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King Kong's Plaything

Once representative of civic pride, skyscrapers now seem mere goads to airborne terrorists. And now that the Empire State Building is again the tallest building in New York City, and the second-tallest building in the Americas, (currently surpassed only by the Willis Tower in Chicago), it seems quaint to recall that it was once a pinnacle of achievement.

By the early twentieth century, a U.S. skyscraper race was underway. The Metropolitan Life Tower was built in 1909, followed by the Woolworth Building in 1913. John Raskob, previously of General Motors, beat out Walter Chrysler of the Chrysler Corporation to build the tallest building in the world in the shortest amount of time.

Raskob’s ambitions included having the building’s spire serve as an airship dock. The idea was that dirigibles would anchor themselves to the mooring mast and passengers would disembark down a gangplank onto the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. This of course turned out to be absurdly dangerous and unfeasible, and plans were scrapped.

The building’s opening in 1931 coincided with the Great Depression, so much of its office space went unrented, leading to its derogatory nickname "The Empty State Building."

Other discouraging facts included the crash at 9:40 a.m. on July 28, 1945, by a B-25 Mitchell bomber, piloted in thick fog by Lt. Col. William Franklin Smith, Jr. Smith crashed into the north side of the Empire State Building, between the 79th and 80th floors. One engine shot through the other side and landed on the roof of a nearby building, starting a fire that destroyed a penthouse. The other engine and part of the landing gear plummeted down an elevator shaft. The resulting fire was extinguished in 40 minutes during which 14 people were killed.

Sadder still, more than 30 people have committed suicide from the top of the building. The first suicide occurred even before its completion, by a worker who had been laid off. The fence around the observatory terrace was put up in 1947 after five people tried to jump during a three-week span. On February 24, 1997, a Palestinian gunman shot seven people on the observation deck, killing one, then fatally wounding himself.

Ah, but we are a blindly optimistic people. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, nearly all of the city’s commercial broadcast stations (both television and FM radio) have been transmitting from the top of the Empire State Building. The building houses 1,000 businesses and has its own zip code, 10118. Over 21,000 employees work there, making the Empire State Building the second-largest single office complex in America, after the besieged Pentagon. The building proudly changes color regularly in honor of national holidays and other quirky events like The German-American parade, the Islamic holiday of Eid ul-Fitr, Mariah Carey’s new album, and Earth Hour.

The Empire State Building has inspired many fantastic stories besides the famous primate dangling and raging from its spire. In the 1994 book Empire of Dreams by Giannina Braschi, shepherds gather on the observation deck to take over New York City. And in David Macaulay’s 1980 book Unbuilding, a Middle Eastern billionaire purchases and disassembles the Empire State Building to be transported and rebuilt in his home country—now that’s a great idea ahead of its time!

About the author

Born in Bronx, New York, Marilyn started writing poetry at age 6. As a young adult she moved to Manhattan and supported herself as a typesetter and proofreader while continuing to write poetry, fiction, essays and drama. She participated in the East Village performance scene during the '80s and '90s and wrote for local arts publications. In 1996 she published her poetry book entitled She Must Have Been a Giant. More mature now but still rebellious, Marilyn is working on several New York-related projects.

Marilyn Recht is a contributing writer for NYCfoto.com

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