How do you know you are in New York City?

Yellow cabs, pushcarts, the electric pulse in the air might all tip you off. But catch the sight of the Empire State Building and you have stepped into the Big Apple. The iconic building celebrated its 86th anniversary on May 1st, 2016. 

The majestic Empire State Building

15 Top Secrets of An American Cultural Icon

By Lucas Compan, a guest storyteller


The Empire State Building located in Manhattan, New York stands at 1,454 Feet High, including the antenna spire. When construction was complete in 1931 it became the world's tallest building for 40 years until 1972 when the North Tower of the World Trade Center was finished and stood even taller. The Empire State Building is considered to be an American cultural icon, designed with Art Deco style and being one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The 102 story building has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

What stories and secrets would be hidden within the walls of The Empire State Building? We asked ourselves this question. And started to dig deep into the history of this iconic American landmark. Here is a list of 15 top secrets that are not usually known:

15. Empire State Photographs Were Instrumental In Changing Lives Of Working People


Photographs by the pioneering social photographer Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940). Source: New York Public Libray

The construction of the Empire Building was recorded – and forever preserved at the New York Public Library – by Lewis Hine, a photographer working in the tradition of Jacob Riis. Lewis Wickes Hine (September 26, 1874 - November 3, 1940) was an American sociologist and photographer. Hine used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in the United States. Lewis Hine was always using his camera to effect social change by documenting the lives and livelihoods of ordinary working people. For six months, the 55-year-old photographer climbed all over the steel frame, balancing on beams, sharing meals with the workers, while taking more than 1,000 photographs.

When the building topped out, Hine arranged to be hoisted above the framework, 1,250 feet (381 meters) in the air, so that he could photograph the installation of the final beam, at exactly 5:42 p.m. on the afternoon of March 18, 1931.

Lewis Wickes Hine, photograper and sociologist. Click here to learn more.


14. It Started As A Competition between brothers


The construction of the Empire State Building started as a competition between brothers. John Jacob Astor Jr and William Backhouse Astor inherited a plot each on Fifth Avenue - one cornered with 33rd street, the other with 34th. On 33rd, John erected a mansion in 1859. In 1862, his younger brother William trumped him with a bigger mansion next door - on 34th. In 1893, John's son, William Waldorf Astor, demolished their mansion and built the Waldorf Hotel. Four years later, in 1897, their family and neighbors razed their mansion to make way for the Astoria Hotel. The competition stopped there, though, and in 1928, the Astoria was sold to an engineering corporation for $20 million.

Engraved vignettes of the original hotels (1915)

With the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel becoming dated, the building and site were sold to developers and the Empire State Building rose in its place. Meanwhile the new Waldorf-Astoria was built atop a former cemetery

Former Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, on 34th Street, now on Park Avenue, in Midtown Manhattan.


13. The Building Was Completed Ahead of Schedule


Even before its completion, the new tower dominated the city's skyline, by day and by night. Its solitary location, above one of the highest points of land in midtown Manhattan, further emphasized its visibility. At the time this photograph was taken, the building's main structure was already complete – while work continued on the mooring mast above. Thanks in part to savings brought on by the deepening economic crisis, the building was completed 45 days ahead of schedule and US$ 5 million under budget.

Photo: Lewis Hine, 1930


12. The Lights are Turned Off During Migration Season So Birds Won’t Get Confused


New York City Audubon sponsors the dimming of at least half a dozen skyscrapers during migration season. The lights are turned off at midnight to prevent birds from crashing into the building. Said Audubon executive director, “The birds are drawn in by the glow of the city and are unable to see the miles of concrete and glass stretching into the sky.”

As The New York Times reports, “In two migratory seasons, Audubon counted 90,000 birds who were killed in collisions with buildings in New York City.”


11. Do You Know How Many Men Had Died During The Construction?


In all, six men had died during the construction of the Empire State Building: two laborers, an ironworker, and three carpenters, a startlingly low figure, given the danger of the work itself, the pressure of the construction schedule, and the absence of many now mandatory safety regulations.


10. The Red Ribbon and The Silver Key


On May 1, 1931, what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, called 'The House That Smith Built' opened with a day of ceremony and fanfare. Alfred Emmanuel "Al" Smith (December 30, 1873 - October 4, 1944) was an American salesman who was elected Governor of New York four times and was the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928. Four years later, Smith sought the 1932 nomination but was defeated by his former ally and successor as New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Two of Smith's grandchildren cut a red ribbon outside the Fifth Avenue entrance, then used a silver key to open the doors to the marble-lined entrance hall. At exactly 11:30 a.m., President Herbert Hoover pushed a button on his desk at the White House, and the lights went on up and down the structure. The ceremony was broadcast live across the country by the CBS and NBC radio networks. Asked to comment on the building Smith said simply: "It's a great piece of work."

