- 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
Strict zoning laws, introduced in igiG alter the construction of the massively proportioned Equitable Building on lower Broadway, required that new buildings grow narrower as they rise. Many thereby took on a “wedding cake” profile. (Skyscrapers in later years have been granted space bonuses at higher Moors in return for setbacks at street levels, and the more streamlined shaft form has become common.)
The zoning regulations meant, in the case of Empire State, that floors aljove the thirtieth could be no larger than one quarter of the ground lot. But the building’s planners decided to forgo the use of the full area permitted: they designed the tower section to rise not from the thirtieth floor but from the fifth.
The first five floors were to be built out to the lot line. Floors from the sixth upward, eased with abutments, formed a relatively slender skyscraper shaft. The tower Moors would have the so-called skyscraper advantages of more windows and minimized interior darkness. Although there would be fewer square feet of rentable space, there would also be less, by definition, to build and maintain; the tower footage was considered prestige space that would command good prices.
The original plan called for a structure of eighty-six floors topped by an observation platform; it would stand 1,050 feet high. That would give Empire State nine more rentable floors than Chrysler, but only a four-foot advantage over Chrysler and its surprise spire. Raskob, worried that the edge was too scant, insisted that “this building needs a hat.” In December of 1929 he came up with a surprise of his own—plans for a two-hundred-foot mooring mast for dirigibles.
Some found the scheme risible. “If you know how to hold down the tail of a dirigible,” volunteered the New York Telegram , “former Governor Alfred E. Smith may give you a job. …” But, first as an idea and later as a fact, the mast held the public’s attention. Its record as a functioning mooring was not prepossessing, but there were, in fact, two connections a few months after the building opened. On September 15, 1931, a privately owned dirigible tied up—in a forty-mile wind—for three precarious minutes. Two weeks later a Navy blimp idled overhead long enough to produce the Times headline: BLIMP LANDS PAPERS ON EMPIRE STATE MAST .
The mast gradually fattened into a hollow tower with a second observation deck; it gave the completed Empire State 102 stories and a height of 1,250 feet.
Crucial to the basic plan was the matter of elevators, a vital consideration in any high construction. The need to transport 16,000 office workers and 35,000 visitors every day presented a number of engineering problems. Empire State’s solution was to group the elevators in a cylindrical well that also accommodated staircases, cable shafts, utility lines, and mail chutes. The plan called for fiftyeight elevators at the base. They were divided into a number of groups, each of which was to service a particular block of the building’s first eighty floors. Two locals would run from the eightieth to the eighty-sixth floor, and another would shuttle up the tower. There would be twelve others: six for freight and six for spot duty wherever passenger traffic became too heavy.
The elevators would move through seven miles of shafts and would be able to handle some 1,390 persons at a time. The top speed then allowed was seven hundred feet per minute; the regulations have been eased since, and now Empire State’s elevators run at speeds of up to 1,200 feet per minute.
Structurally, Empire State, basically a steel cage, was not innovative; “the latest and largest skyscraper marks only a quantitative advance,” remarked architect James Marston Fitch in 1947, ”… the first one was practically as efficient as the last.” But Empire State did have a few contributions to make. Windows were applied to exterior walls with thin metal brackets instead of being set back into stone frames, adding substantially to the rentable space. This method also halved the stonework around the windows and eliminated the shadows that gave other skyscrapers a checkered appearance. Metal strips were applied vertically from window to window all the way up, enforcing the soaring, shining look.
Once planned, the construction was speeded by “the discipline of a most rigorous accountancy to the owner,” according to Colonel W. A. Starrett of Starrett Brothers and Eken, the firm that had contracted to build Empire State. What he meant was that the building went up in a hurry to keep costs down.
On October 1, 1929, a truck rolled through the main door of the old Waldorf, and the demolition began. A dry-eyed Smith proclaimed that the hotel, historic as it might have been, had to come down in “the march of progress.” The hotel’s treasures were put up for auction, but demand was light. Some sixteen thousand truckloads of debris were carted away; “five miles beyond Sandy Hook,” noted Starrett, “the remains of the Waldorf-Astoria were dumped into the sea.” A seven-hundredman crew, with derricks, compressors, and oxyacetylene burners, worked into the winter to finish oft the old dowager.
The aim was to raise the new building within twenty months. An overlapping schedule was set np: demolition, October, 1929, to February, 1930; excavation, January to March; structural steel, March to September; exterior masonry, June to December; metal window frames, May to January, 1931; elevators and mail chutes, May to February; interior partitions, June to February; painting and revolving doors, March to occupancy.