May marks the anniversary month of the opening of the Empire State Building, the New York City icon that revolutionized the construction of tall buildings. Construction of the 102-story edifice began in 1930 and was completed in one year and 45 days, with New York Gov. Al Smith’s grandchildren participating in the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 1, 1931.
The Empire State Building was designed by William F. Lamb, from the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. Basing his design on those of the earlier Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the Carew Tower in Cincinnati, Ohio, Lamb produced the building drawings in just 2 weeks. The structural engineer was Homer Gage Balcom, a pioneer in designing tall structures able to withstand lateral wind forces. Balcom’s works also included Grand Central Railroad Terminal, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, One Wall Street, and Rockefeller Center. A groundbreaking paper by Balcom, titled “New York’s Tallest Skyscraper” (Civil Engineering, March 1931), detailed his developments in wind engineering.
The Empire State Building was the first commercial construction project to employ the technique of fast-track construction. Under the innovative project management of contractors Starrett Brothers & Eken, Inc., construction was completed a month ahead of schedule. While foundations were being constructed on one portion of the site, excavation was still proceeding on the other portion. Work began on the lower floors before the specifications for the upper floors had been completed.
A detailed chart outlining the entire construction schedule was developed to coordinate the timeframe for each of the activities. Everything was engineered to be duplicated in great quantity. Steel columns and beams arrived at the site marked with their location in the framework and with the number of the derrick that would hoist them.
Lewis Wickes Hine’s photography of the construction provides not only invaluable documentation of the construction, but also a glimpse into the common day-life of workers in that era.
The construction was part of an intense competition in New York for the title of “world’s tallest building.” Two other projects fighting for the title, 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building, were already under construction when work began on the Empire State Building. The structure held the record as the world’s tallest building for more than 40 years until it was surpassed in height by the north tower of the World Trade Center, in 1972.
The skyscraper represents an achievement that has been described as a “triumph of man’s engineering genius.” In 1955, the Empire State Building was selected as one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders. In 1996, it was named by ASCE as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. This wonder has also been designated as a National Historic Landmark and a New York City Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On July 18, 2001, ASCE honored the Empire State Building with a plaque designating it one of the Top Ten Civil Engineering Monuments of the Millennium.
In 2009, the Empire State Building began a comprehensive modernization program that now offers tenants state-of-the-art office amenities in a historic building while greatly reducing both energy use and carbon emissions. The building is expected to save $4.4 million a year and reduce its energy use by 38%, while preserving its historic importance and iconic eminence. The retrofit is now serving as a model and template for other multitenant, multistory buildings that promote sustainability.
Photos courtesy of the New York Public Library.