8 Most Fascinating Facts About the Empire State Building

The Empire State Building in New York is a marvel of modernity. We look at 8 of the most fascinating facts surrounding the iconic monument.

Mar 13, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

fascinating facts about the empire state building


Standing tall on the New York City skyline, the Empire State Building is one of the most iconic skyscrapers of all time. Built in 1931, it was once the tallest building in the world, eclipsing both the Eiffel Tower in Paris and New York’s Chrysler Building. Today it is still the fourth tallest building in the world, and a symbol of the Art Deco era, with its monumental steel frame and geometric exterior façade. The interior is equally as celebrated, featuring its own unique Art Deco designs. We take a closer look at some of the most fascinating facts about the timeless landmark. 


1. It Was Once the Tallest Building in the World

empire state building photo aleksandr rogozin
The Empire State Building in New York City, photo by Aleksandr Rogozin


Built in 1931, the Empire State Building played a significant role in the early 20th century “race to the sky,” a competition to create the world’s tallest building. Its height at 381 meters (1,250 feet), or 443 meters (1,454 feet) with its spire, made the building taller than its closest competitor, the nearby Chrysler Building. The Empire State held its crown for almost 40 years, but it was eclipsed by the World Trade Center Tower in 1970. 


2. It Was Designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon

empire state building planning photos
Erection Views of Empire State Building, photograph album.


The architectural firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon were responsible for creating the building’s iconic design. Architect William Lamb was the chief architect, and he modelled the design on two of his earlier projects: Winston-Salem (the Reynold’s Building) in North Carolina, and the Carew Tower in Cincinnati. Lamb designed the building to have 85 levels of commercial office space, an indoor and outdoor observation deck a layer above, and an observatory on the 102nd floor.


3. The Art Deco Design Is Based on a Pencil

empire state building pencil
The Empire State Building was inspired by the shape of a pencil

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The distinctive shape of the Empire State Building, with its long, straight tower, tapered, curving upper levels and sharp, pointed spire at the tip, is thought to have been modelled on the shape of a humble pencil, the most rudimentary of drawing tools that once sketched out its preliminary outlines. 


4. It Only Took 20 Months to Complete

construction workers new york city 1930s
Construction workers carrying out their work on the Empire State Building in 1930-31.


The construction of the Empire State Building was completed in record time, taking workers only 20 months from start to finish. Up to 3,400 workers teamed up every day during this time, assembling the building as quickly as four and a half floors a week. Impressively, the building was actually completed ahead of the original plan, and under its proposed budget. 


5. The Lobby Is a Historic Landmark

interior lobby empire state building
The striking lobby inside the Empire State Building.


While the exterior of the Empire State Building is undoubtedly a cultural icon, its interiors are also highly revered. The lobby of the building was carefully designed in the Art Deco style to complement the exterior, with ribbed marble walls, decorative panels, gold leaf paintings and zig-zag ribbed ceilings. In fact, the lobby of the building is considered so significant that the Landmarks Preservation Commission named it a historic landmark.


6. Its Upper Mast Was Once a Mooring Mast for Airships

empire state building mooring mast airship
1931 Postcard photo depicting a zeppelin moored at the top of the building.


Surprisingly, designers originally created the building’s mast as a tethering dock for airships. After releasing a long gangplank, passengers could then safely exit the airship. However, due to safety concerns and the short life of the airship fad, this role never came to fruition.


7. The Empire State Building Was Damaged During World War II

new york city fire world war ii
Footage of the fire breaking out in the upper levels of the Empire State Building during World War II.


In 1945 a B-25 World War II Bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, triggering a huge explosion and causing a fire in several of the building’s upper levels. New York’s firefighters were quick off the mark – they were able to extinguish the fire in less than an hour, leaving no long-lasting damage inside or out. 


8. King Kong Helped Secure the Empire State Building’s Fame

king kong original film still 1933
Image from King Kong, 1933, the iconic movie in which a giant ape climbs the Empire State Building.


In 1933, the King Kong movie secured the building’s fame – in the film’s final scenes the giant ape climbs the colossal tower while airplanes attempt to bring him down, creating one of the most memorable and iconic movie sequences of all time.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.