NEW YORK – Born in the Great Depression, it has weathered economic hardship, world war, labor strikes, murder, terrorist fears and even a plane crash.
The Empire State Building, once the tallest building in the world and again the tallest in New York City, turns 75 years old on Monday.
A yearlong celebration is planned for the building, consisting mainly of monthly light shows, according to Lydia Ruth, spokeswoman for the corporation that runs the building.
Like London’s Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building represented in its time “what we were capable of,” says Carol Willis, an architectural historian and founder-director of lower Manhattan’s Skyscraper Museum.
Construction of the Empire State Building was one of the most remarkable feats of the 20th century. It took only 410 days to build – by 3,400 workers, many of them desperate for work at the height of the Depression. The work force was made up largely of immigrants, along with hundreds of Mohawk Indian iron workers.
The 1,453-foot tower opened on May 1, 1931, with President Herbert Hoover pressing a button in Washington to turn on its lights. Architect William Lamb, the chief designer, messaged former New York Gov. Al Smith from a ship at sea: “One day out and I can still see the building.”
Built of steel and aluminum and faced with granite and Indiana limestone, it was for 40 years the world’s tallest edifice until surpassed in 1972 by the World Trade Center. It again became the city’s tallest after airliners flown by terrorist hijackers destroyed the 110-story twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. It now ranks ninth in the world, and second in the United States behind Chicago’s Sears Tower.
Its 102 floors are topped by a 200-foot tower designed as a mooring mast for dirigibles. The mast was never used because of dangerous updrafts, but it did serve movie “King Kongs” as a perch for swatting fighter planes.
Out-of-towners still flock to its 86th-floor observation deck where city sounds fade to a distant hum and the view on a good day extends west to Pennsylvania and as far north as Massachusetts. Visitors have included Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and Lassie.
On July 28, 1945 – three weeks before the end of World War II – an Army B-25 bomber lost in morning fog crashed into the north side of the Empire State Building, killing three crew members and 11 people in the Catholic War Relief Office on the 70th floor.
The impact shook the building, one of the plane’s engines flew out the other side and crashed onto a roof far below, and an elevator operator survived a 1,000-foot plunge. The 14 deaths matched the number of workers killed in construction.
In 1997, a mentally disturbed man killed a Dutch tourist and wounded seven others on the observation deck, then killed himself.
The toll of other suicides is uncertain; a young man who climbed the observation deck fence and jumped to his death in 2004 was variously reported as either the 31st or the 34th. At least two would-be suicides survived when wind gusts blew them back onto the building.
Just this past week, a daredevil tried to parachute off the building but was stopped by officers.
Along with “King Kong” movies, the skyscraper was featured in such films as “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” In one of Japan’s “Godzilla” films, the flying monster Rodan borrowed King Kong’s perch to wail at the moon. Andy Warhol set up a camera several blocks away in 1964 and shot “Empire,” an 8-hour, 6-minute silent film of the building from a single perspective, punctuated only by intermittent flashes of light.
It absorbs about 100 lightning strikes a year but does not, as is popularly supposed, sway in the wind. The tower’s rigid frame allows it to move less than two inches.