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7 Form Follows Finance: The Empire State Building Carol Willis The Empire State Building is the quintessential monument of the golden age when New York reigned as the unchallenged leader in skyscraper design and construction. A study of the forces that shaped it is the story of all high-rises of the period. At once typical and extraordinary , it was a work of genius in which the operating intelligence was not a brilliant designer, but the genius loci of the capital city of capitalism (Figure 7.1). In both its unmatched height and speed of construction, the Empire State culminated the frenzied development of the 1920s when over 100 buildings of twenty or more stories were added to the Manhattan skyline. Erected in less than eleven months and soaring 1,250 feet above the street, some 200 feet higher than the Chrysler Building, the world's second-tallest tower, it was in every respect extraordinary. Yet, it was also a typical speculative office building in which the interior plans and external form were determined by the principle of cost and return. The Empire State thus offers a case study through which to understand the forces that shaped Manhattan's booming business districts in the decade before the Great Depression.1 The entire project was a spectacular demonstration of modern engineering and managerial efficiency. The developers signed contracts in September 1929, just weeks before the Wall Street Crash, and the demolition of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel began on October I, 1929. Excavations were finished by March 17, and the first steel columns set on April 7, 1930. At the peak of operations, 3,500 workers employed on the site constructed a story a day, and in March 1931, the tallest building on the planet was completed forty-five days ahead of schedule and 160 Figure 7.1 View of the Empire State Building and Midtown Manhattan from the RCA Building, June 17, 1948; Charles T. Miller, photographer. Source: Courtesy of the New York Historical Society. 161 BUILDING THE VERTICAL CITY under budget. The opening ceremonies on May 1 were attended by such dignitaries as Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mayor Jimmy Walker, and former Governor Alfred E. Smith, the president of the Empire State Corporation; the date was symbolic, for leases on office rentals were annual, traditionally signed on the first of May. Speed of construction was only one way the Empire State was extraordinary . Its most obvious distinction, of course, was its 102 stories-85 floors of offices and the equivalent of 17 more in the essentiallyornamental "mooring mast./I This great height was a reflection of the unusually large site (197 x 425 feet), which allowed for the heroic proportions of the tower within the legal limits of the zoning formula. Even more important to the visual impression of the building was its simplicity of form and splendid isolation. In the 1920s, as today, skyscrapers generally sprouted in clusters like the group around Grand Central Terminal or the concentration around Wall Street, but for a mile of midtown between Madison Square and Forty-second Street, the Empire State stood-and still stands-alone. Despite its singularity, the Empire State was a typical investment property, like the vast majority of high-rises in New York and elsewhere . Literature on skyscrapers generally distinguishes two categories : corporate headquarters and speculative buildings. In a 1930 article , architect Timothy pfleuger explained that speculative buildings were constructed as investments for revenue in rental alone, while the corporate structures were designed "to house and advertise a business, in which case the owner often conceded a decrease in revenue for special architectural appeal."2 Many of New York's tallest or most famous skyscrapers were built as headquarters-monuments on which a proud owner like Frank W. Woolworth or companies like Seagrams and Chase Manhattan Bank could justify certain extravagances . Yet the Empire State was neither a symbol of corporate identity , nor an expression of an overarching ego. The first blueprint for every speculative building is a balance sheet that figures the maximum return on investment. The idea of "maximum return" does not mean the cheapest alternative, but rather the choice that will pay back the highest profit for the money spent. As Cecil C. Evers noted in his standard work, The Commercial Problem in Buildings, "The ultimate test of a value of a building is its earning capacity and not its cost."3 In the Empire State, the height, overall massing, fenestration, and facade treatment were...


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