March 17: 1454 feet of ‘take that, Chrysler’

2012/03/17 § Leave a comment

On St. Patrick’s day in 1930 construction on the structural frame of the Empire State Building was begun.

Steel soon started to climb out of the big hole dug on the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street; it would eventually grow tall enough to become the tallest building in the world: a title that it maintained for four decades, until the completion of the first World Trade Center tower.  After that building’s destruction, it was once again the tallest building in town, but no longer held the global (or even national) title.  But its height–which was one of two goals to go higher and finish faster than the contemporaneous Chrysler Building–is just the start of this story.  Usually we look to structure as the key element of a heroic building’s achievement.  While this one is structurally impressive, it was really the method of building, rather than the materials or methods by which they are snapped together, that is extraordinary.

Given their charge to finish very tall and very fast, contractors Starrett Brothers and Eken thought up a new way to build: start before the documents are complete, even before the building on your site is completely demolished (it was the long-lost, mansardoriffic Waldorf-Astoria–dump trucks drove through the ballroom to collect the debris raining down from upper stories).  Now you call it “fast-tracking.”  Fast indeed: New Yorkers could witness significant advance during their lunch breaks, as the steel cage rose at a rate of four floors per week.  Due to the efficiencies designed into the construction process, the whole building was finished just fifteen months (and $41 million) after construction began.

Better yet, they managed the speed and height without cutting corners on looks.  Designed by William Lamb (of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon), a limestone and granite cladding defines the elegant stepped silhouette, from which rises the graceful spire that, in good American fashion, is not just a spiffy hat but also functional–or, at least, that was the idea for the upper part, designed to be  mooring dock for dirigibles.  (It didn’t work.)  The three-story lobby space and elevator core is an Art Deco extravaganza, all lush marble, aluminum, stylized lotus blossoms and chevrons.  It’s aged beautifully, remains one of the most poplar buildings among the popular population; even people who have never been to New York know that’s New York when they see it in a film, and it’s been in a lot of them: central to Cary Grant’s love life, portal to Mt. Olympus (Clio verifies this is nonsense, but appreciates the gesture), and most famously jungle gym for a famous giant ape (to honor Mr. Kong, a replica was installed on the spire to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the movie in 1983).  The tower has also adapted to new demands with grace.  Renovations have ensured it is in keeping with changes in building codes; it is amenable to the new gizmos and additions that have become important to business across the years, and it even went and got itself LEEDified, showing that such a thing is possible with oldey-timey buildings.  Lewis Wickes Hine documented the construction of the building in a series of photos that are available online thanks to the New York Public Library, and you should look at every single one of them.

image: the zeppelin Hindenberg floats past the Empire State Building (from this source)


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You are currently reading March 17: 1454 feet of ‘take that, Chrysler’ at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.


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