A New York Story

The Empire State Building Is Shrinking

David Stone
View: Empire State Building From High Line Park
View: Empire State Building From High Line Park
© Deborah Julian

Did you know that the Empire State Building reached its peak height in 1931? By coincidence, that's just when the American economy hit bottom. Both have been going in the opposite directions lately 

The Great Depression was at its worst across America. It takes more time, though, to build a physical structure than it does to destroy a state of mind.

So, after only fifteen months, there it stood, the "Empty State Building," as wise guys called it.

The power was officially switched on remotely by President Hoover, who is also credited with bungling us into the Great Depression.

At 100 stories plus, the Empire State Building remained unprofitable for twenty years, from its birth in 1931 until 1951.

That made its success perfectly timed for me. Three years old, then, I grew up hearing references to the Empire State Building, it being the tallest and, therefore, the most American building.

It seems to be getting smaller, these days, and — also — odder.

An Icon in Evolution 

When I came to live in New York City in 1989, I arrived in the hometown of the Empire State Building. 

You had the World Trade Center downtown, where nobody ever went, except for work and government. The Empire State dominated the core of the city, Midtown, where all the action was.

It's shrinking now, a monument to memory, 1,454 feet of tower on a grid, an icon for tourists who remember, nostalgia that doesn't go away. 

My First Time 

Everyone Remembers Their First Time

 When my wife and I drove from Buffalo to New York City as tourists, we went up to the top on a Sunday evening in autumn.

This was before the Empire State got oriented well as a tourist destination, and so, the crush that sends visitors into cattle pens in the basement, today, hadn't been born.

It was a clear, chilly evening. As the sun went down, you could see out to the Poconos across the congested lights of New Jersey. In the south, New York's poetically beautiful harbor opened to the Atlantic, the string of beaches from Sandy Hook on down marking the sparkling border between land and sea.

To appreciate the grandeur of Central Park, the most valuable undeveloped real estate in the world, you have to see how it consumes Central Manhattan in a view from the Empire State.

A few, scattered lights interrupting the tree-filled rectangle of darkness firmly holds back all the traffic and towers on its flanks.

Over in the East River, Roosevelt Island, the narrow sliver of rock on which they piled enough earth to build high rises, the place where my wife and I would eventually make our home, waited.

If New York is the center of the world, and it is, you saw its expansiveness and power best from the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

The view was so astonishing, it felt fanciful as soon as you left. It couldn't be.

We wandered over into Times Square and had something to eat at a Chock Full O'Nuts shop on Broadway. The contrast was so extreme, it couldn't hold.

Chock Full O'Nuts, Lindy's, Howard Johnson's — all soon collapsed under the weight.

The Empire State Building As A State of Mind

My first job in New York was on Madison Avenue — the other one, the one without Mad Men.

Our offices were on a block alongside Madison Square Park, where I'd sit with squirrels for lunch, people-watching. Outside my boss’s window, the newly gilded top of the New York Life Building glittered in the sun.

 Across the park, the Flatiron Building, a piece of architectural genius, split Fifth Avenue from Broadway at 23rd Street.

It seemed that, walking in the area, the Empire State Building rose up over every intersection. Strong and solid, invincible, its footprint forced the orientation of everything else.

Once an expansion meant I’d be assigned a new, private office, out the window of which was a panoramic vision of the Empire State.  

Before I had time to decide whether I could function under such conditions, that plan was scotched in favor of another, and I had to settle for glimpses of the Wonder of the World soaring above us I'd become used to.

Imagine how King Kong must have felt before being blitzed by aircraft.

My wife worked, then, near the intersection of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, and I used to walk up the slope to meet her after work. The rush hour foot traffic matched the congestion in the streets. 

Don't Block The Box signs with warnings about fines failed to keep the buses, trucks, vans, taxis and cars from freezing.

We pedestrians practiced the art of "playing the lights." The Walk/Don’t Walk signs were irrelevant. What mattered, in getting where you wanted to go, was your awareness of what the cars were and, often, were not doing.

The drivers' attitudes were similar. Moving past the signals wasn't all that dependent on the signal overhead.

In view as I made my mental adjustments to walking up 5th Avenue, just after 5:00, was the Empire State Building, already awash in white light in winter. It was the generator of all this energy.

A grid of buildings, streets, cars and people spread from its firm footprint at 34th Street.

I've prayed many times in my life, usually under duress, but I remember few as clearly, as joyful or as frequently repeated as this one:

"God," I used to say to myself, "don’t let this ever seem normal." 

From The Brooklyn Bridge To The Empire State

History's instructive and also subject to interpretation.

A fact of which I've long been aware is that, a century before I moved to New York, the tallest manmade structure in the city was the spanking new Brooklyn Bridge, completed in spite of the day's politics, a work so powerful it had to be completed.

