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Gothamist Reviews: The Empire State Building

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Welcome to Gothamist Reviews, in which a many-year resident of our magnificent city voluntarily visits famed tourist destinations she has purposefully avoided all this time, for journalism and for kicks. In honor of the Midtownaissance, we visited the Empire State Building.

The Empire State Building is the product of hubris, and it shows. Standing on the 86th Floor terrace, you find yourself perfectly positioned to heckle the comparatively puny Chrysler Building, which — I believe — is exactly how former General Motors Vice President John J. Raskob intended it.

Allow me to explain: During the wealth-bloated 1920s, rich men dumped money into besting one another with formidable architectural phalluses, all vying to erect the biggest building of all. In his pursuit of a “monument to me,” car mogul Walter Chrysler locked with George L. Ohrstrom (the banker who proposed the Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall Street), both of them scrambling to crown the tallest tower this world had ever seen. Floor after floor accumulated at the respective sites as their backers watched and reacted to one another’s progress, perhaps thinking themselves the only runners in the race. That’s until Raskob came cruising by in 1929, announcing his plans to build a 1,000-foot skyscraper and thereby kickstarting an architectural dick-waving contest between automotive rivals.

"A workman sweeping the highest sidewalk in the world, the 81st story of the Empire State Building. This photo was made 1,248 feet above street level. 1931."

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“A workman sweeping the highest sidewalk in the world, the 81st story of the Empire State Building. This photo was made 1,248 feet above street level. 1931.”


Underwood Archives/UIG/Shutterstock

Raskob enlisted the firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon Associates to design his building, reportedly putting in a call to demand: “How high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” Their ultimate answer was 1,250 feet, a height achieved in 1931, after Chrysler exhausted himself at 1,048 feet and Raskob pivoted to a design made even taller — tallest! — by the addition of a spire-slash-blimp-dock. When his team presented him with a scale model of this Art Deco colossus, Raskob is said to have declared, “It needs a hat!” Which is apparently how the ESB wound up with a Narwahl-type tusk jutting out of its head, a maneuver that feels like a cop-out to me. Sure, you could wait until this handful of your nemeses complete their projects in order to crown your tower with a just-a-little-bit-taller afterthought. It would make you the technical winner, if also something of a weenie.

'Worlds Largest Office Building' advertised in 1930.

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‘Worlds Largest Office Building’ advertised in 1930.


Shutterstock

In any case, the ESB has been dethroned as the world’s tallest man-made building in intervening decades — the current title holder resides in Dubai — but it does still enjoy the distinction of having featured in upwards of 250 movies, which various plaques inside its body insist makes the ESB the “World’s Most Famous Building.” What the signs won’t tell you is that the ESB might also be pretty haunted, due to its tragedy-heavy past. Compelling evidence: Cars allegedly have a habit of abruptly dying when they come within five blocks of the ESB, only to cheerfully restart once being hauled outside the building’s zone of influence (an “automotive Bermuda triangle”). And then, dozens of people have reportedly died at the ESB. A laid-off construction worker threw himself down an elevator shaft during the hasty building process. In 1945, a disoriented Army pilot crashed his plane into the ESB, killings 13 people. Additionally, two shootings have taken place at the tower: One in 1997, on the 86th floor observation deck, and another in 2012, out on the sidewalk.

The ESB’s most high-profile death, however, occurred on May 1st, 1947, when 23-year-old Evelyn McHale pitched herself over the side of the observation deck. McHale plummeted 86 floors down to the street, landing with an “explosive crash” atop a United Nations limousine parked on 33rd Street. A photography student who just happened to find himself on the scene took a picture and sold it to Life magazine, which titled it the “most beautiful suicide”: a young woman in white gloves and pearls, the shiny metal crushed all around her somehow-unbroken body, her ankles crossed and arms arrayed as if she were just sleeping here on this badly dented car.

Since then, visitors have reported the same unsettling vision on the 86th floor: A young woman, visibly distraught, approaches the parapet, sets down her coat, and then flings herself over the edge — only to reappear in the restroom, touching up her makeup in the mirror before she jumps again. (This despite the preventive fencing installed in response to a rash of suicides on this lower observation deck.)

I like to avoid tourist attractions because I like to avoid large crowds, an obvious hell. Plus, the ESB is an office building and having watched Elf at least once per holiday season since 2003, I feel sufficiently familiar with the premise. But here’s another little-known fact about the ESB: it stays up late, like until 2 a.m., a bedtime conveniently close to 3 a.m., when ghosts prefer to do their ghosting. This is also my preferred time to do tourism — how satisfying, to see all these labyrinthine stanchions empty of the infinite lines they were made to organize. As you clear the TSA-style security setup, you will feel like a genius among chumps, because what must take the average tourist like 15 to 30 minutes has taken you one. Your sense of superiority will be affirmed every time you breeze through one of the crowd-control sections, not another visitor in sight. At any other hour, you would surely have to dodge the pistoning elbows of groups jockeying for prime selfie position, but at night, it’s basically just you and the staff.

empire state building

Oh, and the coterie of talking screens that separate you from the sky views. Before you can access either of the observation decks (the first on the 86th floor, the second on the 102nd — newly renovated! but so far unvisited by me), you must wind your way through an ESB museum, an unexpected treat. If you plan a “museum” as a side dish on your tourist attraction, and you will probably want to because all your peers will have them, you must identify your niche and really go ham on it.

