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John J. Raskob and Alfred E. Smith dreamed of building the tallest building in the world. The planning of the construction takes place in the late 1920’s during a very prosperous time in America. The actual construction took place during the beginning of the Great Depression and, despite the deaths of some workers, was completed on time. The opening of the Empire State Building was a historic day despite the country’s economic depression. The Empire State Building, an engineering and Art Deco architectural masterpiece, conceived in prosperous times but created during the Great Depression, provided jobs when needed, elevated the spirits of the local people and preserves as an icon today.
Burdened by a devastating economic depression, New Yorkers could not know the significance that the Empire State Building would have on the City of New York. During the depression, “unemployment had risen from 3% to 25% of the nation’s workforce.”  The Empire State Building’s construction continued on schedule despite our country’s economic depression which is a testimony to the strong work ethic of the individual craftsmen as well as to the conviction of the financial backers that believed in building this skyscraper. John Jacob Raskob, the former Vice President of General Motors, and Alfred E. Smith, former governor of New York, made a decision to build the Empire State Building. Although there are many stories as to how these two gentlemen decided on the grand scheme of building the world’s tallest building, it seems most probable that the original idea came from Alfred Smith. He served on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company which had been involved in the discussions for the loan on the Waldorf Astoria building.  In the spring of 1929, Smith and Raskob agreed on the project. Raskob and others financed the project and Al Smith became the “face” of the project and the president of the Empire State Company.  Smith, the politician, knew the city well and worked hard to promote the significance of the skyscraper project. On August 29, 1929, the headlines of the New York Times read, “Smith To Help Build Highest Skyscraper.” Smith’s reputation added to the credibility of the project. Raskob, the financier, created his own fortune through hard work. As early as October of 1928, Raskob, an unofficial spokesman for Wall Street, was not involved in the stock market because he felt that ” it was imprudent to be substantially in debt with the stock market and money market in the present position.”  The fact that Raskob did not have a position in the corporate world and was uneasy with the stock market may have motivated him to join his friend in this real estate project. Although real estate was viewed as a safe investment, there was no guarantee that the Empire State Building would result in a great deal of money. Raskob was financially secure, was not concerned about making money and was not worried about profit from the skyscraper project. Smith decided that the intersection of 5th avenue and 34th street would be the perfect setting for the Empire Sate Building. It was a well traveled area serviced by multiple bus services, underground and elevated trains and street cars. Large respected stores such as B. Altman and Best and Co. surrounded the area and attracted people from all economic groups. Raskok paid about 20 million dollars for the closed Waldorf Astoria Hotel that stood on the proposed site. The architects at Shreve, Lamb and Harmon spearheaded the project and involved the expert engineers, architects and building specialists to develop the overall plan.  It took sixteen versions before the final plan was accepted by all involved.  The construction company hired was Starrett Brothers and Eken and they “resolved to outdo every record of construction they or anyone else had ever set.”  They wanted to avoid costly over-time. The demolition of the closed hotel began on 10/1/29. The demolition cost $ 900,000. 26 days later the Stock Market crashed on Black Thursday.  Many investors lost all their savings especially those who had paid only a percentage of the purchase price because they hoped that the increasing value would make up the difference.  As the country’s economy plummeted, businesses and stores closed. Thousands of workers in various fields were suddenly without jobs. Alfred Smith was not personally hurt by the Stock market crash because he did not own a great deal of stock and his job was secured. Most of the financial backers of the Empire State Building project were not significantly affected. The construction of the skyscraper was “too far along to halt.”  Those involved in the production of the Empire State Building were fortunate to have jobs and they were keenly aware of this. The unemployed walked the streets and watched the drama in the ground and in the sky as the building soared.
