Known for its record-breaking height and sophisticated Art Deco style, the Empire State Building is one of New York City’s, if not the world’s, most recognized landmarks. While the building is often used in popular culture as light-natured fodder—such as the opening backdrop to your favorite cookie-cutter rom-com or the romantic meeting spot for star-crossed lovers—the building’s past is far more ominous than many of us realize. From failed suicide attempts to accidental plane crashes, its history casts a vibrant lineup of plot-lines and characters spanning the past ninety years.
It was constructed during a race to create the world’s tallest building. In the late-1920s, as New York’s economy boomed like never before, builders were in a mad dash to erect the world’s largest skyscraper. The main competition was between 40 Wall Street’s Bank of Manhattan building and the Chrysler Building, an elaborate Art Deco structure conceived by car mogul Walter Chrysler as a “monument to me.” Both towers tried to best each other by adding more floors to their design, and the race really heated up in August 1929, when General Motors executive John J. Raskob and former New York Governor Al Smith announced plans for the Empire State Building.
Upon learning that the Empire State would be 1,000 feet tall, Chrysler changed his plans a final time and fixed a stainless steel spire to the top of his skyscraper. The addition saw the Chrysler Building soar to a record 1,048 feet, but unfortunately for Chrysler, Raskob and Smith simply went back to the drawing board and returned with an even taller design for the Empire State Building. When completed in 1931, the colossus loomed 1,250 feet over the streets of Midtown Manhattan. It would remain the world’s tallest building for nearly 40 years until the completion of the first World Trade Center tower in 1970
Design and Construction
The Eiffel Tower, measuring 984 feet, was built in Paris in 1889. And as many French things do, it taunted American architects with its lofty height. The French feat challenged Americans to build something even taller, and its completion marked the beginning of the twentieth century’s great skyscraper race. Prior to the Empire State Building, the U.S. lineup of tall towers included the Metropolitan Life Tower at 700 feet built-in 1909, followed by the 729-foot Woolworth Building in 1913, and finally the 927-foot Bank of Manhattan Building in 1929
Photo of a structural worker in 1930 by Lewis Hine, via Wiki Commons
Jakob Raskob, the former vice president of General Motors, decided to make his mark in the race by pitting himself against the founder of the Chrysler Corporation, Walter Chrysler. With Chrysler keeping these plans for a new tower tightly under wraps, Raskob had to account for the unknown.
Raskob and his partners purchased the 34th street parcel of property in 1929 for $16 million and quickly hired architect William F. Lamb, of the firm Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, who completed their original drawings for the Empire State Building in just two weeks. The logic of Lamb’s plans was simple: He organized the space in the center of the building as compactly as possible containing vertical circulation, toilets, mail chutes, shafts and corridors, and as the height of the building increased, the size of the floors and number of elevators decreased.
Whether or not it was enough to out-scale Chrysler remained unknown, but with the competition heating up, Mr. Raskob found his own solution to the problem. When examining a scale model of the building the tycoon exclaimed, “It needs a hat!” New plans were drawn and the proposed building stretched to a whopping 1,250 feet thanks to a crafty spire. The building was constructed between 1929 and 1931, and cost $40,948,900 to erect. Upon completion, it easily surpassed its competitors, raising the New York skyline to the highest of heights. In addition to its impressive stature, the speed of construction was also unprecedented. The builders innovated in ways that saved time, money, and manpower. For example, a railway system was set up on-site with cars that could hold up to eight times more than a wheelbarrow, making it easy to move materials more efficiently. In total the building was finished in just 410 days, almost three months ahead of schedule.
