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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Story of a Skyscraper

The Story of a Skyscraper

On May 1, 2001, New York's Empire State Building celebrated its 70th birthday. Although it has now been dwarfed by several other buildings in the Big Apple, when it was completed in 1931 it was over 61 m (200 ft) taller than its nearest rival, the Chrysler Building, and at 381 m (1,250 ft) remained the tallest building in the world for 41 years, until the World Trade Center was completed in 1972-1973. The story of the Empire State begins with two men's race to build the highest man-made structure in the world.

The French Challenge

In 1889 the central feature of the World's Fair in Paris was Gustave Eiffel's massive tower, constructed with wrought iron and standing 300 m (980 ft) high. Architects in the United States viewed this as something of a challenge, and by the early 20th century the race was on to erect taller buildings than ever before. Soon skyscrapers were springing up along the New York skyline. In 1928 the founder of the Chrysler corporation, Walter Chrysler, announced the building of a huge new skyscraper, taller than anything so far constructed in New York. It soon became clear that the new building was part of Chrysler's aim to rival the motoring giant General Motors. So John Jakob Raskob, of General Motors, decided to race Chrysler to the top. The final height of Chrysler's building was kept secret until it was complete, so Raskob instructed his architects to construct the highest tower they could. Their architectural plans had to be modified as the Chrysler Building grew ever higher, but when it topped out at 77 storeys the Empire State team knew that they could beat it.
New York in the Depression

This amazing burst of corporate rivalry seems even more extraordinary considering that in October 1929, a few months before construction work began on the Empire State Building, the stock market on Wall Street had crashed, and the US economy began its fall into the "Great Depression". The land on which the Empire State Building was constructed, on Fifth Avenue, was a high-profile site. Raskob paid US$16 million for the land, which in the 1920s was a vast sum of money by anyone's standards. Offsetting this was the fact that, owing to the deepening economic crisis, the building costs were relatively low. The eventual cost of the building work was US $24,718,000, about half of what had been expected.

For those companies and individuals working on the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, they must have seemed like heaven-sent opportunities, since the general climate of work and opportunities was dire. During the early years of the Depression, numerous businesses failed and many thousands of people lost their jobs. At the peak of the building operation, there were 3,000 men at work on the Empire State Building at any one time.

Breaking the records

No building project has yet surpassed the Empire State Building's record for speed of construction. From the beginning of construction in March 1930 it took 410 days and approximately 7 million man hours to build. It rose at an astonishing speed of 4.5 storeys per week, thanks to careful planning and quality of work. The building was officially opened on May 1, 1931, by President Hoover.
What is the building used for?

Nobody lives in the Empire State Building, but it has many floors of offices and shops. As you might imagine, it is a very popular tourist attraction, visited by 3.8 million people every year. It boasts incredible views from its two observation platforms, on the 86th and 102nd floors (although if you visit on a cloudy day you may well see nothing at all). It is a popular spot for proposals and for marriages: there is a group wedding ceremony each year on St Valentine's Day.
Filming the Empire State Building

The Empire State Building has been the setting for around 90 films. Probably most famous of these is the 1933 film King Kong, in which the giant ape climbed to the top of the tower with the heroine in his grasp, although this was filmed using a miniature replica of the skyscraper. More recently it has featured in films such as Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Independence Day (1996); the latter was the only film to date in which this great symbol of American power, wealth, and durability has been completely destroyed!


The uppermost section of the Empire State Building was originally intended to be a docking mast for airships. However, the plan was abandoned when it was realized that it was too windy to moor airships to the mast, let alone for people to walk down a gangplank to the safety of the building.

Only once has the Empire State Building sustained damage from an aircraft. In 1945 an Air Force B-52 bomber crashed into the 79th floor in dense fog. Fourteen people were killed in the accident.

The Empire State Building takes its name from a phrase coined by George Washington, who remarked that the Hudson River was "the key to the new Empire". Thus New York State became known as the "Empire State", hence the building's name.


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