Ambition is not unknown in the New York City of the 2020s, but the New York City of the 1920s seems to have consisted of nothing but. Back then, where else would anyone dare to propose the tallest building in the world — much less end up with the job twelve days ahead of schedule and $9 million under budget? The construction of the Empire State Building began in January of 1930, just three months after the Wall Street Crash that began the Great Depression. Though economic conditions kept the project from attaining profitability until the 1950s (and stuck it with the nickname “Empty State Building”), it nevertheless stood in symbolic defiance of those hard times — and, ultimately, came to stand for New York and indeed the United Sates of America itself.
You can see footage of the Empire State Building’s construction in the compilation above, which gathers clips from contemporary newsreels and other sources and presents them in “restored, enhanced and colorized” form.
These images showcase the history-making skyscraper’s technical innovations as well as its marshaling of labor at an immense scale: at the height of construction, more than 3,500 workers were involved. That most of them were recent immigrants from countries like Ireland and Italy reflects the popular image of early 20th-century America as a “land of opportunity”; the sheer scale of the skyscraper they built reflects the previously unimaginable works made possible by America’s resources.
The Empire State Building set records, and over the 90 years since its opening has remained a difficult achievement to surpass. Only in 1970 did it lose its title of the tallest building in New York City, to Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center — and then regained it in 2001 after the latter’s collapse. Today, one can easily point to much taller and more technologically advanced skyscrapers all around the world, but how many of them are as beloved or rich with associations? Back in 1931, architecture critic Douglas Haskell described the Empire State Building as “caught between metal and stone, between the idea of ‘monumental mass’ and that of airy volume, between handicraft and machine design, and in the swing from what was essentially handicraft to what will be essentially industrial methods of fabrication” — as good an explanation as any of why they don’t build ’em like this anymore.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.