Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams

Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams

by Mark Kingwell

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This elegantly written appreciation of the Empire State Building opens up the building’s richness and importance as an icon of America. The book leads us through the facts surrounding the skyscraper’s conception and construction, then enters into a provocative theoretical discussion of its function as an icon, its representation in pictures, literature


This elegantly written appreciation of the Empire State Building opens up the building’s richness and importance as an icon of America. The book leads us through the facts surrounding the skyscraper’s conception and construction, then enters into a provocative theoretical discussion of its function as an icon, its representation in pictures, literature, and film, and the implications of its iconic status as New York’s most important architectural monument to ambition and optimism.

The Empire State Building literally cannot be seen in its totality, from any perspective. And paradoxically, this building of unmistakable solidity has been made invisible by familiarity and reproduction through imagery. Mark Kingwell encourages us to look beneath the strong physical presence of the building, to become aware of its evolving layers of meaning, and to see how the building lives within a unique imaginative space in the landscape of the American consciousness. He offers new ways of understanding the Empire State Building in all its complexity and surprising insights into its special role as an American icon.

Editorial Reviews

On May 1, 1931, President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in the White House and turned on the lights of Manhattan's magnificent new Empire State Building. Since then, this majestic 102-story skyscraper has served as a national landmark, an architectural beacon, and an international tourist attraction. For 41 years (1931-72), it ranked as the world's tallest skyscraper; after the Twin Towers attack, it regained its status as New York's tallest structure. Mark Kingwell's Nearest Thing to Heaven delves into the mythic significance of this Art Deco icon.
Allan Hepburn

"Nearest Thing to Heaven offers a startling, fresh perspective on the nature of icons as mythic and invisible at the same time. Kingwell has written a thinking person's travel guide to New York and its architecture."—Allan Hepburn, McGill University

Graham Owen

"Manfredo Tafuri referred to the American skyscraper as a “disenchanted mountain,” and Mark Kingwell’s cross-disciplinary approach takes us up the Empire State’s slopes by new and revealing routes indeed. Kingwell's gift is the breadth of his insight, from the savvy eye of the popular culture critic to the rigorous reflections of the philosopher."—Graham Owen, Tulane School of Architecture

Karsten Harries

"Circling around the Empire State Building, moving between architecture and philosophy, film and politics, this engaging study should make us all more thoughtful about troubled dreams of Empire, state, and building."—Karsten Harries

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Icons of America Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.88(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Nearest Thing to Heaven

The Empire State Building and American Dreams

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Mark Kingwell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10622-0

Chapter One

Palace of Dreams

From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood-everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora's Box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits.... And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground. That was the rash gift of Alfred E. Smith to the citizens of New York. F. Scott Fitzgerald, "My Lost City"

A lesser man, an ordinary man, might have retreated into bitterness. But Alfred E. Smith was never ordinary. The charismatic former governor of New York, a firebrand populist of a kind no longer to be found on the American political stage, Big Al Smith first challenged for the presidential nomination in 1924 and lost after being deadlocked with the southern candidate William G. McAdoo. A compromise Democratic nominee then lost the election to Calvin Coolidge-a contest many Democrats, then and later, thought Smith could have won had he been their candidate. Encouraged, Smith tried for the party's nomination again in 1928, and won. In this tilt, he went up against Republican challenger and then commerce secretary Herbert Hoover-who won. Smith tried once more for the nomination in 1932, the year after the Empire State Building was completed, but failed a second time, this time beaten out by Franklin Roosevelt, the man who had nominated him in both 1924 and 1928-and who would go on, decisively, to win the presidency for the Democrats.

Nowadays, and perhaps for most politicians even then, such a series of high-profile setbacks would typically mean a return to semi-obscurity in the Senate or the House, perhaps even a debt-driven slide back to private legal practice. Al Smith-the governor, the Happy Warrior-was a man of larger appetites, and when one grand project failed him, he set about creating another of his own to replace it. He failed to construct a presidency but succeeded in erecting one of the world's enduring architectural wonders, the instantly identifiable soaring tower of limestone and steel that commands the southwest corner of Thirty-fourth and Fifth. He did it, moreover, at a time when the American economy was in a deep trough, and with a command of speed, efficiency, and materials that still astonishes structural engineers and architects. From groundbreaking to completion, the Empire State Building went up in just eighteen months, climbing at a rate of four and a half stories a week-a speed unprecedented and, even in a time of many construction superlatives, almost unthinkable.

