- 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 time, skating troupes, bathing beauties, circus acrobats, and mediums (who wanted to be closer to the spirit world) all performed on the observation decks. A Hollywood film showed King Kong at the literal height of his career. Health nuts climbed the building’s 1,860 steps despite discouraging frowns from a management fearful of heart attacks. The building had its share of excitement- there were minor fires and periodic shootings, and there were the inevitable suicides. One of the first was headlined in the Mirror: PRETTY IRMA, SHE LEAPED FOR LOVE FROM THE WORLD’S HIGHEST BUILDING . Suicide rails were installed around the observation decks in 1947.
When Smith died in 1944, much of the fun died with him, but so did the hard times of depression and war. Empire State entered an era of peace and plenty; the city’s office occupancy rate rose above 98 per cent, and the vast corridors in the sky, dark and empty for so many years, kindled with light and business.
Barely out of financial trouble, the building that had had little success in mooring dirigibles came into tragic contact with another type of aircraft. At 9:49 on the drizzly, misty morning of July 28, 1945, an Army B-25 crashed into the north side of the cloud-shrouded colossus. It tore a jagged eighteen-bytwenty-foot hole between the seventyeighth and seventy-ninth floors and spewed flaming gasoline five stories up and down.
One of the plane’s engine’s shot across the seventy-eighth floor, ripped through the south side of the building, and wound up in a sculptor’s studio on the opposite side of Thirty-third Street. The other motor, along with part of the landing gear, crashed into an elevator shaft and landed atop an empty car, which then plunged to the subcellar, touching off another fire.
The crash had also weakened the cables of another elevator—carrying two women. The cables snapped, and the car fell seventy-five stories, but its slowing devices were still operative; though badly injured, both passengers survived.
Fire fighters were able to take elevators to the sixty-seventh floor, but they had to hoof it from there. “It is difficult,” said the fire commissioner’s report, “to fight a blistering hot gasoline fire after plodding up eleven or twelve flights of stairs, encumbered with rubber clothing, weighted clown with heavy rolls of hose.”
Fourteen people were killed in the accident: eleven workers trapped in the Catholic War Relief offices on the seventy-ninth floor, and the pilot and two military passengers aboard the B-25. The death toll might have been much higher but for the fact that the seventy-eighth floor was unoccupied—and that July 28, 1945, was a Saturday.
It took twelve months and nearly one million dollars to repair the building. The work had hardly been completed when the elevator operators went on strike. Some determined tenants climbed the stairs to their offices. One day a group of brokers on the thirty-first floor sent out for lunch—which included 150 sandwiches—and tipped the delivery man seventy-five dollars. One man spent three days in his sixty-eighth-floor office waiting for an important phone call (he got it).
In 1950 the Empire State Building grew another 222 feet with the addition of a television tower that could accommodate transmitting antennas for all of New York’s channels. (In 1965 a master FM radio antenna was installed just below the television facility.) The red warning lights along the television spire are the only ones that operate 365 nights a year. Since the mid-fifties the others—the floodlights for the top thirty stories and the massive fluorescent panels of the tower—have been extinguished on cloudy or foggy nights during the wild-fowl migratory seasons. It was found that cloud-diffused light tended to disorient birds and to lure them into fatal collisions with the building.
The Empire State Building cost just under 41 million dollars, including land; in 1951, the year after John J. Raskob died, a group headed by Roger L. Stevens bought the building for 34 million dollars. The Prudential Insurance Company of America bought the land for another 17 million dollars and set up a lease-back arrangement with the new owners. In 1954 a Chicago syndicate led by Colonel Henry Crown acquired the Empire State for 51.5 million dollars. The most recent ownership change came in 1961: Prudential, together with a syndicate headed by Lawrence Wien, a lawyer, and Harry Helmsley, a realtor, bought the build- ing for 65 million dollars. Prudential became the owner of record, and granted the Helmsley-Wien syndicate a 114-year master lease. They pay an annual rent of 3.2 million dollars while collecting some 14 million dollars from tenants, TV networks, and tourists who come to see the city from the sky.
The past few years have been good to Empire State. With about 932 tenants, it is all but full to capacity. Two sub-ground-level floors, unoccupied since construction, have recently been opened up, adding another 75,000 square feet of space. As always, these is a staggering variety of goods and services available within the building.
But ownership of the capsule metropolis carries with it many headaches and means a ceaseless battle against obsolescence. The elevators have been automated, and air conditioning has been installed. The exterior has already been cleaned and recoated, and the window frames have been repainted. The maintenance cost is a sizable 1.35 million dollars per year.