ICYMI! — Today in History – May 1

On May 1, 1931, with the press of a ceremonial button in Washington, D.C., President Herbert Hoover turned on the lights of the Empire State BuildingExternal, officially opening the world’s tallest building located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in downtown Manhattan. At 102 stories and 1250 feet, the Empire State Building remained the world’s tallest for nearly forty years, until completion of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1970 and 1972. Yet, due to its bold Art Deco style and accumulated cultural cachet, the Empire State Building remains the beloved landmark of New York City’s skyline as well as a worldwide icon of urban modernity.

Empire State Building. New York: Irving Underhill Inc., c1931. Prints & Photographs Division

Technological advances, most notably the elevator combined with lightweight steel-frame construction techniques, allowed for the development of what came to be known as “skyscrapers” in late nineteenth century America. In downtown areas where prime land was scarce, it quickly became profitable to build upwards. Notable early examples include the Wainwright Building (1891) in St. Louis, the Reliance Building (1890; 1895) in Chicago, and the Flatiron, Singer (1908; now demolished), and Woolworth (1913) buildings in Manhattan. Manhattan’s Woolworth Building was for a time the world’s tallest building, until in a boom of height competition first The Bank of Manhattan (40 Wall Street; 1930) and then the Chrysler Building (1930)—at 927 feet and 1046 feet, respectively—each briefly claimed the title before the Empire State Building’s completion.

In 1929, a corporation that included former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith and General Motors’ John Jacob Raskob was formed to construct the Empire State Building on a two-acre lot south of midtown, on the site of the former Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Excavation began in January 1930 despite the country’s economic downturn. Construction commenced in March and Smith laid the building’s cornerstone in September. Under the direction of the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon and general contractor Starrett Brothers & Eken, the building’s steel framework rose at a rapid average rate of 4½ stories per week. Due to efficient on-site planning and the use of pre-fabricated materials, construction was completed ahead of schedule in a phenomenal one year and forty-five days. The work force, which reached nearly 3400 persons daily, was documented by noted labor photographer Lewis HineExternal and included Mohawk Indian steelworkersExternal, known for their skill as “skywalkers” at extreme heights.

On July 28, 1945, in the midst of a dense fog, a stray B-25 bomber crashed into the north side of the building’s 79th floor as it attempted to find Newark Airport. While three crew members and eleven office workers died, the Empire State Building survived, with damage on only two floors.

Empire State Building view of New York, New York. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, [between 1980 and 2006]. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

New York City’s beloved Empire State Building has remained a cultural symbol of the city’s thriving metropolitan identity. With a three-story Art Deco lobby lined in marble, seventy-three elevators, and more than 2 million feet of rentable floor space, the Empire State building maintains its own zip code. Originally announced as a docking station for dirigibles, the structure’s upper reaches now serve as a broadcast tower for the country’s largest media market.

Regularly photographed, the skyscraper has been featured in scores of stories, novels, comics, TV shows and films–from King Kong in 1933 to Sleepless in Seattle fifty years later. Today the Empire State Building continues as a frequent tourist destination, with observation decks on the 18th and 102nd floors offering panoramic views of an ever-changing cityscape.

In 1982 it was added to the National Register of Historic places, and designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1986.

Roman Totenberg & Artur Balsam on Empire State Building observation deck [c.a. 1931-47]. Photograph. Roman Totenberg Papers. Music Division
Panoramic view of the world’s largest city from the observatory of New York’s Empire State Building. Folio postcard; Albert Brabazon, photographer; [New York: 1945]. Prints & Photographs Division

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