May 1, 1930 – The Empire State Building Opening Day (Image:NYPL)

On opening day, Alfred E. Smith and Governor Franklin Roosevelt took in the view from the 86th-floor observation deck. The governor admitted to being a "little awestruck" by the panoramic view from the great tower. "In looking out from this building," he said, "I have got an entirely new conception of things in the city of New York."

In looking out from this building, I have got an entirely new conception of things in the city of New York.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Governor of New York (May 1, 1931)

9. Fifty-seven Tons of Steel


7 – The heroic work crews managed to hoist 57,000 tons of structural steel into the sky – not only higher but faster than anyone had ever dreamed possible. 

Image: NYPL

Image: NYPL

Image: NYPL


8. Three Times The Chrysler Building


8 – The amount of steel used in the Empire State was almost three times the total employed in the Chrysler Building

Image: NYPL


7. The Tallest And The Fastest Construction


Empire State Building construction site, on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (Image: NYPL)

From start to finish, from the commencement of work on the foundations to the last piece of interior work on the gleaming marble lobby, it had taken their heroic team of engineers and workmen just eleven months to erect the tallest building in the world – one of the greatest feats of construction since buildings began

Image: NYPL


6. A Gala Event At The Observation Deck


Image: NYPL

On the opening day, May 1, 1931, a gala event was held on the brand-new observation deck on the eighty-sixth floor. The event was attended by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mayor Jimmy Walker. All the high spirits of the opening day could not disguise the fact that the Empire State Building was a commercial failure – and an increasing embarrassment to its principal owner


5. The Empty State Building


Within one year of opening, what was to have been a symbol of the might os American finance seemed to many to have become a monument to the excess of the 1920s; only 46 percent of the building's office was rented, and from the forty-first floor up the building was empty. At that time, some people were calling it the Empty State Building


4. The Building Was Considered An Aberration


Brooklyn Daily Eagle Newspaper, Oct 30, 1929 (Image:NYPL)

The Empire State Building constituted a kind of aberration. The project, conceived by the businessman John Jocob Raskob – an ingenious financer, to whom the DuPont Company owed its successful reorganization a few years earlier, and a skillful speculator – was launched in the fall of 1929, a few weeks before the financial crisis that provoked the Wall Street collapse on October 24 and 29 – "Black Thursday" and "Black Tuesday". Relatively far from Forty-second Street, the Empire State Building represented pure real-estate speculation, with no ties to any large business. Thus it was hardly surprising that this new symbol of New York remained three-quarters empty and lost money for its owners until 1950.


3. A B-25 Bomber Crashed The Building in 1945


On the foggy Saturday morning of July 28, 1945, a disoriented pilot flying a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State between the 78th and 80th floors. Remarkably, the resulting fire was contained in just 40 minutes, and only 14 people were killed—3 on the plane and 11 in the building. An elevator operator survived a 75-foot (23 meters) plunge when the elevator’s cables failed after the crash.



2. A Color For Each Day


The colored floodlights that illuminate the top of the building were added in 1964, when the much-loved tradition of changing the colors for holidays and other special events began. It used to take six hours for a crew to switch the gels on the lights for a new look, but a computerized, energy-efficient LED system was installed in 2012, giving lighting designers a range of 16 million color combinations to choose from. There’s always some significance to the color scheme, whether it’s to support a local sports team, to memorialize a famous individual (on Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday, the building was blue in honor of his nickname, Ol’ Blue Eyes), or to mark a special occasion. When Fay Wray, who played King Kong’s love interest, died in 2004, the building went dark for 15 minutes.

> What color is the Empire State Building today? Find out here.


1. The Building as a Weapon of Mass INSTRUCTION

On August 1, 2015, New York and the world have seen a 33-story tall snow leopard projected on the Empire State Building walls. For a few hours, the building was plastered with images of some of the world's most endangered animals.

"We wanted to project a sort of reverse invasion of endangered species in the urban jungle," says Travis Threlkel, chief creative officer of Obscura Digital, the studio that designed the display along with filmmakers behind a new documentary on extinction.

