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Friday, August 23, 2013

The Empire State Building

The Caroline Astor mansion at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street is dwarfed by her brother-in-law's Waldorf Hotel. Her husband tore down the house to build the other half of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which was razed to make room for the Empire State Building.
Anyone who has ever visited what was once the John Thompson farm will tell you, there have been a number of improvements in the past 214 years since he purchased the patch of land from the City of New York in 1799. He paid $2,600. They were slow in coming, however. For the next 26 years, Mr. Thompson simply farmed the land. Then, in 1825, a real estate developer on the make bought the farm for $10,000, making a tidy profit for old John. The developer made a tidy profit too, selling half the plot to the son of the inimitable John Jacob Astor for $20,500 just two years later. For the next thirty-two years the growing city of New York gobbled up block after block of farmer Thompson's former cornfields and pastures. Then in 1859 John Jacob Astor Jr. built a mansion there, on the corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue. Not to be outdone, a few years later, his younger brother built his own mansion next door, 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. These were four or five story townhouses, not the overwrought, Beaux-Arts, piles of stone designed by Morris Hunt, which the Astors later built up the street (Fifth Avenue). By today's standards, they might even be considered "temporary housing."

Architect, Henry J. Hardenbergh's rendering of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel,
razed in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building.
Well before the turn of the century, both were gone, replaced by the ornate Waldorf and the Astoria hotels (later combined into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). Such was the real estate market in mid-town Manhattan in the early 1900s that even these landmark structures had a shelf-life of barely thirty years before also being razed (to be rebuilt up-town). By that time, the one square block plot of land, probably no larger than John Thompson's vegetable garden, went for $20-million. Then, on January 22, 1930, construction crews moved in and started digging up the place. They planted there perhaps the most iconic work of art to ever grace the city's skyline. Within little more than a year, there sprouted the tallest building in the world. They grandly called it the Empire State Building.
The R.J. Reynolds Building,
Winston-Salem NC., by
Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon.
There are a lot of different levels upon which to consider the Empire State Building (some might say 102, to be exact). We've already taken a look at its pre-history. Besides history, I write about art, so, all else aside, this is a work of art by architect William F. Lamb of the firm, Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon. Normally we would think of such a creative effort as taking many months, perhaps a year or more to design. Lamb's firm took two weeks. How did they manage such a complex assignment in so little time? Well, it was a big firm, but the main reason was that they'd just completed the R.J. Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, though it was only 314 feet tall, a mere 21 floors. As we might say today, they merely "up-sized" it. Other than the floor-count and the iconic spire, they look remarkably alike.

It's red and green, must be Christmas
If the design time was minimal, the construction time went nearly as fast. By May 1, 1931, less than 15 months later, they were cutting ribbons. It's amazing what 3,400 construction workers can put together backed by $41-million (because of the Depression, well under the anticipated cost). Rivaled only by the Brooklyn Bridge (04-07-13) and the Statue of Liberty (09-06-11) the Empire State Building is New York. Designed in the prevailing Art Deco style of the day, the New York City landmark was far from an instant success. Office space in Manhattan was going for pennies on the dollar. For a time, the building was dubbed the "Empty State Building," its observation deck taking in more than its 85 stories of offices rentals. The building failed to show a net profit until 1952. Since 1964, colored lights have illuminated the upper floors, varying according to the season.

Like the giant ape, Americans have fallen in love with the Empire State Building, rating it number one in the list of their favorite American architectural landmarks.
Few buildings in the world can match
the restrained visual impact of America's
number one skyscraper. Even its lobby
seems to glow.
Though occupying only about two acres of costly Manhattan real estate, no building in the city, including the tragic World Trade Center Towers, has had a greater cultural following. Every year, athletes race up the stairs to the top; tourists insert thousands of coins into massive console binoculars to peer at the surrounding cityscape; in the movies, King Kong has embraced its lofty heights; and during the past 83 years, more than thirty people have jump to their death from those same lofty heights. Few works of art anywhere in the world can claim such a broad human impact. Record breaking statistics as to heights, elevators, TV antennas, celebrity visits, crimes and other facts are as startling as they are boring. Though far from the tallest building in the world today (or even the tallest in the U.S.), the Empire State Building stands head and shoulders above the others as an artistic masterpiece of architectural will-power and human triumph over adversity.

The New York City Skyline from the 102nd floor observation deck--One of the
few building in the world where more photo have been taken from it than of it.


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