Insecurity at the Empire State Building
The Empire State Building plays a remarkable part in the story of New York. In only thirteen months the skyscraper rose from its foundation to its Art Deco spire, and was completed when the country was suffering through the Great Depression. When it opened in May of 1931, it soared to new heights and remained tallest in the world for over forty years. Today, it remains as much a part of the fabric of New York City and its commutershed than it did when it opened. It's our friend on 34th Street, and it's given far more to the city and its people that it's received in return.
Over the years, the Empire State Building was at the center of many a story. In 1945, a B-25 bomber slammed into the north side of the building between the 79th and 80th floors. Over thirty people have leapt to their death from the observatory terrace, prompting the installation of the fence in 1947. Its observation deck is among the most popular in the world and the building appears in numerous films. Given all this notoriety, the "Empire State" does not always act with dignity—she has a desperate side, and she'll fight with tooth and nail to keep her waning reputation for power and prestige.
The latest battle involves new neighbors that want to move in down the street. Developers want to build a 1,200-foot-high tower at 34th Street and 7th Avenue, adjacent to Penn Station and on the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania, famous for the Glenn Miller tune "PEnnsylvania 6-5000" (which, by the way, is still the hotel's phone number). Normally, this might go unnoticed in midtown Manhattan, but the Empire State Building has, once again, thrown a tantrum.
The shameless rendering for 15 Penn Plaza according to the Empire State Building, where the new tower partially blocks the ESB.
Over the decades, the ESB played the sore loser as technological advances aged the tower. It had a good run—from its opening in 1931 to the topping off of the World Trade Center in 1972, it was the tallest skyscraper in the world, a title that would be fleeting for any subsequent building that held it.
When the design for the World Trade Center was made public, the ESB's owners attacked it, claiming that the property value of the ESB would decline. With an additional 10 million square feet of office space flooding the market, they had a point. They should know, when the ESB opened it also flooded the market with unneeded office space. For decades the building was called the "Empty State Building" and it would not turn a profit until the 1950s. (The same is true for the World Trade Center, which was not financially successful until the 1990s.)
And, did you know that, according to a New York Times article in October 1972, the ESB's owners were so desperate to hold on to their title of tallest, they proposed adding eleven stories to the building? Is the argument about office space or title of tallest building?
Now, the owners of the notoriously lonely building on 34th Street want it to remain isolated and have proposed a 1/3-mile zone surrounding the ESB as a no-skyscraper-zone, thereby preserving its section of skyline. This notion is absurd and antithetical to everything we know New York City to be.
Whether we like it or not, what makes NYC unique is its ability to change on rapid timescales. People don't come to New York to experience its past like they do in Philadelphia or Boston, where colonial-era buildings attract tourists—nothing remains from the colonial period in New York except for the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the Bowling Green. People come to New York because of the imaginative, experimental, modern dynamic that pervades everything, and that means much of what we experience now will soon be pushed aside to make way for something new—whether we like it or not. At times we reach too far, and our tolerance for the new is tested and occasionally fails, but we are a better city for realizing the value of vision.
Chin up, Empire State Building. You will always hold a place in our hearts, even if you are not our highest or you are forced to share the skyline with new, less inspired towers.