The ESB’s niche is simulated live-action everything. Here, look through this scattering of small telescopes, and find yourself transported back to 34th Street as it appeared in the year of the ESB’s birth! Observe as the insides of this elevator suddenly become walls of moving chains, hoisting you up through the ESB’s guts. Listen as an ESB employee tells you their favorite things about their workplace, something they’re not allowed to do in real life, at least if you are press. Check out this King Kong, his large leathery fingers prying apart a corner office and his large snoot sniffing curiously at the glass — the digital pigeons roosting on the digital windowsill are a nice touch, no? Ditto that digital Chrysler Building, looking so small from up here, ha ha. Even all these years later, it appears the ESB has missed no opportunity to re-assert its vertical advantage over its longtime rival, although they may disagree with my characterization of this relationship.

empire state building

There is one area where I would argue the ESB could beef up its talking screen game, and I will call it the Gauntlet of Celebs. This is a short corridor hung floor to ceiling with photos of the famous people and things that have graced the observation decks with their presence: soccer sensation Pelé smiles out over our urban sprawl; Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart hold each other close at the top of the world; Lassie paws the suicide fence on the 86th floor, lightly but morosely; a Ford Mustang preens; a diamond-encrusted WWE belt glints cheekily from inside its built-in case; a grinning Hugh Jackman flings his arms wide, gleefully welcoming you to his rooftop barbecue. It’s an altogether solid and surprising collection, only what if the celebrities moved in their frames and stared straight into your eyes? Imagine a warm, visual embrace from each and every member of BTS! Imagine all these famous faces beaming down at you as if to say ah, finally, it is you! Finally, you are home.

Just a humble suggestion, but also a real draw, I bet.

empire state building

Anyway, once you’ve run the gauntlet, you are ready to ascend. You take two elevators to the observation deck on the 86th Floor, an alleged hotspot of paranormal activity. Enter the first of these chariots, and you will be absolutely unsurprised to see its ceiling burst into loud activity, because you will have inured yourself to the song and dance by this point. You will be eager to get to the ghosts, and disappointed, perhaps, when every attendant you surreptitiously ask about paranormal activity scoffs at the suggestion. When I very casually inquired about the legend, one person recalled seeing some shadows they didn’t cast, but insisted they don’t believe in ghosts; another person disavowed such superstitions, while also noting that the higher-ups would never let employees discuss that kind of thing, anyway. This employee was not exaggerating: I got scolded for conducting an extremely basic interview, one not even really about the haunting, with an observation deck chaperone. Which is probably not the way I would go about quashing the haunting rumors, if people were going around saying I was full of ghosts.

Unfortunately, though, my investigation turned up no concrete evidence of a supernatural presence, despite the fact that I was very strategic about it. Granted, the wind was feeling particularly peppy on the night of my visit, which could make it difficult to detect anything like a spirit’s wailing, and certainly made me nervous for the sparse population of my tourist peers: The bolder among our small cohort shoved iPads and smart phones out through the gaps in the protective fencing, apparently oblivious to the forceful breeze. Craning my neck upward, I felt as though I was peeking up the Emerald City’s skirt (i.e., pervy): The ESB’s spire was lit green, for whatever reason, and looking much more like a building atop a building than an architectural hat. The atmosphere up top was quiet, peaceful, and when you view the city from this far up, it looks like a sketch done all in lights, a thin drip of cars trickling down Broadway. Low-grade vertigo notwithstanding, I approached the parapet and peered through the fence, over the side. Imagining the fall from there, the fear that must amass in the time it takes to clear so many floors, sends a flare of goosebumps up my arms, so I go inside to stake out the toilets.

empire state building

The bathroom, per legend, is the starting point of a journey ghost Evelyn will repeat for eternity, and so I decided to wait there for her. Whatever sound system the ESB employs in its 86th floor women’s bathroom howls like a box full of spirits, so again, hard to tell which noises might be authentically paranormal and which are mechanical. But nothing happened when I whispered Evelyn’s name into the mirror, like you do to conjure Bloody Mary, and at no point did I see a vaporous young woman dash through the lobby.

From a ghost-hunting perspective, then, Nightlife ESB may not prove the most fruitful destination. From a regular touring perspective, Nightlife ESB is the best ESB. The view from the top really is striking, especially in the dark, when everything is eerily still and you are almost entirely alone, with no one hurrying you or crowding into your shots. Should you ever find yourself bored in Midtown at midnight, with $43 burning a hole in your pocket, I recommend you give it a go. I can’t speak to the vibe at any other time of day, but I imagine it would suffice to just watch Elf again.

Rating: 9 out of 10 office buildings, and please, no questions.

[Editor’s note: Sunrise is pretty good, too.]



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