The Empire State Building was built with Indiana sandstone and Delaware money.
Conceived by John Jakob Raskob — Pierre S. du Pont’s right hand and the financial wizard behind the DuPont Company’s acquisition of General Motors — the 1,250 foot tower opened in 1931 as the tallest building the world had ever seen [i]. Seventy years later, the grim events of September 11, 2001 would make it once again the king of the New York City skyline.
The story of the building is in many ways the story of America. Pluck. Risk. Rivalry. Money. Inspiration. Timing. All were at work in the construction of this colossus, a project that employed as many as 2500 people per day and moved with such speed that progress averaged four-and-a-half floors per week.
Former New York Governor Al Smith had failed in his 1928 bid for President against Herbert Hoover. His friend and fellow Catholic Raskob had put business aside to chair Smith’s presidential bid and the Democratic National Committee. Come 1930, Smith was looking for a job, Raskob a project. A major project. It was a partnership — Smith would be front man, Raskob financier — that would lead to one of the great achievements in human history.
Raskob was one of the most creative minds ever to grace the stage of American business. Beginning as a clerk to Pierre du Pont, his intellect and financial acumen were quickly identified and he rose rapidly through the ranks of the DuPont Company as Pierre’s most trusted advisor, ultimately serving as a vice president and chief financial officer of both DuPont and, after spearheading its acquisition, General Motors.[ii][iii]
How and why, precisely, Raskob and Smith came to concoct plans for the mightiest skyscraper are a bit unclear. One motive may have been competition: Walter Chrysler’s eponymous edifice was well on its way to becoming the world’s greatest tower just a few blocks away on Lexington Avenue.
From groundbreaking to grand-opening, construction took barely 14 months. Fourteen months. And that’s at the onset of the Great Depression and at a time when the tools, materials and techniques to create such a thing could only be described as rudimentary by today’s standards.
I recently had the opportunity to dine on the beautiful 80th floor of this Manhattan masterpiece, and enjoy the unmatchable views west over the Hudson into New Jersey and beyond, east across the East River and Queens and Brooklyn and out to Long Island, and south to Ellis Island and Lower Manhattan where the Freedom Tower is rising at Ground Zero.
I also had the good fortune to speak with Peter Malkin, whose family corporation owns and leases the building [iv]. Beyond reveling in the ESB’s historic heritage, he is particularly proud it is one of the greenest buildings in Manhattan, the tallest LEED certified structure in the country.
On this particular early-summer evening the temperatures were cool and the wind was howling on the observation deck another six floors above. No matter, the Empire State Building offers a story and a view you can never get tired of.
[i] The building’s iconic antennae spire brings its total height to 1,454 ft. The spire was added to ensure the 34th Street skyscraper’s supremacy over the nearby Chrysler Building (read on above). Incredibly, the Art Deco spire was originally considered as a plausible mooring mast for dirigible airships that were to drop a gangplank for eager tourists to descend onto the building’s roof 100+ floors up. The heavy winds and unpredictable weather conditions at that height made this plan a non-starter.
[ii] Raskob’s innovations are manifold and they deserve to be recounted at length in a book worthy of his accomplishments (a project I once entertained exploring myself, only to learn from well-placed sources that a first-rate biography was indeed already in the works; I haven’t heard anything on its status in several years and intend to make a periodic check in). For starters, his visionary insistence that Dupont acquire the down-on-its-heels GM in 1917 proved to be one of the shrewdest and most lucrative business acquisitions in corporate history. Other pioneering moves include: creation of the General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) to make credit more easily available for car buyers — a program that massively expanded the eligible pool of car buyers; employee stock incentive programs tied to company performance; the notion of what today we call a stock mutual fund to provide average investors the opportunity to access shares previously only available to Wall St. insiders; new standards of financial management and corporate governance; and lastly, a family foundation that continues to provide funds to Catholic charities to this day. His Claymont estate, “The Patio,” is, of course, home to Archmere Academy — a minor lapse of judgment for which Salesianum graduates will find forgiveness.
[iii] “Mr. Raskob was brilliant and imaginative where Mr. du Pont was steady and conservative,” pronounced legendary GM chief Alfred P. Sloan. “Sloan Rules,” by David Farber, p. 45
[iv] Raskob’s estate sold the building in 1951 (the proceeds going to endow the Raskob Foundation) and it changed hands several times over the next decade. The building ownership — like many commercial real estate situations — is a bit complex to unwind. “The building itself is owned by W&H Properties, a partnership between the Malkin family and the late Leona Helmsley. The underlying land is owned by Empire State Building Associates, which has some 2,764 investors. Empire State Building Associates has leased the building until 2076.”