Originally, the designers wanted to cover the entire Midtown skyline, but they quickly realized that wouldn't be possible on a nonprofit budget. The Empire State Building—known for its massive, $20 million green makeover—was on board. Even with only one building involved, the display, called Projecting Change, cost $1 million to produce.

Using 40 projectors on a nearby roof, the show cycled through a series of animals. "We were looking to show as many as possible and to represent a broad range of our planets endangered biodiversity, a Noah’s Ark of species," Threlkel says. Working with the Ocean Preservation Society, they picked animals that would look good at 350 feet tall and 186 feet wide.

The Building as a huge 350 feet (106 meters) tall and 186 feet (57 meters) wide projection screen


A Weapon of Mass Instruction

Watch the video published on CNN.com with Trevis Threlkel, Chief Creative Officer and Co-founder of Obscura Digital explaining details and purposes of this project, and the interesting concept of Weapon of Mass Instruction.



EXTRA BONUS: 10 MORE TOP SECRETS

#10

Spider-Man, King Kong, De Niro In The Same Building


Spider Man 3 (2007)

The Empire State Building appears in these movies and TV Shows: 

  • The Amazing Spider-Man
  • America's Got Talent
  • America's Next Top Model
  • An Affair to Remember
  • Annie Hall
  • Any Wednesday
  • April Fools

King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building (1933)

  • Ask Any Girl
  • Auntie Mame
  • Bachelor Apartment
  • Ball of Fire
  • Bell Book and Candle
  • Best of Everything
  • Bright Lights, Big City
  • Big City Blues
  • Blackboard Jungle
  • Bon Voyage
  • Broadway Melody
  • Butcher's Wife
  • Champion
  • Charlie Chan of Broadway
  • Come to the Stable
  • Coogan's Bluff
  • Daddy Long Legs
  • Detective Story
  • Elf
  • Easter Parade
  • Edge of the City

"Sleepless in Seattle " – Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks at the observation deck, (1993)

 

  • Ivory Ape
  • King of the Gypsies
  • King Kong
  • Klute
  • Kramer vs. Kramer
  • Last Action Hero
  • Law & Disorder
  • Love With a Proper Stranger
  • Lullaby of Broadway
  • Madigan
  • Man in Gray Flannel Suit
  • Manhattan
  • Manhattan Melodrama
  • Manhattan Tower
  • Michael J. Fox Show
  • Moon is Blue
  • My Man Godfrey (Remake)

An Affair To Remember (1957)

  • Extreme Weight Loss
  • Fail-Safe
  • FBI Story
  • Fine Madness
  • Finding Mr. Right, Chinese Blockbuster
  • Finian's Rainbow
  • Footlight Serenade
  • Fitzwilly
  • For Pete's Sake
  • French Connection I
  • Friends with Benefits
  • Funny Face
  • French Line
  • Garment Jungle
  • Gossip Girl
  • Guys & Dolls
  • Hancock
  • Hatful of Rain
  • How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
  • I Take this Woman
  • Independence Day
  • Its Always Fair Weather

Taxi Driver (1976)

  • My Sister Eileen
  • New York Confidential
  • New York, New York
  • New York Stories
  • New York Town
  • North By Northwest
  • Nothing Sacred
  • Oblivion
  • On the Town
  • On the Waterfront
  • Pawnbroker
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief
  • President's Analyst
  • Prisoner of Second Avenue
  • Rock Around the Clock
  • Saboteur

The Dark Knight (2013)


  • Safety First
  • Saint in New York
  • Serpico
  • Seven Ups
  • Shaft
  • Sky's the Limit
  • Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
  • Sleepless in Seattle
  • The Smurfs
  • So This is New York
  • Something Borrowed
  • Stand Up and Cheer
  • Street Scene
  • Sunday in New York
  • Superman II
  • Sweet Charity
  • The Switch
  • Taxi Driver
  • A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
  • Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • White Collar
  • Who Done It
  • World of Henry Orient
  • World Flesh & Devil
  • You Gotta Stay Happy

#9

One-hundred Hits Per Year


There’s a lightning rod at the very tippy-top of the building’s antenna, and it takes a lot of hits—as many as 100 per year.


#8

From The Lobby To The Observation Deck in Nine Minutes


Every year, a few hundred incomprehensibly fit people compete in the invitational Empire State Building Run-Up, first held in 1978. The 1,576-step race from the lobby to the 86th floor observation deck involves an elevation gain of 1,050 feet. The record time? A cool 9 minutes, 33 seconds.


