Watch the Building of the Empire State Building in Color: The Creation of the Iconic 1930s Skyscraper From Start to Finish

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New York’s Lost Sky­scraper: The Rise and Fall of the Singer Tow­er

Watch the Com­plete­ly Unsafe, Ver­ti­go-Induc­ing Footage of Work­ers Build­ing New York’s Icon­ic Sky­scrap­ers

A New Inter­ac­tive Map Shows All Four Mil­lion Build­ings That Exist­ed in New York City from 1939 to 1941

An Intro­duc­tion to the Chrysler Build­ing, New York’s Art Deco Mas­ter­piece, by John Malkovich (1994)

Watch the Build­ing of the Eif­fel Tow­er in Time­lapse Ani­ma­tion

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.

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