to provide a full two-acre base. (The lot extends from Thirty-third Street to Thirty-fourth along Fifth Avenue, and more than halfway from Fifth to Sixth Avenue.) The architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon had been retained: blueprints had been drawn, contracts let, and executive offices set up nearby at 200 Madison Avenue.
The razing of the Waldorf began on the first of October and continued despite the shock waves of October 24, Wall Street’s Black Thursday. To retreat would have entailed huge losses; Raskob, with vast investments to protect, told the public that now was the time to buy stock. As the New York Times reported, Senator A. R. Robinson of Indiana accused him of being “psychologically” responsible for the stock market catastrophe. In December, Smith announced a loan of 27.5 million dollars from Metropolitan Life Insurance Company; the project moved on.
The Empire State Building was to become the grand champion in sky racing, New York’s favorite architectural sport for some time. Two decades earlier Metropolitan itself had pulled away from the field by erecting its yoo-foot Wall Street tower. But when Metropolitan offended magnate Frank Woolworth by refusing him a loan, Woolworth’s pique, according to architect Gass Gilbert, led him to commission Gilbert to build a tower higher yet. The ensuing “gothic cathedral” on City Hall Park, completed in 1913, reigned as New Yoik’s tallest—at 792 feet—for sixteen years. By 1929, during a spurt of renewed competitive building, the gay foot Bank of Manhattan Building on Wall Street appeared to be the front runner. Walter Chrysler’s uptown structure, rising at the same time, was not regarded as a serious contender, but in a surprise finish a finial spire, secretly assembled inside, was shot up through its dome. At 1,046 feet, the Ghrysler Building not only trounced the Bank of Manhattan; it was sixty-two feet taller than the Eilfel Tower—and was the tallest building in the world. Mr. Chrysler’s victory was brief, for even as his building was opening in 1930, Empire State was under construction.
Empire State was conceived on a grander scale than the others. It was not merely to he higher; its Fifth Avenue midtown location was more commanding than its predecessors’, and its site was far larger. Even without its symbolic contrast to the tumbling economic world, there was drama aplenty in the concept, scope, and execution of one of mankind’s most ambitious structures.
The conception was the product, as senior architect Richmond Shreve explained, not of pure inspiration but of a symposium of owner, banker, builder, architect, engineer, and real-estate man. It had to be thus, for there were manifold problems and considerations.
Building tall would require, among other things, larger heating ducts and plumbing pipes, more and faster elevators, sturdier building columns; building tall would require extra time and extra construction equipment—and costs would mount with height.