#7

The Ceiling at the Lobby Was Recreated With 2,300 square feet of 23-karat gold leaf 


The building’s spectacular Art Deco lobby was restored in meticulous detail in 2009. Some of the improvements include refurbishment of the matched marble panels and the installation of an anemometer (wind speed indicator) that recreates an original feature that was replaced by an undistinguished clock. Two huge chandeliers that were once planned but never completed were constructed by consulting original drawings, and a marvelous ceiling mural destroyed in the 1960s through thoughtless renovations was recreated, using 115,000 sheets of aluminum leaf and 2,300 square feet of 23-karat gold leaf. Restoring the mural took two years, longer than the ESB itself took to build. Around US$550 million were spent in restoration efforts, and $120 million for making the building more eco-friendly and energy efficient.


#6

There's a Decommissioned 103rd Floor Observation Deck


Moses Gates, author of Hidden Cities, made it part of his urban exploration mission to access and raise awareness on public observation decks that have been closed to the public or turned into private spaces. The 86th floor and 102nd floor observation decks are accessible–albeit with increasing ticket prices, but one could only be accessed through the building management or by breaking in, as Gates describes in his book until it was turned into a VIP lounge. A 2012 Huffington Post article, shows that there is a door from the 102nd, a level that reopened in 2005, that leads upstairs.

What’s fun though is that Gates expected to be most impressed by the views but didn’t expect “a history lesson on the Revolution War.” As he describes, there were 16 signs (one already missing on his visit a bunch of years back) pinpointing geographically major moments in the Revolutionary War, like the Battle of Brooklyn. The signs were put up to commemorate the bicentennial of the war in 1976 “and that in 1977 the building was landmarked with the signs still up.”


#5

The First Light to Shine Atop the Empire State Was for FDR


The first light to shine atop the Empire State Building was a beacon that told those within a 50-mile radius that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected President of the United States in November 1932. You can check out what color combination the Empire State Building will be and what it honors at What Color Is The Empire State Building. If you are interested in learn more about how the light combinations are designed – with 16 million palette choices – click here 


#4

The Empire State Building Has Its Own Zip Code


More than 40 building in New York City have their own zip code, including the Empire State Building at 10118. Skyscrapers get their own zip codes either because of their sheer size or due to the number of people occupying them. Learn more here.


#3

The Pentagon, then, The Empire State Building


The Pentagon is the only office building in the U.S. that is larger than the Empire State Building


#2

There are 6,500 windows in the Empire State Building


It took 410 days and 3,400 workers to complete the construction of the building. There is a total of 2,768, 591 square feet of floor space inside the building. There are a total of 73 elevators and 6,500 windows in the Empire State Building.


#1 

The Zeppelin Dock Station Was Never Used


A Zeppelin dock station: it was announced, was to serve as a mooring mast for dirigibles so that they could dock in Midtown, rather than out in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the station used by the German Graf Zeppelin. 

The famous photo of the dirigible Los Angeles docking at the Empire State Building is a fake, although there were vague plans for an airship station. (Image: Keith De Lelis Gallery)

Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the Graf Zeppelindismissed the project as impractical, noting that dirigible landings required dozens of ground crew, not to mention plenty of rope. “The notion that passengers would be able to descend an airport-style ramp from a moving airship to the tip of the tallest building in the world, even in excellent conditions, beggars belief,” notes the Smithsonian Air Space Magazine.
 


Bonus – Video

Watch an excerpt of this excellent documentary "New York: An Illustrated History" by Ric Burns and James Sanders with Lisa Ades:

Part 2 of 3 Empire State Building segment from New York: A Documentary Film

Extra bonus - More Intriguing Videos


Why Was There a Ford Mustang Atop the Empire State Building?


 

Original footage (1929)

Virtual Tour of The Empire State Building: an incredible experience


Incredible tour from the entrance lobby to the observatory at the 86th floor

The Empire State Building is more than just a view. It’s an immersive experience inside a world famous landmark. In addition to our Observation Decks, your visit includes the newly restored lobby with its stunning Art Deco ceiling murals, the historical Dare To Dream Exhibit, the new Sustainability Exhibit, and an interactive audio device. Get a sneak peak of everything the Empire State Building Experience offers with this virtual video tour. The tour walks you through the whole experience, from the newly renovated art-deco lobby through the sustainability and historical exhibits, up to our observatories. See for yourself what makes the Empire State Building Experience a must-see on your next NYC visit.

How did you like this story? There are more secret stories coming up.


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