To use a word of more recent vintage, it was the world's first mega-project, employing 3,439 workers of all trades, the equivalent of a small industrial town, 104 assorted supervisors, and a general contracting payroll of $250,000 a week. It is a tribute to the Empire State's amalgamated genius of design and construction that the world would not see a building to rival it for almost fifty years. It is a different kind of tribute, this time to the forces of economic depression, cheap materials, and desperate labor, that Smith and his brilliant finance partner, John Jakob Raskob, formerly of General Motors and then chairman of the Democratic National Party, were able to bring the project in under budget and ahead of schedule, reducing the original cost estimates of $43 million to a surprising $24.7 million, mostly as a result of slashed wages and depressed prices for building supplies. In the immediate sense, the Great Depression was very good for the men behind the Empire State Building.

The success of the building would demand more than the perverse good fortune of finding a steady supply of steelworkers and electricians willing to work for pennies an hour, however. It would require rich men to gamble their money at a time when they least inclined to. As early as October 2, 1929, in the volatile weeks just before the Wall Street crash, Raskob held a lunch meeting at which, among various millionaire financiers of his acquaintance, had been William F. Lamb, the architect whose firm had designed the General Motors Building in New York. Raskob knew that the only way to avoid the worst consequences of the looming crash-widespread poverty, riots, maybe even revolution-was immediate reinvestment and rally by those with deep pockets. He also knew, as perhaps only a former stenographer and son of a cigar peddler could, that a grand public achievement would do more to galvanize the American people, and incidentally save the financial markets, than any number of make-work projects or free lunches.

This was a man who, though born into the extreme poverty of the Irish underclass in Lockport, New York, had risen to the pinnacle of American society on a combination of boldness and ability-the American dream made flesh. When his boss at the Worthington Pump Company refused to give him a raise, the young Raskob, on the advice of a friend, wrote to Pierre Samuel du Pont and asked him if he needed a secretary. When du Pont gained control of GM, Raskob went too, rising to a director's chair and eventually financial control of the entire corporation. But his desire to conquer Washington had been, like Smith's, foiled: in the late 1920s, Hooverite opponents blocked his bid to become secretary of the treasury, inventing the pejorative label "Raskobism" for his perceived combination of Catholic conservatism and big business sympathy. He was known to sign his checks, proudly, as "John J. Raskob, capitalist."

Raskob had met Al Smith at the Tiger Club, a smoke, drink, and poker nest on the top floor of construction tycoon William Kenny's Twenty-third Street offices, where the richest men of the city met to socialize and plot. It was a match made, if not in heaven, then in the nearest thing to it: at the pinnacle of human ambition. The two friends, chastened by their respective Washington shutdowns, found themselves looking for something worthy of their talents. And in the idea of the Empire State Building, they found it. Raskob, wealthy and connected as few men were in New York or anywhere, would secure the money. Smith, financially depleted but with boundless charisma, would be the front man. And Lamb, a classically trained perfectionist with an admirable sense of proportion and restraint, would supply the design.

At the October 1929 lunch, Raskob made his pitch. Yes, a big office tower was a major investment, and a major risk. Yes, the markets were going haywire and likely to get worse. But ... and here Raskob, reports say, broke off the pitch while he and Lamb left the room. They returned moments later with a large model of the Empire State Building. It was, he told the luncheon guests, a building that would represent the United States, "a land which reached for the sky with its feet on the ground." It would, further, be a symbol of "what the poor are able to achieve in America." It was the least the gathered financial geniuses could do to invest in a project that might save the entire economy. "Gentlemen," Raskob told them, "a country which can provide the vision, the resources, the money and the people to build such an edifice as this, surely cannot be allowed to crash through lack of support from the likes of you and me."

Raskob was a persuasive man; also a daring and clever one. He fronted $2.5 million of his own money, got the same amount from Pierre du Pont, and squeezed the financier Louis Kaufman for $5 million more. This $10-million nut paid for the purchase of the real estate, and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel still standing on it, from Floyd Brown. In December 1929, Raskob persuaded the officers of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to give him and Empire State, Inc., a loan for $27.5 million. Just under 30 percent of this sum, $8 million, was immediately paid into the building corporation, with further installments scheduled. The balance, $13.5 million, was to be raised through a bond sale, widening the investment base. But even here Raskob and du Pont took the lead, each buying a quarter of the issue. (The other half was purchased by the Chatham-Phenix group.) Du Pont may have had the coin to take a flyer on the building, but Raskob was not quite that rich. It is fair to say that he bet his bank on the skyscraper he and Smith had dreamed up.

Whatever the other investors thought, and whatever we know with the benefit of hindsight, Raskob had little choice. Ground had been broken on the Empire State Building site two days before, as workers began demolition of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He was in, for good or ill.

