There are 102 stories in the Empire State Building. One day, two years ago, a lady decided to jump off the 86th. The winds were so strong, she got blown back onto the 85th. There are 102 stories in the Empire State Building. Those are three.
Happy birthday, happy birthday, empire state building, fifty years old TODAY! Cloud-piercing silver and marble Art Deco symbol of the only town in town. Final outpost of Fay Wray and her simian swain, Kong. No longer the tallest of the tall, lost that title to the Sears Tower in Chicago, followed by the World Trade Center, but so what, do you even know what the Sears Tower looks like? Would you buy it in a paperweight, piggy-bank, candle in blue/green/orange/yellow/red? Wear it over your heart on your shirt? And the World Trade Center? Fah-git it, puh-leeze!
We are talking symbolism here. Mystique. Glah-mour . You think anybody over at the World Trade Center keeps a gorilla suit in his office like Bill Suchanek, the Director of Observatories at the Empire State, even after the Kong re-make? The gorilla suit is used in the summer up on the 86th-floor observatory, where the gorilla blows up Empire State balloons and gives them to the kids. ("Horrible job," says Bill. "The sun.") Off-season, the gorilla head rests on a bookshelf, the suit hangs from a coat rack. One day at work, Suchanek wore the gorilla suit all day at his desk. There are 102 stories in the Empire State Building. That is one.
How did this marvel, this icon, this Empire State come to be? Oneupmanship and the primordial desire of man to look into other people's windows. Also the great skyscraper wars of Manhattan in the late '20s. A 30-story office building, squat and stocky, that's how the Empire State had originally been conceived. Then John J. Raskob, co-founder of General Motors, and Pierre du Pont and their friend Al Smith got the urge to expand up. How far up was expressed by Raskob in a conversation with the architect. "How high up can you make it so that it won't fall down?" he asked. The architect, William Lamb, figured 80 stories, and in '29, a few weeks before the crash, Raskrob announced he was constructing the tallest building in the world.
But look over there to the east, to the Chrysler Building, alreay in construction. That cad, Walter Chrysler, is taking his building up higher. The Empire State decided to build to 86 stories. No good. Walter Chrysler, according to Empire State vice president Bob Tinker, "had secretly built a spire and assembled it within the building and no one knew until it was sort of pushed through the top and emerged."
Climber! Upstart! So what if the Chrysler Building, with its scalloped, gold Deco dome, is one of the prettiest in Manhattan? Raskob added an observation deck and a 200-foot dirigible mast. And that's why there are 102 stories in Empires State Building.
There aren't any dirigibles, though. Never have been, never will be. Airships and other flying objects -- like birdies -- have had bad times with the building, despite the schemes of the founding fathers. "The Directors of the Empire State believe that in a comparatively short time the Zeppelin airships will establish trans-Atlantic, transcontinental and trans-Pacific lines and possibly a route to South America," said Al Smith, around '29. "Building with an eye to the future, it has been determined to erect this tower to land people directly on Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue after their ocean trip, seven minutes after the airship connects with the mast."
Never did work out. An airship named the Enna Jettick did manage to hover over the building for a few minutes while some fools grabbed her mooring ropes, but updrafts forced her away; a Navy airship, battling shifting air currents, did not even manage to get that close.
Years later, in '45, on a July morning, a B-25 bomber, lost in the fog, slammed into the building between the 78th and 79th floors. "From where I'm sitting I can't see the top of the Empire State Building," was his last transmission to Newark airport. Fourteen people were killed in the crash and 26 were injured, including 20-year-old Betty-Lou Oliver, an elevator operator, who fell 75 feet into the sub-basement when the cables snapped. Her spine was fractured and she was badly burned. She was rescued by a 17-year-old Coast Guard boy, who had been visiting the building at the time of the crash. c
"Thank God, the Navy's here," she said when he appeared.
No plaque marks the spot of the crash on the building, which was repaired within three months. But there is a small blackened crevice under the windows which the window washers have not touched for 31 years as a sort of memorial. You cannot see it from the inside, but outside it is the 79th story in the Empire State Building.
New Yorkers, unless entertaining an aunt from Burbank, are not inclined to investigate the Empire State Building. Fuh whu they may remark, when asked. That is not to say they do not quietly cherish its spot on the skyline, or do not -- when accompanying a visitor -- gasp at the 102nd-floor observatory, where on a clear day you can see 35 miles to the hills of Pennsylvania, and the cool air is like champagne. It is just that it is a fact of their life, part of the urban furniture.
Still, they use it for special events. They sometimes marry in it. (One father of a bride had a fear of heights, so Empire State V.P. Bob Tinker gave the bride away.) They have an annual foot-race -- the Empire State Run-Up -- in it. (In '78 the winner, who ran up 85 flights of stairs in 12 1/2 minutes, was a city fireman who'd been receiving full $11,822 disability pay for a year, and there was a scandal.) They are rumored to tryst in it. ("We got a letter one time from a woman who said her son was conceived on the 102nd floor," says building administrative assistant Louise Duncan. "I said to the boys, 'We must have been short of staff that day.'") They also -- despite a guard-rail that was to have made the building 'suicide-proof' -- jump to their deaths from it. An estimated twenty-five people have gone down since the building went up (the Empire State Corp. understandably has not kept a careful tab).
Still, what is more interesting than those are the two who jumped and survived: The woman, two years ago, who jumped and was blown back onto a ledge, and suffered only a broken pelvis; and a 26-year-old artist from Hawaii, four years ago, who also leapt from the 86th floor, fell 20 feet to the ledge of the 85th floor, and crawled through a window, to the nearly deserted transmitter room of the National Broadcasting Co. The personnel who questioned him found him unable to speak.
"He was confused," understated one. True story.
The first light to shine from the tower of the Empire State Building was a searchlight beacon, with a range of 50 miles, which in 1932 signaled that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected president. The next series came in '64 during the World's Fair, when the top 30 floors were illuminated by floodlights, giving the building an elegant pale glow. Now, when visitors look to the building at night it may be red, white and blue, or green or yellow. Out-of-towners, not understanding, may think that this is a permanent color, but to New Yorkers, who watch the colors change with the months, it is a reflection of the seasons, the urban equivalent of the changing foliage: red and green at Christmas, red and white on Valentine's Day, white and yellow during Easter Week. Occasionally there is a special event, an unfamiliar pattern, and New Yorkers must puzzle it out before understanding -- ahhh, blue and white, the Yankees have won the pennant.
Tonight, the lights on the Empire State will burn gold. Because, at 50, it is the Empire State's Golden Anniversary. Because of its Deco crown. Because of the bomber. Because of its beauty. Because of Kong. Because there are 102 stories in the Empire State Building.