Photo was taken by Hine in 1930, via Wiki Commons
Photographer Lewis Hine was commissioned to document the process. To gain the vantage points he needed to capture the work being done at such extreme heights, Hine photographed workers from a specially designed basket that swung out 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue. Although Hine was only hired to photograph the building of this great monument, his work also focused heavily on the men who created it. The artist referred to these images as “work portraits” and they were a nod to his desire to capture character rather than just architecture. Its upper tower was originally designed as a mooring mast for airships..By far the most unusual aspect of the Empire State Building’s design concerned its 200-foot tower. Convinced that transatlantic airship travel was the wave of the future, the building’s owners originally constructed the mast as a docking port for lighter-than-air dirigibles. The harebrained scheme called for the airships to maneuver alongside the building and tether themselves to a winching apparatus. Passengers would then exit via an open-air gangplank, check-in at a customs office and make their way to the streets of Manhattan in a mere seven minutes. Despite early enthusiasm for the project, the high winds near the building’s rooftop proved all but impossible for pilots to negotiate. The closest thing to a “landing” came in September 1931, when a small dirigible tethered itself to the spire for a few minutes. Two weeks later, a Goodyear blimp dropped a stack of newspapers on the roof a part of a publicity stunt, but the airship plan was abandoned shortly thereafter.
There have been more than 30 suicide attempts at the Empire State Building. The first occurred while the building was still under construction when a worker who was laid off threw himself down an open elevator shaft. However, one of the most famous incidents took place on May 1, 1947, when 23-year-old Evelyn McHale leaped to her death from the 86th-floor observation deck. The beautiful young woman was wearing pearls and white gloves and landed on the roof of a United Nations limousine parked outside of the building. With legs elegantly crossing at the ankles, her body lay morbidly lifeless but majestically intact as the car’s metal folded around her like sheets framing her head and arms.
“The Most Beautiful Suicide” by Robert C. Wiles from May 12, 1947
Present on the scene was photography student Robert Wiles who took a photo of McHale just a few minutes after her death. This photo later ran in the May 12, 1947, edition of Life magazine. Her death was given the title as “the most beautiful suicide,” and the imagery was used by visual artist Andy Warhol in his print series, Suicide (Fallen Body).
On account of unanticipated conditions and poor planning, there have been two cases where jumpers survived by failing to fall more than one floor. The first was Elvita Adams who on December 2, 1972, jumped from the 86th floor only to be interrupted by a gust of wind that blew her body back onto the 85th floor, leaving her alive with a mere broken hip. The second was on April 25, 2013, when 33-year old Nathanial Simone jumped from the 86th-floor observation deck, fortunately, landing shortly after on an 85th-floor ledge.
In addition to suicide, the Empire State Building’s death toll also includes tragedies resulting from two shootings, as well as a plane crash.
On February 23, 1997, Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, a 69-year-old Palestinian teacher, opened fire on the observation deck killing one man and injuring six others before shooting himself in the head.
The second shooting took place on on August 24, 2012, when Jeffrey Johnson, a clothing designer who had been laid off, shot and killed a former co-worker outside of the building. The gunman, who was hiding behind a van, emerged onto 33rd street first shooting his target from afar. After his victim fell to the ground, Johnson approached the body and fired several more rounds while standing over him. Johnson was later shot down by police officers stationed in front of the Empire State Building’s 5th Avenue entrance. The officers fired a total of 16 rounds, killing Johnson and injuring nine bystanders, none of whom, miraculously, suffered life-threatening wounds. On July 28, 1945, Lt. Colonel William Smith crashed a U.S. Army B-25 bomber into the north side of the Empire State Building’s 79th floor.
The plane embedded into the side of the building, via Wiki Commons
The city was cloaked in dense fog on the morning of the crash, and the Lt. Colonel, who was on his way to Newark to pick up his commanding officer, somehow ended up over LaGuardia asking for a weather report. Although he was encouraged to land, Smith still requested military permission to continue to Newark. The last transmission from the LaGuardia tower to the plane was a foreboding warning: “From where I’m sitting, I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building.”
