Mrs. William Lamb Reminisces
By Anthony W. Robins
The Empire State Building in all its glory. Photo: Richard Berenholtz
Thirty-five years ago, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission marked the Empire State Building’s fiftieth anniversary by designating the building’s exterior as a city landmark and the lobbies as an interior landmark. I was a member of the Commission’s Research Department staff at the time and landed the plum assignment of writing the official reports that accompanied these designations. And it was my great good luck that the widow of architect William F. Lamb, the partner in the firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon responsible for the building’s design, was still living.
Mrs. Lamb kindly invited me to visit her in her enormous Upper East Side apartment. We chatted for half an hour about the building and her husband’s career. Although, as she put it, Mr. Lamb never brought work home from the office, she had some interesting things to say about his experience designing the building, as well as his opinion about some later changes.
Mrs. Lamb began by vigorously dissociating herself from a statement attributed to her in a 1975 book about the Empire State Building: “As for the inspiration for the design,” the book quoted her saying, “a large pencil served. He was at the drawing board one day and set a large pencil on end. The clean soaring lines inspired him, and he modeled the building after it.” The idea that any architect would find design inspiration in an upright pencil she found exasperating. As she explained it to me, “It was not Bill, it was Mr. Raskob [the building’s developer], at the first meeting with Bill, who held up a pencil and said, ‘Can you make it stand?’ Now that makes a little sense, instead of pointing to a pencil and saying, ‘that’s it’—it’s the craziest thing I ever heard!”
It’s easy to understand her annoyance at being misquoted, especially in a way that might make her husband seem simple-minded. More of a surprise
More of a surprise might be her opinion about the phrase “Art Deco” as applied to the Empire State Building. The phrase “Art Deco,” of course, hadn’t yet been coined in William Lamb’s day, but in 1981 Mrs. Lamb clearly knew what it was, and that her husband did not approve of it:
“I don’t consider it Art Deco, and neither did Bill. He didn’t actually talk about the Empire State being Art Deco or not, it’s just that he never considered himself Art Deco. He termed the whole form Art Deco—I remember driving down Park [Avenue] with him, and we saw some building, I can’t remember what, and he said, ‘now that I consider Little Nemo [an elaborately ornamental comic strip] style of architecture.’ And he considered the Chrysler [an example of] Little Nemo style of architecture. He himself was very simple. He loved everything classical; he loved classical music, and simple lines. His favorite form of architecture was Romanesque, and when we went to France we were all through the south of France seeing those old, very strong, sturdy churches . . . the buildings themselves are very stark . . . I always think of Art Deco as so fancy.”
Mrs. Lamb recalled with pleasure her husband’s friendship with and admiration for architect Raymond Hood, and also a comment Hood made about the building:
“Oh, he did indeed, very much [admire Hood’s work], and they were very good friends, good, close friends . . . He was very enthusiastic about Hood’s Rockefeller Center . . . I do remember one thing that he said about Hood, when he was talking to him about it [the Empire State Building] right at the very beginning. Hood said, ‘Well, one thing, you won’t have to struggle to make it look tall!’ I thought it was wonderful.”
There were several changes that Lamb did not like. “He did not approve of the . . . television antenna,” most likely because it changed the building’s profile. Perhaps most surprising: “He also didn’t like the fact of its being illuminated.”
Completion of the Empire State Building and its opening in May 1931 was marked with great pomp and circumstance, but the Lambs wanted nothing to do with that:
“The building was finished a month before it was supposed to, wasn’t it? And for a little less money, absolutely incredible! And he’d [Lamb] been working frightfully hard, you know, and late; it had to be finished, they were under great pressure. However, he knew when it was supposed to be finished there’d be a great to-do . . . and he planned, very deliberately, that we would go abroad that same day [as the building’s opening]. We sailed on the Île de France. He did not like public speeches or public encomiums or anything like that, he hated it. We sailed just an hour or two before the party began. And the captain of the Île de France invited us up to his quarters, to have a drink, and to listen to the party [on the radio]. And Bill was in a state of absolute delight. The job was done, and well done, and he said, ‘Isn’t this marvelous? We don’t have to listen to all these speeches!’ He was so happy.”
About the Author:
Anthony W. Robins is an architectural historian, lecturer, tour leader, and author who has been guiding residents and visitors to the city’s wonders for 25 years. As a founding member of ADSNY, he created the Society’s original tour program in 1981. He has lectured on New York history and architecture to audiences ranging from high school students to senior citizen groups, and from general audiences to university seminars in the United States and abroad.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.