This is a story of structure that remained tallest for 42 years. It is one of the best known structures of the world and has been admired by all of us. So much so that each of us knows its name. This building not only became an icon but a symbol of twentieth century man's attempts to achieve the impossible. But how did this gigantic icon get built?
- Chandra Bhushan, Architect
In 1920’s America’s economy was flourishing. Business leaders were funneling their profits right back into industry, investing in factories and new machinery eventually making huge stocks. The stock market was at boom. One of the leading companies, General Motors (GM) was making spectacular profits and John Jacob Raskob who was the President of GM, enjoyed the status as one of the America’s leading capitalist.
In 1928, for presidential elections Raskob supported his friend Alfred Smith and became the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But Smith lost to Herbert Hoover and things changed. Sloan an ardent supporter of Hoover, demanded that Raskob resign either as Democratic chairman or from General Motors. Raskob refused. But the board of directors supported Sloan. Hurt, Raskob resigned from General Motors. Raskob later cashed his $20 million worth GM Stock in 1929.
After auto industry it was the real estate industry that was booming at that time in America and so Raskob chose to invest his money in making a commercial building in New York City. Luckily at that time owners of Waldrof-Astoria Hotel in New York decided to sell the property and thought of building a new hotel at different location, since the property on which the hotel was located had become extremely valuable and could fetch a good price for them.
Raskob bought the property in $16 million. As he was, he decided to make a building that world has never imagined. He now needed a plan. Raskob hired Shreve, Lamb & Harmon to be the architects for his new building.
Richmond H. Shreve was born in 1877 and graduated from Cornell University College of Architecture in 1902. In 1906, he joined Carrère & Hastings architectural firm. Later in 1911 William F Lamb joined the firm. Lamb did his architecture from Columbia University’s School of Architecture. In 1920 after Carrère’s death and Hasting’s retirement the firm’s name changed to Shreve & Lamb. In 1929 one more architect Arthur Loomis Harmon joined with them and finally the firm had its name Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates.
William Lamb was the main designer responsible for creating a dream for Raskob. In the very first meeting when Lamb asked about Raskob’s vision for his building, Raskob in reply pulled a thick pencil out of his drawer and held it up and asked William Lamb, “How high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” Lamb understood his gesture.
Lamb got started planning right away and soon, he had a plan; the logic of the plan was very simple. A certain amount of space in the center, arranged as compactly as possible, contains the vertical circulation, mail chutes, toilets, shafts and corridors. Surrounding this was a perimeter of office space 28 feet deep. The sizes of the floors diminish as the elevators decrease in number. In essence, there was a pyramid of non-rentable space surrounded by a greater pyramid of rentable space. For the form of the building many sketches were produced based on Art Deco style.
The original design made was 80 storeys high. But there was one more building coming up in New York; Chrysler Building by Walter Chrysler the founder of Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler wanted to build the highest building ever made and to do that he kept final height of the building secret. Not knowing exactly what height he had to beat, Raskob started planning of his own building along with Ar. Lamb.
Planning the tallest building in the world was only half the battle; they still had to build the towering structure as quickly as possible. The corporation was formed in September, 1929, (Empire State Inc.) and the architect was also retained in that month. May 1 being the date of expiration of most office leases, it was decided May 1, 1931, as the date of completion. This allowed a year and eight months for building to be completed including the design.
After the finalisation of conceptual design tenders were floated for construction that included the time frame. As part of bid to get the job, builders Starrett Bros. & Eken told Raskob that they could get the job done in eighteen months. When asked during the interview how much equipment they had on hand, Paul Starrett replied, "Nothing. Not even a pick and shovel." Starrett was sure that other builders trying to get the job had assured Raskob and his partners that they had plenty of equipment and what they did not have, they would hire.
Yet Starrett explained his Statement: "Gentlemen, this building of yours is going to represent unusual problems. Ordinary building equipment won't be worth a damn on it. We'll buy new stuff, fitted for the job, and at the end sell it and credit you with the difference. That's what we do on every big project. It costs less than hiring secondhand stuff, and it's more efficient." Their honesty, quality, and swiftness won them the bid.
