Icon of the City

By John Tauranac

The Empire State Building is enshrined in New York City’s Art Deco firmament, but it is hardly an Art Deco extravaganza. It is more a functionalist’s ideal than an Art Deco fantasy.

 

The Empire State Building’s design was one of the city’s most elegant of skyscraper profiles. It is essentially all tower, yet it worked within the confines of the zoning law of 1916, which mandated that a building could not rise straight up from the building line and go as high as technologically possible on the bulk of its plot. A building could rise straight up from the building line a multiple of the width of the street it faced, then setbacks stacked upon each other could rise in reduced girth. A tower could rise straight up on 25 percent of the land.

Instead of the lower floors climbing ten or eleven stories before having a setback, the Empire State Building had only a five-story base covering the plot. At the sixth floor was a major setback—60 feet from Fifth Avenue and 20 and 30 feet from

The entrance to the Empire State Building. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

the side streets. From this low base there rose a tower that in diminishing jetés soared majestically to the eighty-fifth floor. It was big, it was bold, it was beautiful.

 

The harmony of design, with all the elements balanced in true classical form, is sheer elegance. At every stage, horizontally and vertically, there is a beginning, middle, and end.

 

The classical truths of the building are self-evident. The subtler attributes are not. On the base is stone that has been scored to make the building look stouter, and although the stone is the same limestone as the rest of the building, it adds coloration by virtue of the shadows cast.

The decision to use stone for the facing of the entire building was not based on aesthetics alone. Finished brick is expensive to set, and time consuming. Limestone has a luminosity to it, and it comes with other virtues—it is not as hard as granite, hence easier to turn into ashlar, the finished stone used for the facing, and it is more durable than marble.

 

The façades were designed without cornices and other architectural features, so there was an uninterrupted flow to the building. The bays conveyed depth, providing a play of light and shadow, with the added benefit of creating a floor plan with more desirable corner offices than a four-cornered tower.

 

Walls at the setbacks were gently tapered, and the top five floors were chamfered, their corners cut away and softened so that the building reached a logical denouement.

 

Windows on the lower five floors were installed in the conventional manner. Above, however, the windows were flush with the façade as if the outer wall were a wrapping instead of pretending to be load bearing.

The grandest crown that a building ever wore.  Photo: Richard Berenholtz

Typical of Richmond H. Shreve, of the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the plan was not purely aesthetic. The window frames were set into the openings so that the frames covered the edges of the flanking stone and were flush with the spandrels. It translated into stone whose edges did not have to be finished, reducing the cost of the stonework and simplifying installation. And the spandrels themselves were prefabricated slabs of cast aluminum decorated with facing pairs of stylized lightning bolts set in a chevron-like pattern in a classic Art Deco geometric form. They only had to be set in place.

Chrome-nickel steel was used for the mullions, the vertical bands separating the windows that would run from the sixth to the eighty-fifth stories. In addition to contributing to the upward sweep of the façade,

the mullions were a critical element in the ease of construction. Like window frames, they too covered the joins. Topping these vertical steel bands were fanlike motifs, Art Deco responses to terminating features that some critics interpreted as sunbursts, others as anthemions.

 

The great ribbons of windows and spandrels reached for the sky, their soaring quality enhanced by the vertical strips of chrome-nickel steel that flanked them.

 

But the 102-story building that we know today was not the building as planned. In the fall of 1929, the anticipated height of the Empire State Building was 80 stories, or 1,000 feet. The Otis Elevator Company said that cables any longer than 1,000 feet might just collapse under their own weight, and direct service to the eightieth floor, with its planned observatory, was an important feature. The height of 1,000 feet would also assure the building the world’s tallest laurels. The impetus to build a taller building only came when the Chrysler Building rose to a height of 1,048 feet.

Al Smith, the former governor of New York State and presidential candidate, was the president of the Empire State Building, and John J. Raskob, the former chief financial officer of General Motors, was the moneyman. Raskob could not allow the upstart automaker Walter Chrysler to best him. A five-story “penthouse” would be added to the building, taking it to 85 stories, or 1,050 feet, which beat the Chrysler Building by two feet.

 

But Smith and Raskob feared that another developer could easily come along and do to them what they had done to Chrysler. They were going to need a taller building.

 

The plan that evolved was perhaps the looniest building scheme since the Tower of Babel. A 200-foot dirigible mooring mast would be erected atop the building. The idea was that a dirigible would be moored from its bow to the top of the mast. A gangplank would drop down from the dirigible, and passengers would blithely walk between the airship and a platform ringing the mast, 1,250 feet in the air.

 

By the fall of 1931, six months after the building had opened, the plan was quietly dropped. However, the mooring mast was not a total failure. It made the building the world’s tallest until the first of the World Trade Towers opened in 1972, and it gave the building one of the grandest crowns that ever a building wore, creating an instant landmark on the city’s skyline.

About the Author:

John Tauranac writes on New York’s architectural history.  He teaches the subject at the NYU School of Professional Studies, and he designs maps. He is the author of The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark (reprinted by Cornell University Press), the three editions of New York From the Air, with the great aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand (Harry Abrams), The View From the 86th Floor (Tauranac Press), and the creator of Manhattan Block By Block: A Street Atlas.

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.

© 2020 Copyright Art Deco Society of New York, Inc. 

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