The Chrysler Building may be more beautiful and the One World Trade Center taller, but the Empire State Building is still the queen bee of New York’s skyline. NYC’s biggest star of all time has enjoyed close-ups in nearly 100 films and countless skyline snaps of her. Along the way, New York is as quintessential as pastrami, rye and pickles.
Scaled by King Kong, gathered lovers in movies like Sleepless in Seattle, and survived the 1945 plane crash. Just 90 years after construction began, it soon became an icon in the burgeoning city, lit in honor of frontline workers as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the district. It’s an unmistakable destination for Manhattan residents and visitors from all over the world, and for many it’s synonymous with the Big Apple itself.
History of the Empire State Building
The stats are amazing: 10 million bricks, 60,000 tons of steel, 6,400 windows, and 328,000 square feet of marble. Construction on the original site of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel took a record 410 days, required 7 million hours of work, and cost him just $41 million. That may sound like a lot, but it was well below our $50 million budget (as well as the increase during the Great Depression).
The Empire State Building was designed by the prolific architectural firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. Legend has it that the idea for the skyscraper began with a meeting between William Lamb and construction co-founder John Jacob his Raskob, where Raskob dropped his pencil.
A 102-story skyscraper would not have been possible with electric elevator technology. Can you imagine having to climb all the stairs? Prefabricated I-beams, supports, and other Pittsburgh-made components were also critical to ensuring quality and speed of construction.
Steelworkers assembled the parts on site. Sometimes sky-high, it’s a place captured in iconic photographs of riveting machines on high iron. Most of the workers were Mohawks who came to New York from the Kanawake Reservation near Montreal to do business. His affinity for heights earned him the nickname “Skywalker”, a tradition that continues to this day.
The Art Deco limestone tower officially opened on May 1, 1931. Shortly after the Great Depression ended a heated race to build ever taller skyscrapers (including Empire State’s early rival Chrysler Building) along with Empire State’s Supremacy Building. Generations later, Deborah Kerr’s words to Cary Grant about “The Unforgettable Affair” still ring true.
“It’s the closest thing to heaven we have in New York.”
How tall is the Empire State Building?
The Empire State Building is 1454 feet tall from top to bottom. It’s no longer the tallest building in the New York skyline, but the view remains stunning. Unless you’re Anne Darrow (the unfortunate woman captured by King Kong), you’re bound to feel radiant on your way to the top of the Empire State Building.
There are two observation decks. The outdoor deck on the 86th floor offers an outdoor experience with telescopes (previously coin-operated, now free) to see the metropolis in action up close. Further up, the enclosed 102nd floor at the top of the tower is his second tallest observatory in New York City, second only to the One World Trade Center observatory.
Not to mention, the views of his five boroughs of the city (and his four neighboring states, weather permitting) through the floor-to-ceiling windows are simply spectacular. On clear days you can see up to 80 miles. The views from both decks are especially spectacular at sunset when the city puts on its night robes in the afterglow.
Plan Your Visit
As one of NYC’s most popular attractions, lines can be long, but a new entrance redesign has eased some of the bottlenecks. Arrive early (e.g. 8am) or late to avoid delays. Tickets can also be purchased in advance online ($2 value).
The first stop is the story of his second-floor Icon Museum, completely redesigned in 2019, featuring multimedia exhibits related to the building’s history and its place in the U.S. cultural imagination. A path through the displays leads to the Observatory elevator.
As you can imagine, the views from both decks are especially spectacular at sunset. To experience a little Arthur-themed magic, head to the 86th floor Thursday through Saturday from 10pm to 1am. A sea of twinkling lights with a live saxophone soundtrack (please inquire).
Since 1976, the building’s top 30 floors have been illuminated in a variety of colors that reflect the colors of the season, holidays, or local sports teams and charities. Famous combinations include orange, white and green for St. Patrick’s Day. Hanukkah blue and white. Red, white and green for Christmas. Rainbow colors for Gay Pride weekend in June. See the website for a complete overview of color schemes and schedules.
The tour app is available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Japanese, and Korean.
The Empire State Building is accessible by various public transportation routes. Take the 6 subway to 33rd Street or the B, D, F, M, N, Q, R, or W train to 34th Street Herald Square. You can also take the M1, M2, M3, M4, M5, M34, or M55 bus routes to the Empire State.
Did you know?
A locked, unmarked door on the 102nd floor observatory leads to his one of New York’s most outrageous sky projects.
A narrow terrace for docking the Zeppelin. At the forefront of the dream was former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. He rose from an unsuccessful presidential candidate to head the Empire State Building project in 1928. When architect William Van Allen unveiled the secret tower of the rival Chrysler Building, Smith announced that he would install an even taller mooring mast for a transatlantic airship on top of the Empire State Building. I raised my expectations. The plan looked good on paper, but there were two (big) oversights.
The airship would have to be anchored at both ends (not just the nose, as planned), and passengers (traveled by Zeppelin gondolas) would not be allowed to exit the vehicle through a giant helium-filled balloon. Still, she didn’t stop trying. In September 1931, the New York Evening Her Journal was resourceful and successfully moored a Zeppelin and delivered a stack of fresh newspapers from her Lower Manhattan.
This famous antenna was originally intended to serve as a mooring pylon for a Zeppelin, but the Hindenburg disaster derailed those plans. An ambitious plan to dock the airship never came to fruition, but years later a plane crashed into a building with tragic consequences.
On a foggy day in 1945, her B-25 bomber crashed on her 79th floor, killing 14 people.
Address – 20 W 34th Stbtwn Fifth & Sixth Aves
Website – www.empirestatebuilding.com
Hours – 8am-2am, last elevators up 1:15am
Price – 86th-fl observation deck adult/child $38/32, incl 102nd-fl observation deck $58/52