The design of the building was geared toward an easy project that would proceed rapidly. The construction of the Empire State Building gave jobs to tradesmen in the height of the Great Depression and they in turn honored their professions by creating a skyscraper that captured the attention of an economically and emotionally depressed population. The skyscraper was built on igneous rock called Manhattan schist, “the rock whose strength made for Manhattan’s greatness.”  The natural rock was capable of sustaining the building’s massive weight. The basic structure of the Empire State Building was simplistic. The building’s frame was formed by box shaped grids that repeated through the floors. The repetition of the grids allowed an “assembly-line like efficiency.”  This improved the overall efficiency of the workers and the speed at which floors were completed. The skyscraper was finished in thirteen months and almost no overtime was paid.  The overall cost of the building was $40,948,900 which was less than the original estimate cost.  These facts were significant in an economic depression where multitudes of people were financially destitute. The workers hailed from a variety of specialty trades. They worked from 8am to 4:30 in a tense atmosphere where speed and precision were expected. Ironworkers could build a story a day which exceeded the standard for erecting steel.  57,000 tons of steel, the largest order in history , was requested for the skyscraper.  . Steel was expensive but lasted a long time and was considered practical for the skyscraper. The supplies needed for the Empire State Building came from factories, foundries, and quarries that were internationally and nationally located. For instance, the limestone was from Indiana, the steel girders form Pittsburgh, cement and mortar form the upper section of New York State, marble from Italy, France and England, wood from the Pacific Coast forests and hardware from New England.  The Empire State Building was giving revenue to construction supply businesses that were financially suffering from the Depression. Most of the pieces of the skyscraper were made in bulk which allowed the project to stay on schedule while maintaining accuracy. The construction occurred from the bottom of the building to the top with the ongoing plans developing as the floors were completed. The Empire State Building “rises gracefully from cleverly arranged volumes at the base to an understated cap of layering sections and combines Art Deco notes with a classical sense of proportion.”  The architects wanted the building to be a “logical and simple answer to the struggling economic times of the city and the technical difficulties” involved in constructing the tallest building.  The structure of the inside of the building was geared toward maximizing space to accommodate renters. Large open floor spaces helped to keep costs down because it is the exterior walls that are costly.  The architects created spaces that are bright and airy and, therefore, appealing to businesses. The outside design, with “all the elements balanced in true classical form,” creates a timeless structural masterpiece.  The stainless steel combined with nickel creates a shiny finish for the mullions on the sides of the skyscraper and give it a sleek appearance. Large bays create depth for the skyscraper while large windows and spandrels, an Art Deco touch, added to the building’s beauty.
A zeppelin mooring mast on the top of the building added to the building’s height and gave it “a hat as distinctive as Al Smith’s derby.” Elevators were placed for access to the upper floor. Reminders of the divine achieved by sheer human effort are all over the lobby of the Empire State Building.”  The architectural and artistic qualities of the Empire State Building are the reason it preserves through time as a skyscraper masterpiece.
The depression affected all aspects of American life including the maintenance of the Empire State Building. Although the Empire State Building was built in desperate times through the beginning of the Great Depression, it was still able to serve as a beacon of hope and provided some distraction for those suffering through the Great Depression. The Empire State Building officially opened on May 1st, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover turned the lights on by pushing a button in Washington D.C.  Although this was a small gesture, it had great significance. This event, at the height of the depression, was an uplifting sign for all the people. Opening the “world’s tallest building” hinted at prosperity even as the people’s finances were in shambles. The opening of the Empire State Building was an “event that punctuated a period of architectural ambition and civic glee.”  It was an important achievement for the city at the height of the depression. The people of New York were enamored with the size of the building. “The skyscraper was a monument to the past, to the era of prosperity.”  Roskob and Smith both wanted this to be an extraordinary building despite the historical time surrounding it. They wanted it to inspire increased business growth in the area. The plan was that the building would attract adverse group of tenants. Although the building was helping out New York mentally, physically the Empire State Building was a disaster. The depressed impacted negatively on the rate of rentals. Smith had trouble filling the enormous building so most of it was empty. Al Smith spent a great deal of time trying to attract tenants. By December of 1931, the skyscraper became known as the “Empty State Building.”  Smith and Raskob were getting into difficulty as they struggled for tenants. Friends and colleagues of Raskob and Smith rented building space to friends. In April of 1931, Country Trust opened a branch office in the Empire State building taking up a large amount of space. This was important in keeping the Empire State Building alive. It was essential in keeping the building up and in business. The Empire State Building fought through the tough times of the depression and now remains a vibrant institution in Manhattan today.
The plans for the Empire State Building began in prosperous times but saw its completion at the height of the depression. Despite the significant economic distress of our country, the Empire State Building opened on time and was recognized for its significance as a spectacular skyscraper. The Empire State Building has survived almost eight decades and remains the quintessential iconic New York skyscraper.
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