Accessibility links

The Empire State Building Turns 75



Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.


And I’m Faith Lapidus. One of the best known buildings in the world is having a birthday. This famous building in New York City is seventy-five years old. And it is our subject this week.



The ground was broken on January twenty-second, nineteen thirty. Workers dug a hole about seventeen meters deep for the foundation. In March, work began on the steel structure. It grew taller and taller. By November, well ahead of plans, the stonework on the outside of the building was finished.

On May first, nineteen thirty-one, President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in Washington, D.C. On went the lights of, at that time, the world’s tallest building.

The Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan was open for business.


The Empire State Building is just over four hundred forty-three meters tall. That includes the sixty-two meter tall lightening rod on top. There are one hundred three floors.

And if you want to reach them all on foot, just know there are more than one thousand eight hundred sixty stairs. Runners compete in a yearly race to the top. If even the thought of that makes you tired, then you might want to ride an elevator instead. The building has seventy-three of them.

The Empire State Building sits on more than seven thousand square meters of land.

The building has five entrances and six thousand five hundred windows.

And, last but not least, it has two hundred fifty workers who take care of the building.


The Empire State Building holds a special place in the hearts of Americans. For one thing, it was the tallest building in the world for more than forty years.

But the Empire State Building is also a big player in the cultural history of New York City. One reason is its light shows. The first took place in nineteen thirty-two. A searchlight was lit on top of the building to honor the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president. New York is known as the Empire State, and Roosevelt was its governor.

In nineteen fifty-six, four large searchlights were added to the building. They were called Freedom Lights. They were meant as a way to send a message of welcome and hope to immigrants. The Freedom Lights were also meant to signal the hopes of Americans for peace. People at that time worried about the threat from the Soviet Union.


More lights were added in nineteen sixty-four. But a big surprise came in nineteen seventy-six. The Empire State Building shined in red, white and blue. The colors of the flag celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of American independence.

Ever since then, the owners of the Empire State Building have observed holidays and special events with color. For example, on February fourteenth, the building glows red for Valentine’s Day, the day for love.

On Saint Patrick’s Day, March seventeenth, the Empire State Building turns green to honor the patron saint of Ireland. And on April twenty-second, it shines a combination of green and blue to mark Earth Day.

There are also special colors to mark the independence days of several countries and to honor campaigns against diseases. There are even light shows to celebrate the birthdays of cartoon characters like Popeye and Betty Boop.

Sometimes the building goes dark as a remembrance, as it did in two thousand four after the death of former President Ronald Reagan.


Even if you have never visited New York, there is a good chance you have seen the Empire State Building. It has been photographed countless times. It has even played parts in movies.

In nineteen thirty-three the Empire State Building was one of the stars of “King Kong.” A huge ape climbs to the top, fighting off airplanes and holding in his hand a screaming woman, played by Fay Wray.

//ACT 1 -- King Kong//

“Attention all stations. King Kong is going west. He is making for the Empire State Building. Standby for further reports.”

“If he goes up there what can we do?”

“We won’t be able to get near him.”

"Kong is climbing the Empire State Building. He is still carrying Ann Darrow. That is all.”

“That licks us.”

“There’s one thing we haven’t thought of.”


“Airplanes. If he should put Ann down and they can fly close enough to pick him off without hitting her…”

“You’re right! Planes! Call the field…”

“Oh boy, what a story…”


In nineteen fifty-seven the Empire State Building appeared in the love story "An Affair to Remember." Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr play a man and a woman who meet and fall in love on a ship. They are looking at the New York City skyline from the ship when they plan a future meeting.

//ACT 2-- An Affair to Remember//


“Oh, I was so worried that you…”

“I didn’t have time to get dressed. I didn’t get to bed until five…”

“I didn’t sleep at all…”

“Oh…Now listen carefully…”


“…if everything goes right,…”


“…and I mean for both of us, in six months…here I started to write it out…”

“Should I read it now?”


“Alright… ‘Darling’--- that’s me?”


“ ‘You have a date my beloved, July the first at five o’clock.’ But you don’t say where…”

“Well you name the place and I’ll obey.”

“I don’t know…I can’t think…How about the top of the Empire State Building?”

“Oh, yes, that’s perfect. It’s the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York.”

“The 102nd floor…and don’t forget to take the elevator…”

“No, I won’t…”


He goes there, but she has an accident that prevents her from meeting him. He waits and wonders what has happened to her.


More recently, in "Sleepless in Seattle," two people in love agree to meet at the Observation Deck on Valentine’s Day. Both do arrive, but one is a little later. They almost miss each other.

The makers of that film made a small mistake. They should have lit the tower in red.

In the movie "Independence Day" the Empire State Building is destroyed by creatures from space.

But there is one motion picture in which the main character IS the Empire State Building. The Pop artist Andy Warhol made the nineteen sixty-four movie “Empire.”

He and a crew set up a camera in an office high up in another tall building. They filmed the Empire State Building through an evening into night. The camera never moved. The result is a silent film eight hours long in black-and-white.



In the early nineteen seventies, the Empire State Building lost its place as the tallest building in New York. People in the city now had the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to look up to.

Tragically that all changed the morning of September eleventh, two thousand one. Members of al-Qaida crashed hijacked passenger airplanes into the Twin Towers and destroyed them. The Empire State Building again became the city's tallest building.

The Empire State Building survived a plane crash. In nineteen forty-five, a large military plane hit the building at the seventy-ninth floor. The pilot had gotten lost in foggy conditions.

The pilot and two passengers were killed. The crash also killed eleven people in the building. Yet a woman survived a drop of seventy-five floors in an elevator after the cable lines broke as a result of the crash.



Many people say the Empire State Building looks like a giant pencil. They may be right.

John Jacob Raskob was the business leader mainly responsible for the Empire State Building. The story goes that Raskob held up a pencil in front of the architects and asked them how high they could build it.


Raskob chose the architects at Shreve, Lamb and Harmon Associates to design the building. They planned for the top of the building to serve as a port for airships. But that never happened. The winds were too strong at that height.

Still, the height of the building was useful for another purpose. NBC, the National Broadcasting Company, placed a television tower on the building in nineteen fifty. It was the most powerful transmitter in the world. Antennas on the Empire State Building still serve many communication needs.


More than one hundred million people have visited the Empire State Building since it opened in May of nineteen thirty-one. It is very popular with people who visit New York City.

But the building never became as popular with large companies as the developers had hoped. Today the building has about nine hundred tenants. Small businesses are the main occupants.

The Empire State Building opened during the Great Depression. At that time few people were willing or able to pay for office space there.

But the depression did cut in half the expected cost of putting up the building. The structure alone cost about twenty-five million dollars. The cost of the land brought the price to more than forty million.


The Web site of the Empire State Building offers a virtual tour and use of cameras on top of the building to see New York City. The Web site is e-s-b-n-y-c dot com. Again, the Empire State Building is on the Internet at



Our program was written and produced by Caty Weaver. Read and listen to our shows at I’m Faith Lapidus.


And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. Now we leave you with music that George Gershwin wrote for the opening of the Empire State Building in nineteen thirty-one. Here is "Rhapsody in Rivets."