The Empire State Building is one of the United States’ most famous landmarks. We’re all familiar with it; we’ve sobbed through ‘An Affair to Remember‘, punched the air when Tom Hanks finally found Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle and hid behind our hands when King Kong makes it to the top of the tower. But how much do you know about the iconic skyscraper? Did you know that it’s the tallest LEED-certified building in the United States? Or on a clear day, visitors to the observation deck can see five states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts? How about the fact that during autumn and spring nights, the lights are turned off so that migrating birds don’t get confused by the bright lights and headbutt the building? It might not be the ‘nearest thing to heaven in New York’ any longer (One World Trade Center takes that title now), but at 443 metres (1453 feet) it’s not far off. Take a look at some of these interesting facts about the Empire State Building we bet you didn’t know.
Interesting Facts About the Empire State Building
1. There was a plan to use it as an airship docking station
When the skyscraper was initially constructed, there was a widely held belief that transatlantic airship travel was the future. So much so, in fact, that the original owners constructed the mast as a docking port for blimps. The airships would manoeuvre alongside the building and tether to a winching apparatus. Passengers could then hop off via an open-air gangplank, check-in at customs and hop down to Manhatten in just seven minutes.
They scrapped the plan when they realised that the high winds made it impossible for pilots to land here. The only landing in history took place in September 1931. A tiny navy airship docked on top for a grand total of three minutes after circling the building 25 times in 45-mile-per-hour winds. Not the most glamorous way to arrive in NYC.
2. It won the ‘Race to the Sky’
Back in the 1920s, the building trade was booming. Every entrepreneur wanted to win the race to create the world’s largest skyscraper, but the rivalry between Chrystler and the Bank of Manhatten Building. Then, it all really heated up when General Motors announced plans to create the Empire State Building. When Chrysler found out that the Empire State Building would reach 1,048 feet, he built a spire on top of his tower’s roof. The Empire State Building’s Chief builder John Raskob casually added an additional five storeys and his own spire to the building, so he got the last laugh.
Architect William Lamb supposedly modelled the building on Winston–Salem, North Carolina’s Reynolds Building and the Carew Tower in Cincinnati. Both Art Deco buildings are now celebrated as inspiration for the skyscraper. When the Reynolds Building celebrated its 50th anniversary, the General Manager of the Empire State Building sent a card saying “Happy Anniversary, Dad.”
The Empire State Build retained its title for close to four decades, until the completion of the first World Trade Center in 1970.
3. It was originally a huge flop
It took a long time for the Empire State Building to start making money. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression meant that only 25 % of the building’s space was occupied in the early 1930s. It even got the nickname, “Empty State Building”.
To help ramp up some publicity, the owners of the building hosted some pretty interesting events. For instance, in 1932, it hosted a séance that tried to contact the ghost of Thomas Edison from the 82nd floor. Workers started leaving the lights on too to make the building look occupied, even though the upper half of the building stayed almost entirely empty throughout the 1930s. It wasn’t until World War II that it finally started to make a profit.
4. It survived a bomber crash
At the end of World War Two in July 1945, an Army Air Corps B–25 twin-engine bomber plane crashed into the 79th floor of the building. Heavy fog had covered Midtown Manhattan and while the veteran managed to dodge a few skyscrapers, he couldn’t avoid the tallest in the world. He ploughed into the 78th and 79th floor at 200 miles an hour. It triggered a huge explosion, killing 11 people inside the building as well as Smith – the bomber – and two crewmen. Firefighters managed to extinguish the fire in 40 minutes and the building was back open for business just two days later.
5. A woman survived a 75-story plummet to the bottom of the building
During the bomber crash, the B-25’s engine cut through the building and severed the cables for two lift shafts. The 19-year-old lift operator, Betty Lou Oliver, was inside one of those lifts. She plunged 75 storeys – over a thousand feet – in the lift and crashed into the basement. Fortunately, the cable at the bottom of the shaft cushioned the blow. Miraculously she survived, albeit with a broken neck and back.
6. There’s an annual race to the top
The Empire State Building Run-Up is the world’s oldest and most famous tower race. The annual race challenges participants to race up 86 flights of stairs– 1,576 steps – to the top of the building. The fastest runners can cover the distance in a mere 10 minutes. That’s just ten times as long as it takes to travel the same distance in a lift, though we know which we’d prefer.
Paul Crake, Australia, holds the men’s record, having raced to the top in 2003 in 9:33 minutes. Andrea Mayr, Austria, holds the women’s title, hitting the 11:23 minutes record in 2006.
7. Steps aren’t the only way down
You could take the stairs, but thrill-seekers might prefer to just throw themselves off the top – safely, of course. In April 1986, British travellers Alastair Boyd and Michael McCarthy purchased tickets to the Empire State Building but had concealed parachutes under their coats. They leapt off the observation deck on the 86th floor and landed safely sixty seconds later, over 1,000 feet below. McCarthy was arrested but Boyd managed to hop in a taxi and escape. However, both were charged with ‘reckless endangerment and ‘unlawful parachuting’.