For F Scott Fitzgerald in the early Thirties, with the shadow of the Great Depression blanketing New York, the Empire State Building stood “lonely and inexplicable as the Sphinx” amid the ruins of the Roaring Twenties that inspired The Great Gatsby.
“Just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach,” he wrote in the essay “My Lost City”, “so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood – everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride, the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits... And with the awful realisation that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.”
In the decades that followed, taller buildings went up around the world but in the popular imagination it remains the skyscraper in this jungle of skyscrapers, a fact that will no doubt be trumpeted in the marketing materials for its IPO.
The building, which remained the tallest in the world until the construction of the World Trade Centre in 1972, will form the centrepiece of a real estate investment trust that is being lined up for a listing. The Malkin family, which currently controls the tower, is reported to the cusp of launching the formal marketing process that will set the stage for the flotation, which could raise up to $1bn. The move would add a new chapter to the history of the Art Deco building, completed in 1931.
At the time, the title of the tallest tower in Manhattan and the world belonged to the Chrysler building, whose architect, William Van Alen, had only seen off competition for the title from the Manhattan Bank Company Building by secretly constructing a grand Art Deco spire to augment its height.
The triumph was short-lived, for less than a year later came the Empire State, surpassing Van Alen’s baby by over 200 feet. The dedication was delivered by President Hoover, who pressed a (gimmick) button in Washington DC to turn on the building’s lights in May, 1931. Two years later, the building made perhaps its most famous on-screen appearance, when King Kong climbed atop the tower in a film starring Fay Wray.
Today, it remains a must-see attraction for hordes of tourists who make the pilgrimage to the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.