Insert Comma logo
Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Lofty look at famed N.Y. skyscraper

Book on Empire State Building a reminder of the Towers

By Leigh E. Rich

Empire: A Tale of Obsession, Betrayal and the Battle for an American Icon
By Mitchell Pacelle
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
November 2001
333 pages

Little could Wall Street Journal business writer Mitchell Pacelle know that his book, Empire: A Tale of Obsession, Betrayal and the Battle for an American Icon, published just six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks would fail to live up to its marketing slogan: “The savage battle for control of the world’s most famous skyscraper.” While the Empire State Building has ceded its prior position and is now perhaps the world’s second most famous skyscraper, Empire has become both a fitting testament to the innovation and tenacity of a city even when leveled with horror and a biting commentary on the greed and obsession that a strong economic market can breed.

The coincidence in the razing of the World Trade Center towers and the release of Pacelle’s piece is ironic—with the Empire State Building now more than ever a jewel of the New York skyline and one, true remaining icon of American dreams and bootstrap ideals.

It will not be long, of course, before similar pieces about the history of the WTC towers will follow, and Pacelle conveniently finds himself at the forefront of a burgeoning genre about these looming yet inanimate characters—i.e., the buildings themselves.

The Empire State Building does indeed take center stage in Pacelle’s book, outliving and overshadowing its original builders and all of the varied managers and owners who have had their hands in the pot at one point in time or another, including the famous and notorious such as former New York Governor Alfred Smith, GM Executive John Raskob, tycoon Henry Crown, Harry and Leona Helmsley, Lawrence Wien, Peter Malkin, Donald Trump and Japanese billionaire Hideki Yokoi.

Pacelle spends much of his book indulging in the psychoanalysis of Yokoi’s coveting of the Empire State Building—similar in many ways to the need he felt to possess chateaus and castles and other trophy properties all across Western Europe and parts of Asia. But due to an unsavory reputation in the uniform business and a deadly fire in the 1980s in a hotel he owned in Tokyo, Yokoi’s attempt to purchase the American bastion unraveled quickly. Then-owner Prudential wanted a much less controversial buyer and it found one—in E.G. Holding, a dummy corporation headed by American Oliver Grace and funded by none other than Yokoi himself. Yokoi, under the guise of Grace and with the aid of his daughter Kiiko and her husband, purchased the Empire State Building at the inflated price of $40 million on Nov. 27, 1991.

Much of the remainder of Empire sorts out the various power plays among all of the characters involved since that time, including Yokoi and his own daughter. While interesting and an eye-opening lesson in trophy realty and the lives of men who have too much time and money on their hands, the most valuable nuggets nestled throughout Pacelle’s story are of the building itself and its influential role in American behavior and culture.

The Empire State Building was constructed in a record one year and 45 days, completed in May 1931, during the heart of the Great Depression for $42 million. Beating out the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building became the world’s tallest, what Pacelle calls a “monument to American hubris in the Roaring Twenties. … There was something enduring about the way the Empire State Building towered over the midtown skyline, a rock-solid sentinel that, when the late afternoon sun hung low, seemed to shimmer with power and glory.”

As it well should have. It was unlike any other building conceived of before that time, just due to its sheer scale. “In June (of 1930), 290 bricklayers and 384 carriers left the ground, chasing the steelworkers into the sky as they ate into a lode of 10 million bricks. Following them, stoneworkers clad the building in a thin layer of Indiana limestone, 200,000 cubic feet in all. Onto this gray skin workers bolted 300 tons of polished chrome-nickel alloy fashioned into shining vertical spandrels. Red metal window frames were laid into 6,400 holes in the stone tower.”

It also made waves due to its style and design. Architect William “Lamb had forsaken the tradition of setting windows back into a building’s facade, a visual trick used to reassure occupants of a building’s strength. The effect, Lamb reasoned, would be lost on a wall 1,000 feet high and 200 feet wide. … Lamb set the windows nearly flush with the limestone. The tower was sleek, Machine Age, its spandrels stamped with lightning bolts, the gently sloping setbacks of its apex making it appear even taller than it was.”

The men in charge with concocting this masterpiece not only altered the New York skyline, according to Pacelle, but also defined it.

And over the course of the last 70 years, people have flocked to it for a variety of strange reasons, for inspiration, romance, intrigue, amazement, greed and even suicide. Jumpers were such a problem that by December 1947 the observation deck required a seven-foot-tall fence around it to protect would-be contemplators.

The only group that has tended to be less enthralled is tenants, explaining why the structure has been said to have an “edifice complex” or be deemed the “Empty State Building.”

Most haunting of all, however, are the events of Saturday, July 28, 1945, when Army Lt. Col. William Smith, Jr., accidentally crashed his twin-engine B-52 bomber into the 78th and 79th floors because of blinding fog conditions that day. The impact shook up the building and its inhabitants and tore a hole in the Empire State’s north side.

In an odd way, it is perhaps fortunate that Empire was written before Sept. 11, as it doesn’t wax unnecessarily sentimental. Pacelle provides a business-oriented profile of one of America’s great edifices, without hiding its corrosion, age-related deterioration and long-term settling.

Rich, L. E. (2001, November 30). Lofty look at famed N.Y. skyscraper. [Review of the book Empire: A Tale of Obsession, Betrayal and the Battle for an American Icon by Mitchell Pacelle.] Rocky Mountain News.

Comments are closed.