Detailed storeys of a skyscraper, sauerkraut and stew

Building the Empire State
January 8, 1999

You might not think that a 77-page typed notebook written in 1931 giving construction data about the Empire State Building would be a riveting read. You would be almost right. The notebook itself, discovered in the files of HRH, the New York construction management company, ranks only a little above Beachcomber's List of Huntingdonshire Cabmen in its immediate appeal. But packaged in a handsome volume, annotated intelligently and accompanied by two excellent essays and original site photographs, it is instructive, interesting and occasionally entertaining.

The editor, Carol Willis, points out that we do not know for certain who wrote the neatly typed pages contained in a ring binder. But the writer is clearly someone who took great pride in every detail of the construction process and in telling posterity how much care and planning had gone into making the Empire State Building one of the marvels of the age, not only in its height but also in the speed of its construction.

The most astonishing fact is well known: from foundation to occupancy in one year, and accomplished in the heart of the world's busiest and most crowded city. The book makes clear how this was done, by careful and imaginative planning, down to the smallest detail that might delay construction.

One major innovation, now commonplace on large construction projects, was what is called fast-tracking. As Donald Friedmann explains, in an essay that is a model of how to convey unfamiliar concepts to a general readership, traditional design and construction was based on designing everything first, then making all the components and finally putting it all together, thus dividing the work into three separate phases. On the Empire State Building these processes overlapped so that elements of the top were still being designed when construction of the bottom was well under way.

One factor that forced a fast-track method was the owners' decision to get the building completed by May 1 1931. Real-estate practice at this time meant that leases were annual and started on May 1; the owners would lose a year's rent if they completed after that date. The tragedy of the story was that after the extraordinary technical achievements of construction, the building was a dead loss in real-estate terms. By the end of the 1930s it was still two-thirds vacant. Initial rent projections put its annual income at nearly $8 million, but total rent in the first ten years of operation amounted to less than a third of that.

The general bones of the fast-track process are given flesh in the notebook, which goes into much detail about innovations such as the railway on each storey that delivered material around the largest floor areas to be built in a skyscraper; the system that allowed most of the curtain wall construction to take place from the inside; and the careful decisions about how to get workers up and down the building efficiently as the height increased. The design-build team also knew that much time would be lost if workers ("mechanics") were given time off for lunch, so they awarded a franchise to a local restaurateur who set up five lunch areas as the building rose, serving "chicken salad, beef stew, beefsteak pie (and) frankfurters and sauerkraut". "During the life of the entire project," says the notebook's author, "not one complaint was received concerning the quality or price of the food served. This is a remarkable record I the commissary department on every construction operation is generally the source of prolific complaints I It is a common trait in human nature."

This passage is one of several places where the humanity of the author breaks through the anonymity of the recordkeeper. On the final page, after listing the six fatalities among the workers, he writes: "They are numbered among the unsung heroes of peace. It would be a thoughtful act to inscribe their names on the bronze plaque that will bear the names of those other workmen who were the recipients of the craftmanship award certificates. A sentimental gesture, think you? Well, perhaps - but also an acknowledgement of our debt to them, as well as our universal kinship with Him, who was also once a humble toiler in the guise of the lowly Carpenter of Nazareth."

What modern book on construction would dare to finish with such an observation?

Karl Sabbagh was the producer and writer of the Channel 4/PBS television series Skyscraper . He is filming the design and construction of the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside and the International Space Station somewhere in earth orbit.

Building the Empire State

Editor - Carol Willis
ISBN - 0 393 73030 1
Publisher - Norton in association with the Skyscraper Museum
Price - £19.95
Pages - 190

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