With such an extremely tight schedule, Starrett Bros. & Eken started planning immediately. Over sixty different trades would need to be hired, supplies would need to be ordered and time needed to be minutely planned. The companies they hired had to be dependable and be able to follow through with quality work within the allotted timetable. The supplies had to be made at the plants with as little work as possible needed at the site. Time was scheduled so that each section of the building process overlapped - timing was essential. Not a minute, an hour, or a day was to be wasted.
The hotel was torn down, piece by piece. Even before the demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria was complete, on 22nd January 1930 excavation for the new building started. Two shifts of 300 men worked day and night to dig through the hard rock in order to make a foundation. On March 17th steel frame construction began. Two-hundred and ten steel columns made up the vertical frame. Twelve of these ran the entire height of the building.
The construction of the Empire State Building was a model of efficiency. The builders created various innovations that saved time, money, and man-power. While the outside of the building was being constructed, electricians and plumbers began installing the internal necessities of the building. Timing for each trade to start working was finely tuned. It was like an assembly line of a factory, the only difference was that the assembly line did the moving; the finished product stayed in place.
But was the plan high enough to make the Empire State Building the tallest in the world? They thought it would be the tallest at 80 stories. But the Chrysler went higher, so they lifted the Empire State to 85 storeys, 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.
The race was getting very competitive. With the thought of wanting to make the Empire State Building higher, Raskob himself came up with the solution. After examining a scale model of the proposed building, Raskob said, "It needs a hat!" Looking toward the future, Raskob decided that the "hat" would be used as a docking station for airships. The new design for the Empire State Building, including the mooring mast, would make the building 1,250 tall; the Chrysler Building was completed at 1,046 feet with 77 stories.
Final height of the building was 102 storeys. Still construction company accepted the challenge to deliver it in time. More than 1000 people worked day and night on holidays and Sundays to accomplish gigantic feet in 18 months. Maximum labour force at time was 3,500. The speed of construction can be understood by the fact that 4.5 floors were constructed every week.
Everything was engineered to be duplicated in tremendous quantity with almost perfect accuracy. The steel posts and beams arrived at the site marked with their place in the framework and with the number of the derrick that would hoist them. Workers could swing the steel into place and have it riveted as soon as 80 hours after it had come out of the furnace.
The Otis Elevator Company installed 58 passenger elevators and eight service elevators in the Empire State Building. Though these elevators could travel up to 1,200 feet per minute, the building code restricted the speed to only 700 feet per minute based on older models of elevators. Raskob took a chance, installed the faster and more expensive elevators (running them at the slower speed) and hoped that the building code would soon change. A month after the Empire State Building was opened, the building code was changed to 1,200 feet per minute and the elevators in the Empire State Building were speeded up.
The entire Empire State Building was constructed in just one year and 45 days consuming 57,000 tons of steel, 10 million bricks, 2,00,000 cubic feet of lime stone and 730 tons of aluminum - an amazing feat! The Empire State Building came in on time and under budget. The cost of the building including the land was only $40,948,900 below the $50 million expected price tag. It took lives of five people while under construction.
The Empire State Building officially opened on May 1, 1931 to a lot of fanfare. It was now the tallest building in the world and would keep that record until the completion of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1972. Construction of the 102-story Empire State Building was executed with a rate of ascent unsurpassed today - as a comparison the construction of the WTC took 6 years. For this reason, the building is considered one of the seven greatest American engineering achievements.
Skillful architects Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon were familiar with the imperatives of design and construction efficiency that maximized investors' returns by filling the building with tenants as soon as possible. But despite its world-class stature today, the building had difficulty attracting tenants when it was first completed, and was often ridiculed as the "Empty State Building.
The idea for the Empire State Building was conceived during the real estate boom of the 1920's, but by the time the building was finished in the middle of the great depression, the developers had to struggle to find any tenants at all to rent space. This led to the nickname given by New Yorkers, the "Empty State Building." After it was completed in 1931, the Empire State Building remained half-rented during the Depression. Things have changed; today, 97% of the 2.25 million square feet are rented.
Luckily, the popularity of the observatories and a beauty of the building prevented the building from going into bankruptcy.
The feeling and spirit of New York City is embodied in the Empire State Building. Many people recognizes the building as the unequalled symbol of American ingenuity and Art Deco architecture; an awe inspiring landmark which offers one of the most spectacular views on earth and creates magical romantic moments.
About The Author
Compilation and presentation by CBS Team. Excerpts taken from Concordia University's website.
Copyright © 2005 CBS Forum
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