On September 9, 1930, just under a year later, Al Smith wielded a silver trowel to cement in place the 4,500-pound cornerstone of what would become the century's best building. He addressed a crowd of five thousand, many of them workers hoping for jobs on the new project. Journalists dutifully copied down the text of his bland but epoch-making speech. "Eight years ago, a very short time when one stops to think, this land was part of a farm. More recently it was the site of one of the great hotels of the world; and soon it will be the location of the tallest structure ever built by man." In a trademark populist sop, and after some jeering from nearby workers, he added: "So that there will be no mistake or misunderstanding about it, I declare, and firmly, that I have a right to use this trowel as a member of the union. My dues are all paid and I have my card in my office at 200 Madison Avenue."

The Empire State Building opened its doors eight months later, three-quarters of a century ago, on Friday, May 1, 1931. It was a cool, overcast spring day in Manhattan, and Smith, accompanied by his grandchildren Mary and Arthur, dressed in their fashionable best, waved his black derby hat at the crowd massed along the avenue. At 11:15 a.m., he leaned down to the children with a pair of ceremonial scissors and said, "Okay, kids, go to it." When their efforts to cut the ribbon failed, he stepped in and finished the job himself, then opened the rather unassuming street-level door of the building at 650 Fifth Avenue: an entrance just thirty feet high. At 11:30, President Herbert Hoover, having excused himself from a cabinet meeting, returned to his desk in the Oval Office and pressed a gold telegraph key wired to the building's lobby, which now glowed with light, spreading throughout the eighty-six stories. The now-familiar marble wall, with its stainless steel inlay of the building's figure and map of the Northeast, was illuminated, light shooting from the summit of the depicted building across the veined surface.

A half hour later, at noon, Franklin Roosevelt, Smith's successor as governor of New York, arrived by limousine and joined the lunch crowd on the eighty-sixth floor. Smith read a telegram from Hoover congratulating him on the building's completion, noting that it would "long remain one of the outstanding glories of a great city." Roosevelt himself opined that the skyscraper, especially in such trying times, was a national treasure: "This building is needed not only by the city, it is needed by the whole nation." The band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," Smith mentioned (but did not read) a telegram he had sent to thank all the workmen responsible for the swift construction, and so the Empire State entered its working life in the usual blast of Smith-generated hot air.

Significantly, amid all the hoopla, it was also May Day, the traditional celebration of international labor, and though probably a coincidence, that fact seems to etch this photo-op moment as the completion of New York itself, not just the building. The familiar skyline, so much the stuff of future cinematic fantasy and youthful ambition, was now substantially done. The city's grid was set, its compression of desire and energy made into a presumptive ideology of constant circulation and exchange -what the architect Rem Koolhaas calls the unspoken urban theory of "Manhattanism."

Money, labor, materials, and largeness of scale all come together in the grid's greatest landmark, a massive vertical column of usable commercial space that obliterates the hotel, and before it the house, that had stood on the same site. The process of the building, its triumphant assembly line, takes over the site, defining a new reality; it becomes automatic, pure construction, swallowing materials, consuming the site, driving always upward with relentless efficiency. Design is smoothly converted into assembly, into process, as if the carefully numbered parts of a scale model were separated, fitted, and glued, one by one, out of the box and according to diagrammatic instructions. Only, in this case, the scale of the model is 1:1!

The building thus becomes, in the process of its own construction, a blind and almost somnambulant servant of an abstract financial idea derived from Manhattanism more generally, the greedy logic of the grid: more rental space, and the faster the better. As Paul Starrett, the building's chief contractor, boldly put it, "Never before in the history of building had there been, and probably never again will there be an architectural design so magnificently adapted to speed in construction."

Thanks to Smith's popularity and seasoned command of publicity, it was already, by that time, famous the world over. On April 29, 1930, Smith and his team began a blanket marketing campaign such as New York, and the world, had never seen. Early ads emphasized New York's trademark combination of history obliterated by novelty, reproducing the 1799 listing by John Thompson of twenty acres of farmland for sale "situated in the heart of New York Island." Follow-up images showed the planned Empire State Building rising from the site over shadows of Thompson's farm and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Smith and Raskob began a relentless series of speeches and articles for the dozen daily newspapers of the pre-television city, plus a host of smaller specialist publications. Soon the architects Richmond Shreve and William Lamb added their own distinctive voices to the barrage of discourse, explaining the design and its construction principles. The building corporation's publicist, Josef Israels, hit on the then novel idea of getting the various manufacturers contributing to the building, including Otis Elevators, Campbell Metal Windows, and Corbin Locks, to publish ads and slick promotional pamphlets highlighting their work for the building.


Excerpted from Nearest Thing to Heaven by MARK KINGWELL Copyright © 2006 by Mark Kingwell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Mark Kingwell is professor of philosophy, University of Toronto, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, and the author of eight books.

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