January 28, 2009

Lessons from the Days of the "Empty State Building"

(updated May 2016) In May 2016, the Empire State Building is celebrating its 85th birthday.

Back in the days of the booming 1920s, the phenomenon of skyscrapers excited the popular imagination. The main proponents of the soaring buildings - the builders, architects, civic boosters, and financiers, argued that they were the symbols of business power, American pride, and the natural way to live in the age of the machine.

In his book, Skyscrapers and the Men Who Build Them (1928), the powerful construction giant William A. Starrett promoted the skyscraper as "the most distinctly American thing in the world." In the 1934 book, Building to the Skies: The Romance of the Skyscraper, writer Alfred Bossom argued their necessity: "It seems to me a great thing for the spirit of people that they should be able to gaze upon very high buildings, erected by their own contemporaries. The habit of looking upward is a strengthening habit."

But as the late 1920s gave way to the early 1930s and a deepening economic depression, some viewed the same skyscrapers as a symbol of all that had gone wrong with the fundamental American ideology of unfettered capitalism and individualism. In hindsight, the tall buildings seemed like a reckless undertaking. Lewis Mumford, writing in the February 12, 1930 issue of The New Republic, described the buildings as "a product of technology, credit economy, human greed, and social ineptitude." A guy called The Drifter, an anonymous writer who wrote a weekly column for The Nation, characterized the urge to build tall buildings as an adolescent pursuit. Paris, by contrast, was more sophisticated, needing only the Eiffel Tower. In a column published in late 1930 he wrote, "Only a spineless race with brains of straw will let itself be forever crowded into subways, jammed into elevators, and shot into space in order that 'modern industry' may be enabled to sell more separate brands of what might as well be the same toothpaste."

A little more than a year before, on August 29, 1929, the New York Times ran a story announcing that the world's tallest building would be built on the site of the Waldorf-Astoria on Fifth Avenue. It was to be called the Empire State Building. Less than two months later the stock market crashed. Nevertheless, the plans to build moved at a breathtaking speed. The financial backers, including the building's developer, John Jacob Raskob, and Pierre DuPont, had borrowed most of the money to pay for the project. Delaying would force them to repay higher interest rates on the loan.

Window Washers, Empire State Building (detail) 1/24/09

By the time the building officially opened on May 1, 1931, three politicians were on hand for the ceremonies held on the 86th floor - former governor Al Smith, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Mayor Jimmy Walker. Governor Roosevelt gave an uplifting speech about vision and faith. Critic Edmund Wilson blasted back in an editorial for The New Republic, calling the Empire State Building "more purposeless and superfluous than any," criticizing the skyscraper for being "advertised as a triumph in the hour when the planless competitive society, the dehumanized urban community, of which it represents the culmination, is bankrupt."

So there it stood for years during the Great Depression, the "Empty State Building" as many New Yorkers called it, a profitless pinnacle with empty offices and where workers turned on lights to give the appearance that someone worked there. While a few at the time thought that the only attraction lay in the view from the top, many city residents and architecture critics came to love the building, from a perspective far away or from the streets below.

Images of the Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue, by Walking Off the Big Apple.

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