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Empire state building in New York City
Empire state building in New York City

Building the Empire State Building

5 Minute Read
DirtStories logo for DOZR
November 11, 2021

One of the most famous and recognizable buildings in the United States, the Empire State Building used to be the tallest building in the world. Although it lost that title in 1971, the Empire State Building is still a landmark on the New York City skyline. Whether you’re looking up at the building from the streets or out at New York from the 102nd-floor observation deck, the view is impressive. 

The Why Behind Construction

A “race to the sky” took off in 1889 when the Eiffel Tower was built. At the turn of the century, skyscrapers were popping up all over the world with the goal of being the tallest and most impressive building in the world. The “why” behind the Empire State Building was simple: it was built to beat out all other skyscrapers and to claim the title as the tallest building in the world. 

John Jakob Raskob, former financial executive and businessman for both General Motors and DuPont, was the man behind the Empire State Building. He paired up with former New York Governor Al Smith and they began to plan. 

The story goes that during a meeting with the architects, he pulled out a pencil, held it straight up in the air and asked, “How high can you build it so that it won’t fall down?”. 

The Empire State Building VS The Chrysler Building

Construction of the Chrysler Building, another famous skyscraper in New York City, had begun a few years earlier on September 19, 1928. The Chrysler Building was also built as a part of this sky race. It was planned by Walter P. Chrysler - American automotive executive and industrial pioneer - for three reasons: He wanted to add to the landscape of New York, to build the tallest building in the world and to create a sort of monument to himself and his family. 

The planned height of the Chrysler Building was kept a secret until it was finished because of this sky race. It was risky of Raskob and Smith to take on constructing a building that would outdo even the secret Chrysler Building. 

This back and forth between the two buildings continued even during construction. Hamilton Weber, the first rental manager for the Empire State Building, was quoted stating:

“We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet taller than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Walter Chrysler would pull a trick - like hiding a rod in the spire and then sticking it up at the last minute.”

Funnily enough, the Chrysler Building was built to outdo the height of the Manhattan Trust Building. It was very much a building race between 1925 - 1935.


Construction of the Empire State Building

Construction of the Empire State Building began on March 17, 1930 on 34th street in midtown manhattan. The bid was won by general contractors Carrett Brothers & Eken. They claimed to be able to complete the project in 18 months. Such a fast timeline was ideal because of the competition with the Chrysler Building (among others). More than sixty sub-trades were hired and the work unfolded in an extremely organized manner. Timing was essential for this project if the short deadline was to be met. 

Construction Workers for the Empire State Building

There were 3,400 construction laborers who worked on the projects. They earned about $15 per day and built 2.5 floors every week. In total, construction finished in a record time of 1 year and 45 days - unheard of even in today’s construction climate. 

Sadly, this project was not without accidents. Official reports state that 5 workers died on the job from slip and fall accidents or from struck-by accidents. Unofficial rumors say that hundreds of workers died. A New York Daily News report put the number at 14. Neither fall protection nor hard hats were used during this project so, unfortunately, the number could be much higher than 5. 

Making Space

In order to build this new skyscraper, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel needed to be demolished. This ended up being a great money-maker because people from all across the country mailed in about wanting a memento of the hotel. Auctions were held to sell off stained-glass windows, light fixtures, bricks, iron railings and other pieces of the hotel. 

During this time, the foundation of the Empire State Building was being built. 

Beginning Construction

The official start of construction is said to be March 17, because that was the day that workers began on the steel frame. It took 210 steel columns to construct the vertical frame of the building. Steel girders would only be raised 30 stories at a time so cranes were used to pass them from floor section to floor section to complete the frame.

Rivets were placed by hand by teams of four. There was a heater, a catcher, a bucker-up and a gunman. 

The heater would heat up the rivets and then toss them up to the catcher who would catch them with an old paint can. They would be removed with tongs by the catcher and placed into the hole in the steel beam. The bucker-up would steady the rivet from behind and the gunman would smash it with a hammer. When the rivet cooled, it would be fused into the beam. No one knows the exact number but hundreds of thousands of rivets would have been fused by hand to complete this building.

More than 60,000 tons of steel were used to complete the frame. 

Finishing the Building

The building was expected to cost $50 million to complete. Because it was built during the great depression and labor wages were lower than normal, it cost just below $41 million. The building opened on May 1, 1931, with President Herbert Hoover pressing a button in Washington D.C. that turned on all the lights in the new skyscraper. 

When completed, the Empire State Building stood 102 stories and 1454 feet tall (if you include the antenna at the top). It houses 73 elevators, 6,500 windows, and 1,576 stairs.

In the Movies

This building has been central to iconic movie moments as well. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks met and proclaimed their love at the end of Sleepless in Seattle. Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf did the same in an episode of Gossip Girl. Even Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr had plans to rendezvous on the observation deck of the building in An Affair to Remember. 

Not all features of the Empire State Building have been romantic. Perhaps the most iconic image of the building in film is King Kong hanging off the top, swinging at airplanes. 

The Empire State Building Today

Built to be a corporate building, many major businesses call the Empire State building home including LinkedIn, Shutterstock, Skanska and Citizen. There are more than 2.8 million square feet of rentable office space. Because of the sheer size of this building, it has its own zip code: 10118.

Although it was built and is used as a corporate office space, more than 4 million people visit this building every single year.

The Empire State Building

New York City is home to some incredible buildings; the Statue of Liberty, the Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Bridge and so many more. The Empire State Building rightfully sits as one of the most iconic buildings in the city. The fact that this building was constructed to win a race for the highest building in the world, and done almost completely by hand, makes it so much more impressive. 

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