The Hidden History of the Empire State Building

empire state building

Anchoring the New York City skyline since 1931, the Empire State Building is a skyscraper that needs no introduction. Since its completion, the iconic building has stood as one of the most iconic towers ever built, serving as a guiding light for New Yorkers and welcoming millions of visitors to its observation decks each year.

For all of its fame, however, most people don’t know the Empire State Building’s secrets and its most fascinating aspects. Although you’ve seen it a million times either in-person or in the movies or your TV screen, chances are you don’t really know the hidden history of the Empire State Building.

The site that now holds the famed Empire State Building first held the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Opened in 1893, the hotel was frequented by the city’s social elite for many years but eventually fell out of favor as newer and even more lavish hotels opened up in the early years of the 20th century.

In 1928, the hotel was sold to the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation, headed by former General Motors executive John Jakob Raskob, businessman Pierre S. du Pont and former New York Governor Alfred Smith. The company decided to demolish the hotel and instead construct a soaring office building at the location.

Designed by the Shreve, Lamb and Harmon architectural firm, the new tower was designed in just two weeks and aimed to be the tallest in the world, surpassing the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street, which were still under construction in New York City at the time. Designed in the popular new Art Deco style, the tower began excavation in January 1930, just a few months after the infamous stock market crash of 1929. Construction on the building itself started on March 17 of that year and proceeded rapidly until the building was completed on May 1, 1931, about 12 days ahead of schedule.

The momentous event was commemorated in dramatic fashion when President Herbert Hoover turned on the building’s lights from the White House that day. The opening of the iconic new tower helped to lift the American peoples’ spirits in the depths of the Great Depression and it was instantly recognized as a global icon.

The building, somewhat removed from major transit hubs and opened in the midst of the greatest economic downturn in modern history, took years to completely fill up with tenants, earning it the nickname “the empty state building.” Despite this, it attracted millions of visitors to its observation decks and has recently attracted marquee tenants in recent years, such as LinkedIn and Shutterstock.

For nearly a century now, the Empire State Building has been a New York City icon. It’s easily recognizable design, timeless Art Deco architecture and central location on the city’s skyline has made it an endearing symbol to New Yorkers for many years, even as new towers have surpassed it in height – but never truly in fame.