The Empire State Building: Story of an Icon

PODCAST The history of the Empire State Building revealed

Start spreading the news …. the Bowery Boys are finally going to the Empire State Building!

New York City’s defining architectural icon is greatly misunderstood by many New Yorkers who consider its appeal relegated to tourists and real estate titans. But this powerful and impressive symbol to American construction has a great many secrets among its 102 (or is that 103?) floors.

The Empire State Building project was announced in 1929 by former New York governor Al Smith. The group of wealthy investors he fronted were clear in associating the building with his image (the Empire State itself), and Smith was even there at the demolition of the building it would replace — the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

A few weeks after the announcement, however, the stock market crashed.

In this podcast, we look at how this magnificent skyscraper was built with incredible speed and efficiency, to tower over a city entering the Great Depression. It quickly became a beacon of hope for many — a symbol of American skill and the embodiment of the New York City spirit.

Tourists would indeed flock to it, enamored of the extraordinary views it offered for the very first time. (Most of its early visitors had never been in an airplane.) It would eventually become an object of great value and the subject of tabloid headlines — many featuring the current President of the United States — but it would never, ever lose its luster.

In fact, that luster, over the years, would become very well lit…..


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Al Smith, 1928 Democratic nominee for President of the United States, and John J. Raskob, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, were the two men most responsible for the idea of the Empire State Building.

From the New York Public Library (except here noted): Photographs taken by Lewis Hine of the construction of the Empire State Building:


Preus Museum


U.S. National Archives

Preus Museum

Al Smith — with his children — at the opening ceremony of the Empire State Building.


The Empire State in 1933, looking like a futuristic rocket standing over a city of Beaux-Arts architecture.

Library of Congress, cleaned up image Shorpy


The Empire State Building — in postcards! (From the collection at the Museum of the City of New York.) You could buy these in the gift shop, available for purchase for the first day the building opened.




The tragic plane crash into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945 caused 14 deaths. Injured elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver managed to survive a terrible plunge of 75 stories when the elevator she was been transported in plummeted.

Betty Lou Oliver on crutches, being consoled by her Navy husband Oscar Oliver.

The Empire State Building on film:


Some amusing tabloid headlines from the 1990s featuring Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley



The Empire State Building projected the winner of the 2016 presidential election — thanks to its state-of-the-art lighting technology

More dazzling were the endangered species projected upon it during the summer of 2015:



Some additional images from this week’s visit to the ESB:


  • John Towsen

    Two notes:
    • Unless I was distracted and missed it, you didn’t mention the Run-Up race held every year from the basement to the 86th floor (1,576 steps) + a lap around the observatory deck. I did it about ten years ago in my late fifties, took me almost 20 minutes. They can’t fit too many people in that narrow staircase, so it’s hard to get accepted to compete; I actually had to write an essay! The next one is Feb. 7th.
    • I love views from high above the city too and also don’t want to pay an arm and a leg. But recently I went to an event at the rooftop bar at the Crown Hotel (50 Bowery). Sweeping views of midtown and of the Manhattan Bridge and beyond, all for the inflated price of a drink. (Actually not sure how much the drinks normally are as I was a guest.) I’m sure there are plenty of these places, not as high up as 30 Rock, etc., but still impressive. Higher offers the most panoramic vistas but lower is better for detail.

    P.S. — I’ve enjoyed your appearances on Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety Hour
    P.P.S. — he’s my son