Workmen clearing the wreckage on the 78th floor, via Wiki Commons
On the morning of July 28, 1945, while flying an Army B-25 bomber toward New York’s La Guardia Airport, Army Lt. Col. William F. Smith became disoriented in heavy fog and drifted over Midtown Manhattan. The World War II combat veteran managed to dodge several skyscrapers, but he was unable to avoid plowing into the 78th and 79th floors of the Empire State at 200 miles an hour. The crash triggered a massive explosion and sent debris careering through the building’s interior. Smith and two crewmen were killed, as were 11 people inside the building. A four-alarm fire broke out on several floors—it was then the highest building fire in New York’s history—but firefighters managed to extinguish it in just 40 minutes. Amazingly, the undamaged sections of the building were reopened for business just two days later.
In an attempt to regain visibility, Smith lowered the bomber only to find himself amid the towering skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. Initially, he was headed straight for the New York Central Building but was able to shift west avoiding contact. He continued to swerve around several other buildings until his luck ran out and he found himself headed straight for the Empire State Building. The pilot tried to climb and twist away but it was too late. Upon impact, the bomber made a hole in the building measuring eighteen feet high and twenty feet wide, and the plane’s high-octane fuel exploded, shooting flames throughout the building that reached down to the 75th floor. 13 people died.
A woman survived a 75-story plunge in one of the building’s elevators.
During the 1945 bomber crash, several pieces of the B-25’s engine sliced through the Empire State Building and entered an elevator shaft. The cables for two cars were severed, including one containing a 19-year-old elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver. The elevator plummeted from the 75th floor and soon crashed into the subbasement, but luckily for Oliver, more than a thousand feet of severed elevator cable had gathered at the bottom of the shaft, cushioning the blow. The fall may have also been slowed by a pocket of compressed air generated by the car’s rapid descent. Despite suffering severe injuries including a broken neck and back, Oliver survived. There was a short-lived plan to add 11 floors to the Empire State Building. Shortly after the World Trade Center towers were erected in the early 1970s, an architect at the firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon concocted a scheme that would allow the Empire State Building to keep its crown as the world’s tallest skyscraper. The proposed plan called for the building’s 16-story tower to be demolished and replaced by a new top section that would increase its height to 113 stories and 1,495 feet. If completed, the renovation would have made the Empire Building taller than both the World Trade Center and the Sears Tower—which was then under construction—but the idea was quickly dropped due to cost concerns and complaints that it would destroy the building’s iconic look.
A few daredevils have parachuted from the building’s observation deck.
IIn April 1986, British thrill-seekers Alastair Boyd and Michael McCarthy concealed parachutes under their coats, bought tickets to the Empire State Building, and then hurled themselves off its 86th-floor observation deck. The pair landed safely more than 1,000 feet below on 33rd Street, but while McCarthy was quickly arrested, Boyd simply hailed a cab and escaped. He soon turned himself in, however, and both men were charged with “reckless endangerment” and “unlawful parachuting.” Twelve years later, Norwegian parachutist Thor Alex “The Human Fly” Kappfjell repeated the stunt by jumping off the building’s 34th street side. Kappfjell managed to escape and parachute off the Chrysler Building a few days later, but he was eventually arrested after jumping off the World Trade Center. An inflatable King Kong was attached to the Empire State Building for the film’s 50th anniversary—with mixed results.
Inflatable King Kong on the Empire State Building. (Credit: Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Every year on Valentine’s Day, couples who marry on the 80th floor become members of the Empire State Building Wedding Club. They receive free admission to the observatory each year on February 14 (their anniversary) thereafter. Since 1976 the ESB has been lit up to mark celebrations and events. In 2012, LED lights were installed — they can display 16 million colors that can be changed in an instant.
The Empire State Building also houses shops and restaurants that include the State Bar and Grill, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner in an art deco setting. It’s off the 33rd Street lobby.
Besides all these tourist attractions, the Empire State Building is home to rentable space for businesses. The ESB has 102 floors, and if you’re in good shape and want to walk from street level to the 102nd floor, you will climb 1,860 steps. Natural light shines through 6,500 windows, which also afford spectacular views of Midtown Manhattan.
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