- 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
The care and feeding of well over 3,000 workers was a problem all by itself. When the noon whistle blew, five mobile cafeterias began shuttling up and down the scaffolding. For forty cents—and with no time lost—a man could sit on a girder and gulp down two sandwiches, coffee or milk, and pie. Ten miles of temporary piping, at a cost of twentyfive thousand dollars, brought water to virtually every man aloft. Down below there were nurses and medical facilities.
As the months went by and the building began to look like a building, sidewalk crowds, swelled by men and women out of jobs, watched in fascination. Oftener than not, the question they asked each other was, “How will it be filled?”
Opening day, May 1, 1931, was all that the promoters could have wished. The Times spoke of the “blue haze of a cloudless sky,” and special guests at the top were impressed when told that one could see for eighty miles.
The ceremonies were a predictable political potpourri. President Hoover, welcoming a bright spot in the gloom of the deepening Depression, (licked a switch in Washington that illuminated Smith’s New York tower. Governor Franklin Roosevelt came down from Albany, Jaunty Jimmy Walker, mayor of New York, remarked cryptically that the building looked like just the place where “some public official might like to come and hide.”
Smith introduced speakers over the “raddio,” and telegrams were sent from the world’s highest dispatch station. Smith read a cable from architect William Lamb, who was in a relaxed and jovial mood on a sea voyage: “One day out and I can still see the building.” Again the press sang paeans, calling Empire State “poetry in steel,” “building in excelsis,” and “the tallest arrow in Manhattan’s quiver.”
Al Smith, along with his tall, black governor’s chair and his political cartoons, moved into his olRces on the thirty-second door. He was the source of an ever-freshening stream of publicity designed to keep the building before the eyes of the public—and the eyes of prospective renters. Smith’s every move was news, île entertained celebrities, from royalty to movie stars to downright crackpots, in the Empire State Club and on the observation decks. When one timorous elevator rider asked whether she could expect to go up or down, Smith assured her, “It all depends what kind of life you’ve led.”
Filling nearly two million square feet of rentable space was no small order. Potential lessees were lured by the centrality of the location and by the distinction of the site. (Huge advertisements in the press, playing up William Astor’s purchase of the ground in 1827, burbled on about the “perpetual prestige” of the address.) Some ads also carried pictures Astor private homes, of Astor family weddings, and of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel itself—all to “recapture an age of elegance” and to encourage occupancy at “the world’s most distinguished address.”
The suites ranged in size from six hundred square feet to whole lower floors of seventy-one thousand, all offered at “bargain prices because mass produced.” But it was slow going, getting people to take space. Vaudeville artists enlivened their routines with sketches on “The Empty State Building,” “The 102-Story Blunder,” and “Smith’s Folly.” The bravest boasts claimed only 46 per cent occupancy when the building opened and only about two-thirds of capacity during its early years. When the King of Siam visited Empire State he said he felt right at home because his country had its white elephants too.
Smith manned the helm for the thirteen years that were the building’s first and his last. Although he enjoyed his new role and remained the hero of millions, those years were underscored by bitterness, and he was often “poor Al” instead of “the Happy Warrior.” On top of the stinging defeat of 1928 had come the Depression itself. Close friends went bankrupt, and some of them committed suicide. Despite his annual salary of $50,000, Smith had to battle various creditors.
During his period of managing the Empire State, Smith himself changed. He moved his residence to Fifth Avenue and exchanged his brown derby for a top hat. The once-proud alumnus of F.F.M. (Fulton Fish Market) became the recipient of honorary degrees from several universities. The former antitrust campaigner, now struggling to reduce taxes and to attract tenants, sided more and more with the men of Wall Street. Opposing the “socialistic bureaucrats indulging in communistic planning and crackpot reforms” of the New Deal, Smith saw hope for the nation only in the “initiative, [the] force, [the] foursquare, down-rightness and hard-bitten self-reliance of men of this type rebuilding prosperity.”
“To fill vacant floors in the Empire State Building,” wrote Robert Moses, “the Governor had to make a humiliating journey to Canossa.” Smith went to Washington in 1941 and with President Roosevelt’s help was able to secure the rental of sixtieth-floor suites by the Department of Commerce.
But even during those early hard times, the one-hundred-and-second-floor tower—“as high as you can get without actually flying”—was a smash hit. It attracted over a million visitors annually, and their admission dollars helped out. There was no doubt about it: the world up there was different. The pressure of swirling winds made snow seem to fall up, and rain turned red from the skyglow. In bad weather the top of the building was literally lost in the clouds; on calm nights, in later years when the top third was floodlit, the Empire State held regal command over the city.