The Empire State Building: Skyscraper Symbol of America's Power

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The Empire State Building: Skyscraper Symbol of America's Power


The skyscraper is one of the most impressive tributes to the twentieth century. These buildings are a celebration of modern technology and innovation. On the other hand, skyscrapers have a pedestrian role—part of zoning and tax law, political squabbles, and real estate battles for control of prime locales. Despite all this, skyscrapers are awe-inspiring. After 1900 in the United States, many cities were transformed as numerous tall buildings appeared on the landscape. Of these, none is more famous than the Empire State Building in New York City, built between 1929 and 1931. Since its construction, the Empire State Building has symbolized the technological prowess and economic strength of the United States.


Tall buildings have captured the imagination of people throughout history, dating back to the obelisks of ancient Egypt. However, it wasn't until the development of iron and steel as structural materials in the nineteenth century that the tall building became a reality. These materials allowed architects to design buildings beyond the limitations of masonry and brick.

Steel allowed architects to move skyward with a minimum of bulk, thus allowing larger windows and flexible interior spaces. The work of bridge builders inspired architects to apply metal technology to buildings. The development of the passenger elevator in 1857 was the final obstacle to erecting tall structures. Before the elevator, the traditional building height limit was five stories.

Two early skyscrapers appeared in New York City in 1875: the 9-story Tribune Building and the 10-story Western Union building. New York architects continued building early skyscrapers, culminating in the Woolworth Building (1913), designed by Cass Gilbert (1859-1934). It was the tallest building in the world, reaching a height of 792 feet (241 m).

Many of the early advances in skyscrapers can be directly attributed to the devastating fire that wiped out most of Chicago in 1871. City planners and architects turned to fireproof iron and steel instead of wood and masonry. Modern business also demanded large working spaces, and this combined with high real estate costs helped the skyscraper take shape in Chicago. William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907) is considered the founder of the "Chicago School" of architecture. His firm built an entirely metal 9-story structure in 1885. He used Bessemer steel, which brought down the price, allowed mass production, and increased the use of metal framework.

The next phase of evolution took place in New York City. By the mid-1890s New York skyscrapers pushed past 20 stories. The soaring price of land pushed architects in the city to build taller and taller buildings. From 1900 until the Great Depression hit in 1929, one or more new skyscrapers appeared every year.


In 1931 New York City celebrated the opening of a skyscraper labeled the "eighth wonder of the world." Built at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world. It weighed in at a whopping 600 million pounds (272,160,000 kg) but was placed on 220 columns, which gave it the impact on the earth of only a 45-foot (14 m) high pile of rocks. In the nation's capital, President Herbert Hoover threw the switch that symbolically lit the building.

Opening in the midst of the Great Depression, the building lifted the spirits of American citizens, even though its owners had rented only 25% of the 2 million feet (609,600 m) of office space available. In fact, they wouldn't achieve full occupancy until the late 1940s. Regardless, the nearly $41 million building gave a psychological boost to the nation at one of its darkest times.

At the gala opening, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. People fought for the chance to inspect the marble lobby and buy tickets to the observation deck on the eighty-sixth floor. Those lucky enough to make it up were awestruck by what they saw—it was as if the world had changed forever.

Designed by the architecture firm of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, and engineer H. G. Balcom, the Empire State Building symbolized the development of skyscrapers in the interwar years. The building embodied the refinement of steel construction that had been maturing over the previous decades. William Frederick Lamb, who studied at Columbia University and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was the chief designer on the structure.

Although the building is not the most stunning visual work in the development of skyscrapers, its sheer size makes it an amazing success. Hundreds of logistical problems had to be overcome in putting up the 85-story monster, which reaches a height of 1,239 feet (377.6 m) at the tip of its spire. None of its individual parts (ziggurat base, interlocked setbacks of the crown, or Art Deco spire) are innovative separately, but taken as a whole the building holds a special place in architecture history.

The Empire State Building was the inspiration of John Jacob Raskob, a self-made man who rose to become an officer and shareholder in General Motors. Raskob wanted the building to represent the ideal executive office building. It would achieve maximum efficiency, but with artistry and a tastefully modern style. The Empire State Building would also feature top-notch engineering. Rather than name the structure after himself (like the Woolworth, Chrysler, and Chanin buildings in New York), Raskob had more grandiose thoughts. It would embody New York itself in all its power and glory. The building's height and stature as the tallest in the world added to its majesty.

Lamb preferred functional architecture and designed the Empire State Building with simplicity in mind. He planned the structure with the practical aspects of budget, time, and zoning regulations in mind.

The grandeur of the Empire State Building immediately captured the hearts of Americans. The building's steel skeleton went up in just over eight months and was a constant news story around the nation. New Yorkers followed the construction with an almost cult-like obsession. Telescopes were installed in Madison Square Park for average citizens to gaze at the work in progress. At the time, it was called the world's greatest monument to man's ingenuity, skill, mind, and muscle.

Workers built Empire State Building in mind-numbing speed. The walls of the upper floors averaged one story a day, and the top 14 stories were laid in brick in just 10 days. The building was constructed with assembly line technology in mind. In fact, the building contractor later wrote that the pace led him to suffer "a rather severe nervous breakdown."

The Empire State Building, serving as a symbol for both New York and the United States, plays an important role in popular culture. The building has played a starring role in movies ranging from King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle. Millions of pictures, postcards, and paintings of the skyscraper have been sold to tourists around the world.

Americans, unlike their contemporaries in Europe, built great skyscrapers as symbols of power and splendor. In serving as headquarters for the nation's business elite, tall buildings served a variety of functions, not least of which was as pawns in competitive displays of wealth.

Over the years, skyscrapers marked a rite of passage for cities around the world. On one hand, they were perpetual advertisements for their owners. On the other, skyscrapers catered to the romanticism of the masses. They reflected the technological and economic power of the United States and the righteousness of the modern technological age.


Further Reading

James, Theodore Jr. The Empire State Building. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Landau, Sarah Bradford and Carl W. Condit. Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Reynolds, Donald Martin. The Architecture of New York City: Histories and Views of Important Structures, Sites, and Symbols. New York: Macmillan, 1984.

Roth, Leland M. A Concise History of American Architecture. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Wiseman, Carter. Shaping a Nation: Twentieth-Century American Architecture and Its Makers. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

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The Empire State Building: Skyscraper Symbol of America's Power

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The Empire State Building: Skyscraper Symbol of America's Power