Rise of the Empire State Building

WORLD HISTORY | April 15, 2019

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 02: The Empire State Building lights it up blue for World Autism Awareness Day on April 02, 2019 in New York City. Source: (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Autism Speaks)

When it was completed in 1931, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world, surpassing both the Chrysler Building and the Eiffel Tower. While it no longer holds that record, it still stands today as one of the most recognized buildings in the world. Part of its fame stems from its popularity as a meeting place for estranged lovers in movies and television. However, the building has a history of tragedy as well as romance.

In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris with a height of 984 feet, inspiring the great skyscraper race of the twentieth century during which American architects attempted to top it. By 1929, the closest they had come was the 927-foot Bank of Manhattan Building. However, construction had already begun on the Chrysler Building which upon its completion in 1930 would surpass the Eiffel Tower by reaching a height of 1,046 feet. However, before the building was even completed, a competitor of the Chrysler Corporation, Jakob Raskob of General Motors, made up his mind to build an even taller one.

Chrysler Building. Source: (wikipedia.org)

Raskob assembled a group of investors and they hired William F. Lamb of the architecture firm Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, to design the building. With no access to the plans for the Chrysler Building, their goal was to make the building as tall as possible to hopefully outreach the competition. This was done by decreasing the floor size in correlation to the increase in the building’s height. The final touch which set it above the rest was a spire, added after Raskob viewed a scale model of the building and insisted that it needed a “hat.”  

Empire State Building. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)

Construction of the building began in 1929. Two years and $40 million later, the Empire State Building was completed, with 102 stories and a height of 1,250 feet, though it was 1,454 feet to the top of the spire. It was officially the tallest building in the world and it remained so until 1972 when it was surpassed by New York’s World Trade Center. Today, the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, with a height of 2,717 feet.

Burj Khalifa and the Dubai skyline. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)

Since its completion, the building has made several movie appearances. While often it is merely seen as part of the New York skyline, in others it plays an integral role. In movies like An Affair to Remember(1957) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), the fate of the young lovers’ relationship depends on them meeting at the top of the building. And who can forget the title gorilla clinging to the top of the Empire State Building before being gunned down in the 1933 King Kong

King Kong climbing the Empire State Building at the Hollywood Wax Museum. Source: (10best.com)

Sadly, it seems the dislocated primate was not the only one to lose his life at the building’s feet. The Empire State Building has also been the site of more than 30 suicide attempts, with the first occurring during its construction. A worker jumped down an elevator shaft after being laid off. On May 1, 1947, Evelyn McHale became “the most beautiful suicide” after leaping from the 86th-floor observation deck and landing on a limousine parked on the street below. Despite her fatal fall, her body remained intact and a photo was taken of her in which she looked to be at peace. The photo was published in Life magazine on May 12, 1947. Other suicides were less beautiful, and one injured a person on the street below. After a rash of suicides in 1947, “suicide fences” were installed on the observation deck. Fortunately, not all of the suicide attempts ended in tragedy. On December 2, 1972, Elvita Adams jumped from the 86th floor only to be blown back into the 85th floor by a strong gust of wind. She was apprehended before she could try again, and her only injury was a broken hip.

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.