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The Eighth Wonder of the World

Updated on September 7, 2010
John J. Raskob and Alfred E. Smith respectively.
John J. Raskob and Alfred E. Smith respectively.

In October 29, 1929 stock prices at the New York Stock Exchange fell dramatically and started an economic crisis that affected the whole world, in particularly the United States. It became the worst trading day history. This eventually led to the Great Depression which caused mass unemployment of up to 13 million people in 1933. During the Great Depression many people’s life ambitions and goals were shattered but this, however, was not the case for John J. Raskob and Alfred E. Smith. John Raskob was the vice president of General Motors and Alfred Smith was the governor of New York and together they shared the dream of creating a building, in New York City, that was taller than the Chrysler Building. This building would be known as the Empire State. Thanks to the precise planning, the astounding construction, and its instant popularity, the Empire State Building has and will always remain one of the most famous architectural landmarks of the world.

Planning Construction

Planning the construction of a building such as the one for the Empire State had never been done before anywhere in the world, for it was to become the tallest edifice of its time. The construction of a building used to be limited by the building’s height because of the number of stairs that had to be climbed and by a building’s weight because of the thickness that was needed for the walls in order for them to hold the weight. Fortunately the problems these limitations caused were solved by 2 technological innovations. The first was an improvement in elevator technology. Elevators used to be so dangerous that they were only utilized to transport objects and not people. Elisha Graves Otis came up with a solution in 1853 by adding brakes to the railing in the elevator shaft to prevent the elevator from going into a free fall if the cable holding it snapped. The second technological innovation was the replacement of iron with steel which allowed buildings to be built to heights that had never been reached before. The builders at Starrett Bros. & Eken were chosen to construct the Empire State, and to design it, Raskob and Smith hired Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon. Raskob wanted the building to go as tall as the budget would allow, so it is said that he held a pencil up to William Lamb, one of the designers, and asked, “Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?”. After struggling with several details and presenting many different designs of the building, the designers had an answer. The center of the building would be made as tight as possible and would contain the mail chutes, toilets, elevator shafts, and corridors. Surrounding this space would be the rest of the building; starting with a broad base at the bottom, the building would become narrower the higher it went with a number of setbacks throughout the structure. All of this planning and organizing was useless until a site was found on which to construct the Empire State Building. Raskob and Smith were limited by their choices on where to build the Empire State but nonetheless they managed to find a site that at the time was being used by the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Raskob bought the hotel for about $20 million and the demolition date was set. Once the public heard about this, thousands of mementos from the building were requested. According to “Your Guide to 20th Century History”, a man from Iowa was said to have written in to request an iron railing fence and a couple asked for the key to the room they had stayed in during their honeymoon.. Demolition was completed by January of 1930 after several tons of materials were removed in more than 28,000 truckloads of debris. The first stage of construction was now complete with much more on its way.


Construction of the massive Empire State Building proved man’s ability to overcome a challenge. With the Waldorf Astoria Hotel out of the way workers could now begin construction. The first step was to make a foundation by digging out pier holes from the bedrock that were used to anchor the footing of the 210 steel columns that made up the frame of the building; 12 of these columns went all the way to the top. The strongest and heaviest steel was used at the bottom so that it could hold the building’s weight; each of these columns could support over 5,000 tons of stress. Throughout the construction many workers with different occupations were required in order to complete the building including plumbers, electricians, brick masons, stone masons, carpenters, and riveters. Riveters played a crucial role to the building’s construction because they secured the steel frame together. Riveters worked in gangs consisting of 4 workers called the “heater”, the “catcher”, the “bucker-up”, and the “gunman”. The “heater” first heated up the rivet until it was red hot and then threw it to the “catcher” who caught it in a tin bucket and placed it in a set of pre-drilled holes. The “bucker-up" then held the rivet in place while the “gunman” hammered it into the beam, fusing it together. After the riveters, came the brick and stone masons who worked on the exterior of the building. Construction of the Empire State Building was a fascinating scene. Harold Butcher who worked for London’s Daily Herald described the construction as right there, “in the flesh, outwardly prosaic, incredibly nonchalant, crawling, climbing, walking, swinging, swooping on gigantic steel frames”. Construction of the Empire State was a perfect example of incredible efficiency and organization. Most of the parts used during construction were made off site and were then brought in the order that they were needed. This meant that the workers were required to follow an exact schedule for the process to work efficiently. Another factor that saved a great amount of time was the use of a railroad system that was integrated into the building. This allowed workers to move large amounts of materials to anywhere in the building which save time as well as man-power. Every week an average of four and a half stories were built. With such speed there were also prices to be paid including a number of accidents and fourteen total deaths. After about 18 months since it all started, the Empire State was finished with a total height of 1,250 feet, making it taller than the Chrysler building.

Post Construction

After the EmpireState was completed, it blended into New York City’s skyline and became recognized throughout the world as a monument of the United States’ strength and power. When the building opened on May 1, 1931 it attracted over 5,000 visitors and many well known people including Albert Einstein, Pope Pius XII, Fidel Castro, and Queen Elisabeth II. Ironically the only person to have declined an invitation was Walter P. Chrysler. Despite its great success with tourism, the EmpireState only had 23% of its space rented out and because of the Great Depression renters were hard to come by. About 200 hundred employees were needed just to keep the building clean, both on the interior and exterior, and another 150 people served as the building’s police force, fire department, engineers plumbers, nurses, painters and other occupations. At one point during the late 1930s the EmpireState came close to declaring bankruptcy, but as the American economy stabilized new profits were found. On July 28, 1945 a B-25 bomber plane crashed into the Empire State hitting the 78th and 79th floors. A total of 14 people died and 25 others were injured; luckily this happened on a weekend instead of a weekday or else the casualty number could have been much higher. One year of work and $1 million later, the building had been repaired. As the EmpireState approached the late 20th century, several modifications were made to the building including the installation of air conditioning units, automatic elevators, and energy efficient windows. Over 16 radio stations and several TV companies also paid for their right to set up broadcast antennas unto the building and many of them remain there till this day.

Despite the economic struggles that were happening at the time, the EmpireStateBuilding climbed to the top of the world. It owes its reputation to its designers, to the workers who built it, and to its ability to attract attention from the world. The construction of the Empire State shows the capability to gather resources together in order to undertake a titanic project, despite it being one of the worst times of the American economy. This building is proof of determination and the ability to make dreams a reality and it also gave moral support to the millions of depressed Americans. The EmpireStateBuilding will always be remembered as the light that rose from the shadows.


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