From its completion in 1931 until construction of the World Trade Center’s North Tower in 1972, the Empire State Building stood as the tallest building in the world. As of 2012, it is the 15th tallest skyscraper in the world and the fourth tallest free standing structure in the Americas.
At 102 floors and a roof height of 1,250 feet (381 meters), the Empire State Building was constructed in a mind-blowing 410 days. It was finished three months early and drastically under budget due to reduced building costs during the Depression.
The incredible gallery was made available by the New York Public Library. It showcases the amazing work of photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), a pioneering social photographer. All of the images were taken in 1931 during the construction of the Empire State Building. Many of the images may give you chills as the workers traverse steel beams unsecured with no harnesses.
The views of New York City in the background of many of the photos give the viewers a sense of the dizzying heights these fearless workers operated at. It’s a truly special gallery that offers a fascinating glimpse into one of the most iconic buildings in the world.
The Empire State Building – Design and Construction
- The Empire State Building was designed by William F. Lamb from the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. The bulding was influenced by previous designs for the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the Carew Tower in Cincinnati, Ohio
- The general contractors were The Starrett Brothers and Eken, and the project was financed primarily by John J. Raskob and Pierre S. du Pont. The construction company was chaired by Alfred E. Smith, a former Governor of New York and James Farley’s General Builders Supply Corporation supplied the building materials. John W. Bowser was project construction superintendent
- Excavation of the site began on January 22, 1930, and construction on the building itself started symbolically on March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—per Al Smith’s influence as Empire State, Inc. president. The project involved 3,400 workers, mostly immigrants from Europe, along with hundreds of Mohawk iron workers, many from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal
- According to official accounts, five workers died during the construction. Governor Smith’s grandchildren cut the ribbon on May 1, 1931
- The construction was part of an intense competition in New York for the title of “world’s tallest building”. Two other projects fighting for the title, 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building, were still under construction when work began on the Empire State Building. Each held the title for less than a year, as the Empire State Building surpassed them upon its completion, just 410 days after construction commenced
- The project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Instead of taking 18 months as anticipated, the construction took just under fifteen. Due to reduced costs during the Depression, the final costs totaled only $24.7 million (372.8 million 2012 dollars) instead of the estimated $43 million
- The building was officially opened on May 1, 1931 in dramatic fashion, when United States President Herbert Hoover turned on the building’s lights with the push of a button from Washington, D.C. Coincidentally, the first use of tower lights atop the Empire State Building, the following year, was for the purpose of signaling the victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt over Hoover in the presidential election of November 1932
Lewis Wickes Hine (Sept. 26, 1874 – Nov. 3, 1940)
Lewis Wickes Hine was an American sociologist and photographer. Hine used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in the United States.
In 1906, Hine became the staff photographer of the Russell Sage Foundation. Here Hine photographed life in the steel-making districts and people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the influential sociological study called the Pittsburgh Survey. In 1908, he became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), leaving his teaching position at the Ethical Culture School in New York City. Over the next decade, Hine documented child labor in American industry to aid the NCLC’s lobbying efforts to end the practice.
During and after World War I, he photographed American Red Cross relief work in Europe. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Hine made a series of “work portraits,” which emphasized the human contribution to modern industry. In 1930, Hine was commissioned to document the construction of The Empire State Building. Hine photographed the workers in precarious positions while they secured the iron and steel framework of the structure, taking many of the same risks the workers endured. In order to obtain the best vantage points, Hine was swung out in a specially designed basket 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.
During the Great Depression, he again worked for the Red Cross, photographing drought relief in the American South, and for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), documenting life in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. He also served as chief photographer for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) National Research Project, which studied changes in industry and their effect on employment. Hine was also a member of the faculty of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School.
The Library of Congress holds more than five thousand Hine photographs, including examples of his child labor and Red Cross photographs, his work portraits, and his WPA and TVA images. Other large institutional collections include nearly ten thousand of Hine’s photographs and negatives held at the George Eastman House and almost five thousand NCLC photographs  at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.