- 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
At a depth of thirty-five feet, the new basement was only five feet deeper than the Waldorfs. It had footings for 210 steel and concrete columns that would go down to bedrock. Every stage of the excavation-construction process was well timed and publicized: the first steel piers were sunk on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1930.
With spring, work on the skeleton began in earnest. Empire State absorbed fifty-seven thousand tons of steel—nearly three times as much as the Chrysler Building and enough, said the corporation’s brochures, to make a double railroad track to Baltimore.
The steel was poured and set into girders in Pittsburgh. The girders were then sped to a waterfront supply yard in New Jersey, whence they were trucked to the building site, lifted in bundles on cobweblike cables, and set in place. Often the whole process took a mere eighty hours. Sixteen electrically driven derricks were equipped with automatic hoists, an innovation born of an accident during the Chrysler construction in which a derrick operator, knocked unconscious by a flying brick, had dropped his bundle of steel. Despite the improvement, Empire State could not match Chrysler’s record of only one life lost during construction. According to the New York Daily News , fourteen men were killed in various kinds of mishaps during the raising of Empire State.
Fitting-up gangs and raising gangs moved the steel up to the riveting gangs at the ever-heightening top; a heater, a bucker-up, a sticker-in, and two riveters fastened each girder with bone-rattling machines. At peak construction, thirtyeight riveting gangs were on the job; three hundred steelworkers, interchanging their posts, put the giant frame together.
The press lavished praise and admiration on the steelworkers, calling them “the poet builders” and “the sky boys who ride the ball to the 90th floor or higher, and defy death to the staccato chattering of a pneumatic riveting-hammer.” Said the Literary Digest in May of 1931: “Like little spiders they toiled, spinning a fabric of steel against the sky … weaving a web that was to stretch farther heavenward than”—unhappy basis of comparison—“the ancient Tower of Babel.” The pictures accompanying this article arc proof that the steelworkers captivated photographer Lewis Hine. Hc called them “the spirit of the skyscraper,” whose “experiences have given me a new zest of high adventure.”
The steel men represented a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, and were union and nonunion alike; but they worked quickly. “The first column was set on April 7, 1930,” wrote Colonel Starrctt with justifiable pride, “and twenty-five weeks later over 57,000 tons of steel had been topped out … 87 stories above the sub basement level, 12 days ahead of schedule.” September of iggo saw, in fact, two topping-out celebrations. Down at street level Al Smith laid the cornerstone, while high in the sky a handful of steelworkers, perched on a girder over the eighty-fifth Moor, raised the American flag 1,048 feet above Fifth Avenue.
Other crews in the construction process swarmed in on the heels of the steel setters. Stairways rose through the skeleton; then came the electric cables and various kinds of piping, the building’s veins and arteries. The lower Moors were plastered before the roof was made tight. The overlapping schedule was working well, and, with the omnipresent pressure for speed, it all gave, in the Times ’s felicitous phrase, the impression of “a chase up into the sky.”
The concrete Moor arches quickly followed the steel. As Starrett wrote: Early in October, 1930, the arches of the eighty-sixth floor … were completed. … about three million square feet of arches had been set. These arches requited 62,000 cubic yards of anthracite cinder concrete and nearly three million feet of reinforcing mesh. …
As soon as this work [had been] thoroughly organized above the sixth floor, the stone setting and outside Avail construction progressed at the rate of a story a day. … All stonework except a few ornamental features around the lower floors were set in 113 days.
The logistical problem of how to handle all the building materials was resolved by the installation of a unique horizontal and vertical railway. Trucks drove into the site at ground level and unloaded the materials—everything but the steel handled by hoists—into twenty rail cars. The cars glided on tracks into specially designed temporary elevators, which carried them to the proper Moors. Tracks, shunts, and turntables had been installed on each floor—the materials were deposited at the workers’ very elbows. The system was orderly and safe; it kept wastage to a minimum and allowed New York to get on with its business without blocked streets or sidewalks.
The work force became a small army during the peak months of spring and summer, 1930. On busy days Starrett Brothers and Eken had 1,900 men on their payroll, and sixty-seven subcontractors had another 1,500 on theirs. Colonel Starrett later estimated that seven million man-hours went into the building of Empire State. In addition to the tradesmen—carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, heating and ventilating men—there were inspectors, foremen, checkers, clerks, and even men with watering cans to settle the dust.