The Brooklyn Bridge depended on insights learned by its designer, John Roebling, during the Civil War. Its immediate predecessor for tallness, Trinity Church, another icon, still stands near where Wall Street houses its nexus of international finance.

By the time the Woolworth Building passed the Metropolitan Life Tower in 1913, an invention had changed everything about the future of New York City. The commercial elevator made New York possible as a vertical city, able to hold many more people than imagined.

Then, courtesy of August Belmont and the Rothschilds, New York City got a subway.

Look at a subway map, these days, and the many lines look like feeders for the towers in Manhattan, shuttling people in to work and back out to the other boroughs to raise their families and indulge in the pleasures of urban neighborhoods.

That's what made the Empire State Building so perfect a symbol when it opened as New York City's tallest and most iconic building in 1931, beating out the Chrysler Building, which held the title for just eleven months.

I love the Chrysler Building, a perfect example of art deco extravagance, too. But it lost the competition and will never be as honored, despite and somewhat because of its gargoyles and references to the cars its owner built.

For all its solidity, the Empire State Building is working class, strong and steady.

It should be of concern to Americans, the way it seems to be shrinking, along with the working middle class it represents.

The New York Adventure, Discovering Contrast

In the last months of 1999, as one century pulled to a celebrated close, my wife and I returned to New York City after being away for a couple of years.

I landed a great job that allowed me to spend hours every day going from meeting to meeting with customers in buildings, new and old, all over town.

The views from some of the conference rooms were a challenge for paying attention to the business at hand. Glass towers with wraparound views dominated new construction, even after Time magazine foolishly declared Midtown "overbuilt"in the early 1990s.

In my first weeks, the receptionist at a prominent law firm asked me to wait in their conference room for my meeting with their IT Director. It was New Year’s Eve, and a deal had to be signed before the end of the day.

Looking out the 40th Floor window at Lower Manhattan drained all the panic out of me before he arrived.

The lobby of Navigators Insurance’s executive offices had a similar view, only higher up in One Penn Plaza. I used to hope I’d be forced to wait there for an extended period when I came for meetings. 

A year after Navigators became my customer, their staff watched from that spot as the second plane smashed into the World Trade Center. Their horrifying view was panoramic.

From a more pleasant perspective, a nonprofit operation supporting the blind looked out over the entrance to Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.

Across the way, the Plaza Hotel did something impossible. It became even more elegant from high above.

And, yes, while they still stood, I met with customers in both towers of the World Trade Center.

Invited into the CEO’s office after a sales conference, he invited me to look out his 101st story window at the Hudson and the emerging centers of commerce in New Jersey that thinned as the hills rolled up toward Pennsylvania.

We watched a helicopter fly by… below us.

What strikes you, as bright as some of the glass towers may be, is that they are designed to be looked out from, not looked up at in awe or admiration from the ground.

There's a separation from city life that can't be avoided. To go from one of the towers into the street feels like entering another world, the effect is so different. 

Their lobbies are caverns for directing traffic to elevators, even those that strive to humanize with live music during lunchtime.

They may gleam, but they have no art. Or heart. The glass towers are utilitarian, functional. They evade the urban space buzzing around their feet.

The Shrinking Empire State Building

It's an easy thing to take a history lesson that you can mull for whatever insights you can gather. Here are some simple instructions.

Start out at the 5th Avenue entrance to the Empire State Building. The doors take you from the street into a lobby where you pause immediately. It's a place intended to stop you in your tracks, an art deco design that’s meant to be appreciated, not simply walked through.

Savor this for a few minutes before you exit to 34th Street and take the two block stroll past Macy’s and all the commercial buzz around Herald Square, until you reach 7th Avenue and One Penn Plaza.

Built above the new Pennsylvania Station, a monument to utility and artlessness, a venue that ceaselessly shuffles passengers like tokens, One Penn Plaza has a lobby that is a salute to elevators.

Here, they are not tucked out of sight, as they are at the Empire State Building and 30 Rockefeller Center. Here, the elevators are little more than extensions of mass transit, efficiently lifting commuters into cube-dominated spaces.

If the working middle class is disappearing, it’'s into and out of, in the rinse, of office blocks and commercial plazas. Art and personalization are vanishing in the rush.

The Empire State Building may be disappearing with them.

And with that goes the America my generation grew up with. It would be better for us if the replacements had important dimensions other than height, like artful design and people friendly spaces.

Instead, it's all about utility, about getting people in an out with as little mix in the urban spaces as possible.

Conclusion 

The Empire State Building is shrinking, and it isn't just that the new buildings will be taller and free to block views in a way it never did. It's that the esthetics are so diminished that artistic values are reduced.

We are beginning to believe that taking the trouble to create greatness isn't worth all the trouble. And besides, it gets in the way of profits.

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