Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Empire State, still king of the skyscrapers

This piece of mine appears in the Daily Express.
AFTER its completion exactly 80 years ago this week, it was declared to be the eighth wonder of the world.

 Rising like a colossus from the ground at 1,250 feet tall, the Empire State Building with its wonderful Art Deco design and limestone façade was the tallest building in the world. Although it no longer holds that accolade the edifice on the corner of New York’s Fifth Avenue and 34th Street remains the world’s best known skyscraper.

As well as being a remarkable feat of engineering and an enduring monument to the American “can do” spirit, the Empire State Building has become one of the greatest pop-culture icons of the modern age, featuring in scores of films from King Kong to Independence Day.

My wife and I first visited it in 2006 and it’s fair to say we haven’t come back down to earth since. Everything about the building is epic and the story of its construction never ceases to inspire.

John S Berman, author of The History Of The Empire State Building, refers to “the frantic competition to create the tallest structure in New York City” between competing companies in the early years of the 20th century.

The “battle of the skyscrapers” was between the Bank of Manhattan and Chrysler, with the latter assuming it had won when a spire was added to its new building, making it the tallest in the world. But that record only lasted 11 months as the Empire State Building went even higher. The two men who made it possible were John Jakob Raskob, a former executive of General Motors, Chrysler’s great competitor and his friend, the former New York governor Al Smith.

In August 1929 Smith announced that the Empire State Building would be 1,050 feet high. Its tower was to make it even higher. Despite the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, construction started in March 1930. That the building was ready for opening just 410 days later is a tribute not just to the vision and drive of Raskob and Smith and the technical brilliance of their architects and designers but to the efforts of the thousands of workers who toiled on its construction.

By the summer of 1930 almost 3,500 people were employed on the building. Their working day began at 3.30am and ended at 4.30pm, with only half an hour for lunch. The official opening was marked with a gala celebration. But although the building was complete its commercial success was far from guaranteed. Just 23 per cent of its space had been rented out. For all its grandeur the Empire State Building looked like becoming a hugely expensive white elephant. But then a giant ape created by the English crime writer Edgar Wallace came to the rescue.

The 1933 film King Kong ends with the title character clutching a terrified Fay Wray climbing to the top of the Empire State Building where he is eventually killed by aircraft. “It was beauty killed the beast” was the film’s famous last line but although poor old King Kong expired, the publicity the film generated throughout the world helped to keep the Empire State Building alive. In 1945 there was real life drama when an American bomber aircraft crashed into the building on a foggy July morning, killing 14 people.

But the crash caused remarkably little structural damage and the Empire State Building entered the post-war world intact. By the Fifties it was reported that the building, now boasting around 97 per cent occupancy rates and the centre for all of New York’s television studios, had become one of the most profitable structures in the world, raking in around $10million a year. And although the ill-fated World Trade Center with its Twin Towers took over the moniker of the world’s tallest building on its completion in the Seventies, the Empire State Building was by now so famous it really didn’t matter.

It was the one place in New York where every visitor wanted to go, exactly as Al Smith had envisaged. In 1976 it received its 50-millionth visitor. The number of visitors is now 110 million, among them the Queen, who described the view as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen”.

The Empire State Building appeals not just because of its Art Deco beauty and its spectacular views but because it shows what great things human beings are capable of.

Al Smith and John Jakob Raskob, the men with a truly “think big” mentality, are long dead as are the brave workers who risked life and limb to construct it. But their incredible monument continues to enthrall us all.


neil craig said...

Would never get planning permission in today's Britain. Technologically we can do far more than back then but the failure of imagination shown by the eco-fascists and the "Precautionary Principle" actually mean we do less.It isn't just socialism that is scared of its achievement it is the entire political class.

DBC Reed said...

"Eco-fascists" blah blah blah.The big skyscrapers were part of a property bubble that popped leaving the owners scrabbling for tenants.The Brill Buiding with all its musicians and composers was sub-divided and sub-divided again to provide accommodation cheap enough for these low-rent types to afford.The rent-seeking property market is the enemy of entrepreneurship.

neil craig said...

Most investments work, some don't.Thats why it is called entrepreneurship.

Without somebody taking that risk the Brill building wouldn't have been built and that housing wouldn't exist.

I understand that since the bursting of that "bubble" the property market in New York has not entirely disappeared.

Yhe main difference between entrpreeurial projects is that when the former prove uneconomic somebody goes bust while when the latter do they just get a bigger budget/subsidy (eg BBC, housing associations, windmills). That is the enemy of entrepreneurship.

Martin Meenagh said...

Al Smith's folly almost never turned a run of profits, and the last thing that I read about it suggested that it was back in deficit again. Bizarrely, an office is apparently really cheap there, when they can be bothered to collect the rent.

When I first went to New York, the Rockefeller appealed more--I looked at the Empire State building, and the dodgy lifts and the so-so pub just down from it (the ones at the tip of Manhattan appealed more) and just wasn't into it.

Youthful folly. I think now that the Empire State is one of the most beautiful buildings that I have ever come across, on reflection--outside and in, from the useless airship port at the top to that stunning view from the roof. Old Al poured a lot of his desperation at losing the presidency in 1928 and his falling out with FDR into the stones, and they say that the cleaners and janitors worshipped him. From a personal point of view, I remember being up there with my brother, and feeling as though I were standing on the top of some living American pyramid on one of the best trips I have ever had. Beautiful thing. We went from there to the remains of the Fulton fish market where Smith started his career amongst the fishmongers and which some zip-zap health and safety or technology person had just closed down. It was all quite poignant, all very Bowery-and-Sidewalks of New York. They say that in Chicago, there are hearts that dream of Donegal, but why would any New Yorker ever want to go back when they saw buildings like the ESB?

That was a nice post, Neil, many thanks-I hope that the Express paid you well!