The guys who built the Empire State Building are the only thing as remarkable as it, yet back then, there were far fewer regulations governing construction workers than there are now. A reputation for being daredevils developed among the diligent workers up high who were shifting girders, riveting, painting, or even just taking a break for lunch or rest.
They performed their jobs while wearing only the barest of harnesses, occasionally going without any. They also swung on cables, relaxed along beams strung hundreds of feet above the ground, and even took quick naps on the metal beams. Several classic photographs of the construction activity were taken by press and magazine photographers drawn to the Empire State construction project and its workers.
The ironworkers defied gravity by balancing on skinny beams or hanging hundreds or thousands of feet from derrick lines above the city’s streets.
They “put on the best open-air show in town. They rode into the air on top of a steel beam that they maneuvered into place as a crosspiece by hanging to the cable rope and steering the beam with their feet, then strolling on the thin edge of nothingness.”
“Air like wine. An unusual picture of one of the intrepid window washers working on the Empire State Building, pausing to draw a lung-full of clean air at his height. With the oncoming of the warmer weather, our skyscrapers begin to look like giant ant hills as these washers clamber over the faces of the structures, calmly doing their nerve-tingling work. Or maybe the fellow pictured here is inviting the cameraman to come a little closer.”
The intrepid teams of riveters worked alongside the steelworkers to secure the beams into position and establish the building’s steel framework using red-hot rivets.
The London Daily Mail compared the employees to historical figures: They were physically present, appearing unassuming and remarkably carefree while crawling, climbing, strolling, swinging, and swooping on enormous steel frames.
As fearless as the ironworkers and riveters appeared to be, there was one threat they paid attention to the weather. Slippery conditions existed when it rained, and hands that were frozen, stiff, or numb hands could not hold onto anything when it was extremely cold.
The Empire State Building, a 102-story steel-framed skyscraper finished in New York City in 1931, held the record for the tallest structure until the World Trade Center building overtook it in 1972.
At its height, the project employed over 3,500 people, including 3,439, on one day, August 14, 1930.
With a large minority of Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal, most workers were immigrants from Ireland and Italy.
Although the New York Daily News reported 14 deaths and a headline in the socialist publication The New Masses disseminated untrue claims of up to 42 deaths, the official sources state that five employees died while the building was underway.
“Carl Russell waves to his co-workers on the structural work of the 88th floor of the new Empire State Building. When complete, the highest man-made structure in the world will rise 1,222 feet above the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. The cameraman risked his life climbing a derrick to snap this unusual photograph. Notice the “Toy” cars and the ant-sized pedestrians walking about Herald Square almost a quarter of a mile below.”
The demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria added to the construction cost of the Empire State Building, which came to $40,948,900 (or $564,491,900 in 2019). The $60 million allocated for construction was less than this.
On May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building made its public debut, opening 45 days earlier than scheduled and 18 months after construction began.
President Herbert Hoover of the United States attended the opening ceremony and pushed the ceremonial button from Washington, D.C., to turn on the building’s lights.
The 1,250-foot-tall (380 m) Empire State Building was supposed to surpass other tall structures for “many years,” according to The New York Times, putting an end to the long-running skyscraper competition in New York City.
At the time, most engineers concurred that it would be challenging to construct a structure taller than 1,200 feet (370 m), even with the resilient bedrock of Manhattan serving as a base. Although it was technically possible to construct a tower up to 2,000 feet (610 m) tall, it was considered unprofitable, particularly during the Great Depression.
“Empire State Building under Construction”
The Empire State Building, the first structure with more than 100 stories and the tallest skyscraper in the world, rose to prominence as a symbol of the city and, eventually, the country.
The Empire State Building didn’t begin turning a profit until the 1950s when it eventually achieved its first financial break-even point. Compared to now, the building’s neighborhood had few public transit choices back then. Despite this obstacle, the Empire State Building started to draw tenants because of its renown.
Beginning in 1950, a radio antenna measuring 222 feet (68 meters) was built atop the towers to enable television stations in the vicinity to transmit from the structure.
“A ‘blimp’ flying over the Empire State Building.”
“It may be painful for the ant-like spectators in the street below, but it’s all in a day’s work for these smiling window washers as they go about their precarious work cleaning up the Empire State Building, the world’s tallest structure at dizzy heights of hundreds of feet above the street.”
“The startling ‘shot’ was made by the photographer looking down upon the window washers on the 34th street side of the world-famed building. Note the tiny insects that are motor cars and pedestrians.”
“Aerial view of New York City atop the Empire State Building”
“Flirting with danger is routine work for the steelworkers arranging the steel frame for the Empire State Building, which will be the world’s tallest structure when completed.”
“New York City: Lighting Up ‘Way Up.’ A striking silhouette atop the gigantic RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, New York, as workers light their cigarettes at the end of a working day. The Empire State Building rises dramatically in the background.”
“Erected on the site of the old Waldorf Astoria, this building will rise 1,284 feet into the air. A zeppelin mooring mast will cap this engineering feat.”
“An odd photographic trick placed this steelworker’s finger on the lofty pinnacle of the Chrysler Building. This view was taken from the Empire State Building, the world’s tallest building, which is now rising on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. A mooring mast for dirigibles will cap this 1,284-foot structure.”
“A construction worker hangs from an industrial crane during the construction of the Empire State Building.”
“Ex-Governor Alfred E. Smith, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, and others at the top of the Empire State Building, tallest in the world, gazing out over the New York panorama. This scene occurred immediately after the official opening of the structure this morning, which was completed when President Herbert Hoover pressed a telegraph key back in Washington, DC, which turned on all of the building’s lights. Mr. Smith is the president of the company that built the building.”
“Workmen at the new Empire State building that is being erected on the site of the old Waldorf Astoria Hotel at 34th Street and 5th Avenue. in New York, by a corporation headed by the former Governor Al Smith, raised a flag on the 88th story of the great building, 1,048 feet above the street. Thus, the flag is at the highest point in the city than the Chrysler Building. Photo shows the workmen at the ceremonies.”
“Workmen place one of the new beacon lights on the 90th floor of an impressive electronic crown in the form of four far-reaching night beacons. Combined, the four Empire State Night lights will generate almost two billion candle power of light and will be the brightest continuous source of man-made light in the world. Engineers say the beacons can be seen from as far as 300 miles. The cost of the installation is $250,000.” 1956.
“View From the Top of the Empire State Building.” 1947.
(Photo credit: Libary of Congress / National Archives / Bettmann / Corbis / Walks of New York).
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