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Empire State Building: Monarch of the Sky

J.M. Syken

Course Outline

To native New Yorkers, tourists and the rest of humanity, the Empire State Building is more than just an office building with a pointy top. It is a symbol of the great things man can achieve when cooperation, creativity and raw physical courage come together to create a great edifice. The building marks the center of Manhattan Island and when lit at night, it serves as a beacon to pedestrians, motorists and ships at sea. Though the predictions of the critics regarding the risky location for an office building proved correct (at least in its early days) the fact that there are no tall buildings in its vicinity only serves to heighten the effect of the Empire State’s soaring, almost masculine, mass. Had it been built in either the downtown or mid-town business districts, it would have been lost in a crowd of other tall buildings. As it is, the Empire State Building serves as a lighthouse for the great city it is part and parcel of, much as the great lighthouse of Alexandria did in ancient times.

This course will examine the evolution of the Skyscraper - its origins, need, inherent problems, technologies involved/required etc. Additionally, the political, economic, cultural and social influences that inspired the creation of the Skyscraper form and, more specifically, the Empire State Building, will be discussed in-depth. In particular, the backgrounds of the principal personalities and the firms involved in the design and/or construction processes will be the subject of interest and examination. Why was the site at 34th Street and 5th Avenue chosen and what were the risks involved in that particular location? Why did the Empire State Building need to be open-for-business on a certain day; May 01, 1931, and how did that inspire the record-breaking achievement of substantial completion in only thirteen months? What innovations were used during construction and are still in use today? How were the architects ahead of their time? How were modern Construction Management and/or Fast-Track construction scheduling methods rooted in the skyscraper races of the late 1920s in New York City. These and other questions will be presented and answered.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

Learning Objective

At the conclusion of this course, the student will be able to

Intended Audience

This course is intended for architects, engineers, contractors and construction professionals.

Benefit to Attendees

The attendees will gain an intimate knowledge and insight into the creation of “The Eighth Wonder of the World” – the Empire State Building.

Course Introduction

Upon learning of Helen Keller’s visit to the observation deck of the recently completed Empire State Building, City College President Dr. J. Finley was fascinated to learn what exactly a blind person could possibly “see” from there. She responded: “...I saw a romantic structure wrought by human brains and hands that is to the burning eye of the sun a rival luminary…I heard the hammer of Thor ring when the shaft began to rise upward. I saw the unconquerable steel, the flash of testing flames, the sword-like rivets…I saw countless skilled workers welding together that mighty symmetry...

Such was the public’s fascination and instant love affair with the Empire State Building, rising phoenix-like at the height of the Great Depression giving hope to millions for a better tomorrow. Born of the “Dream Team” of legendary builder Starrett Bros. & Eken and the immensely capable architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the Empire State Building was – as Colonel William Starrett said of building skyscrapers: “the nearest peacetime equivalent to war.” Empire State would be the culmination of his long career and fifty years of skyscraper evolution. Its completion would also mark the end of the Golden Age of Skyscrapers.

Pre-fabrication of major building components, just-in-time delivery of materials, fast-track scheduling, assembly line-like organization of the work force, time-saving innovations etc. were all aspects the Empire State Building’s design and construction that allowed it to be completed in only thirteen months. Perhaps architectural critic Paul Goldberger summed it up best in 1981, upon the 50th Anniversary of the great edifice: “It is about height, it is about commerce, it is about entertainment, it is about views, it is about the very meaning of the skyline itself.

Course Content

In this course, you are required to view/study the materials contained in the following web pages:

Empire State Building - New York Documentary Film (Video, Part 1)
Empire State Building - New York Documentary Film (Video, Part 2)
Empire State Building - New York Documentary Film (Video, Part 3)
Empire State Building (HTML)
Empire State Building: Monarch of the Sky (printable handout in PDF, 11 MB, see Note A below for downloading instruction)
Empire State Building: Monarch of the Sky (non-printable slideshow for screen-viewing only, 46 MB, see Note A below for downloading instruction)

Title: Stunning Footage of the Construction of NY's ESB in Color
Duration: 22:14

Note A: Please click on the above underlined hypertext to view, download or print the document for your study. Because of the large file size, we recommend that you first save the file to your computer by right-clicking the mouse and choosing "Save Target As ...", and then open the file in Adobe Acrobat Reader from your computer.

Course Summary

To understand the creation of the Empire State Building is to understand America’s unique gift to “The Mother of the Arts” – Architecture. The vertical city came to be by the merging of two technologies: structural steel and high-speed elevators, without them the Skyscraper would not be possible. In crowded cities like New York and Chicago, where land is scarce and valuable, the Skyscraper made a lot of sense. Though born in Chicago, the Skyscraper grew up in Manhattan where the problem of a lack of light and air into the streets below would be resolved by the enacting of a Zoning Law (in 1916) that required set-backs in stages to allow light and air into the streets below. Significantly, the same law allowed a tower to rise as high as technology and economics would allow on one-quarter of the lot the building occupied. The Empire State Building would follow these set-back requirements to the letter of the law, but go one step further and give up a significant amount of rentable floor space to not just “meet the minimum” but to exceed it in what the owners referred to as: “The Empire State Formula.” The noble example they hoped to set for other developers to follow would not be realized, but Empire State remains in and of itself, an example for others to follow in very many ways.

Related Links

For additional technical information related to this subject, please visit the following websites:

The Official Site of the Empire State Building
Making a Skyscraper (Steel) - Empire State Building (Video)
Wind Pressure on a Model of the Empire State Building
(Film: The Empire State Building - 14:58)
(Film: Spire to the Sky: ESB - 12:15)
(Film: ESB: Disasters of the Century - 21:56)
(Film: Skyscraper history - 47:07)
(Film: How Tall Buildings Tame the Wind - 09:33)
(Film: Top 5 tallest Skyscrapers by 2021 - 05:14)
(Film: What are Groundscrapers? - 03:15)
(What are Earthscrapers? - 03:38)
(What are Oceanscrapers? - 04:00)
(Film: Collins House: Building Melbourne's Prefabricated Skyscraper - 06:10)
(Film: Dubai Creek Tower: Building the WOrld's Tallest Structure - 04:55)
(Film: Welcome to the Skybridge Renaissance - 08:10)
(Film: Equitable Bldg. - Last Skyscraper of its Kind - 04:21)
(40 Wall Street Plane Crash - 04:40)
(Ironworkers from Newfoundland: Walking Iron [1986] - 17:22
(Film: High Steel - 15:25)
(Construction of 500 Fifth Avenue, NYC, 1930 - 09:07)
(Film: Why Shanghai Tower Failed - 05:58)
(Film: Evolution of World's Tallest Buildings - 05:04)
(Film: Jeddah Tower: The Highest Building With a Difficult Fate - 10:11)
(Film: The Untold Stories of the Great Depression - 1:21:38)
(Film: Inside the ESB's 21st Century Upgrade - 06:33)
(Film: Skyscraper: Building the Steel Frame - 42:23)
(Film: Superstructures - How to Build a Skyscraper - 51:45)
(Film: Why NY's Skyscrapers Keep Changing Shape - 27:31)


Once you finish studying the above course content, you need to take a quiz to obtain the PDH credits.

DISCLAIMER: The materials contained in the online course are not intended as a representation or warranty on the part of PDH Center or any other person/organization named herein. The materials are for general information only. They are not a substitute for competent professional advice. Application of this information to a specific project should be reviewed by a registered architect and/or professional engineer/surveyor. Anyone making use of the information set forth herein does so at their own risk and assumes any and all resulting liability arising therefrom.