20th-Century Cathedral

June 19, 1991|By NICHOLAS KING

New York. -- The Empire State Building is 60 years old. It might as well be 600, the original skyscraper from the city's Middle Ages, a monument gone from our comprehension.

Needle-straight, it rises monumentally through change and through storm, presiding without expression over the city it represents around the world. Apart from the Statue of Liberty, which is more of a national monument anyway, it is the foremost symbol of New York.

The Empire State at 102 stories and even with a television tower on top of that has been surpassed in height here and elsewhere. But it remains the skyscraper of desire and of dream. It's still where people go when they want to see what lies around them. It exemplifies the majestic defiance of Manhattan architecture, copied for prestige all over the country and everywhere else.

There is an air of reverence, too, about it, which underlies the notion that it stands for what the Gothic cathedral stands for in European cities: the oldness and sure-ness of the past. One writer has found a similarity, an identity almost, in the ascent of the building by King Kong carrying Fay Wray (who was, incidentally, present at the recent birthday celebration) and the ascent of Notre Dame de Paris by the hunchback Quasimodo dragging Esmeralda up the narrow tower staircase.

Yet nothing could be more of a tribute to American technology. Even 60 years have not witnessed much of an advance in tall-building construction. You still have to start with an enormous hole, and the removal of earth and the bringing in of vast amounts of steel and concrete and bricks pose the same problems.

The Empire State, rising on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, was sited on one of the busiest corners of Manhattan. There was no possibility of obstructing traffic for any length of time. There was no place for trucks to unload or concrete mixers to park. It was immense problem in logistics, and the time of deliveries had to be to the minute.

So the structure hurtled up into the sky sometimes at the rate of four stories a week. There are some wonderful photographs taken by Lewis Hine of dangling iron workers against the clouds. The local press has dug up a 77-year-old man who worked as a water boy for those workmen, teetering along the beams with his buckets, not daring to look down, keeping his eyes fixed, as he was told, to the end of the beam.

The building went up in the middle of the Depression against all the economic odds. Al Smith was governor then, and it was his enthusiasm that helped keep it going. It was immediately popular with tourists who thronged up the stomach-wrenching elevators to the observation deck on the 86th floor.

One thrill of that period was to see friends off to Europe at a North River pier and then rush to the Empire State Building to watch the boat being tugged toy-like out of its berth, turn majestically around and head east, its whistle deep-throating, through the lower harbor past the Statue of Liberty and out the Narrows. That doesn't happen any more, but there are compensations, like seeing the police helicopters buzzing below you through the clouds.

I asked a friend who had his office in the Empire State what it was like. From the 43rd floor, he has a southern exposure that still gives him a view all the way south to the Battery and even includes the Statue of Liberty. The windows are of the old sash variety and can be opened, to him a most satisfactory feature.

''It's a fine building still,'' he opined. ''The neighborhood could be better. The restaurants are OK but they're hardly great. Frankly I'd rather be further up in midtown myself, say Rock Center.''

Nicholas King is a New York writer.

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