Rain and harsh winds lash down, soaking the man’s overalls and making it tough for him to see even that which lies directly ahead. In these astonishingly hazardous conditions, the worker struggles to keep the wrench in his numb grasp, but he must do his job, as there will be many men lining up to replace him should he throw in the towel. Most importantly, though, he must do everything he can to maintain his balance on the slippery girder. He tries not to think about the 1,000-foot drop below him, for he has no safety harness, and only the smallest slip could mean certain death.
The life of a 1930s construction worker employed on the Empire State Building wasn’t easy, to say the least. Here we take a look at awe-inspiring pictures that show the astounding feats of skill, strength and courage that were needed to complete the Art-Deco masterpiece – and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.
The Empire State Building project was, at the time of the skyscraper’s construction, truly groundbreaking. Nothing of its scale had been brought to fruition before; indeed, when the building was opened in 1931, it became the tallest self-supporting edifice on Earth, a record it held for 36 years.
It also held the record as the planet’s loftiest skyscraper for 41 years, originally taking over that title from New York’s Chrysler Building. In fact, it was an attempt to top the Chrysler’s incredible feat of construction that led to the development of the Empire State – one of the Big Apple’s most iconic landmarks.
The Chrysler Building’s scale provoked an audacious response from one man in particular, John Jakob Raskob, who was previously finance committee chair at Chrysler competitor General Motors. In 1929 Raskob co-founded Empire State, Inc. with several peers. A headlong timeline was set for a more impressive structure; this tall task, Raskob projected, could be accomplished within just 18 months.
Moreover, Raskob had friends in high places who could help him realize this lofty dream. Indeed, his Empire State, Inc. co-founders included former General Motors president Pierre S. du Pont, banking magnate Louis. G. Kaufman and ex-Governor of New York Alfred E. Smith. Raskob had in fact attempted to get Smith elected into the White House two years before construction began on the Empire State Building.
Although Smith’s presidential bid ultimately failed, Raskob was considerably more successful at getting Smith on board the project that would eventually become the Empire State Building. Indeed, Smith served as head of Empire State, Inc.
Raskob also brought on New York City-based architectural company Shreve, Lamb and Harmon to design the building, seemingly with one overriding concern in mind. During the initial planning stage, Raskob is said to have asked the company’s William Lamb, “Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?”
Raskob intended for the completed building to become a stunning office space for New York businesses. Accordingly, Lamb came up with a plan for the structure that was practical, economical and understated in its Art Deco style.
The new building’s position was determined to be that occupied by the grand Waldorf-Astoria. The sadly outmoded hotel had stood there since the end of the 19th century, but in 1929 its spot was sold to Empire State, Inc., with a view to it being demolished.
The Waldorf-Astoria was duly torn down between the end of September 1929 and the beginning of February 1930, with assembly work on what was to become the Empire State Building starting the following month. However, considerable manpower was needed in order to meet Raskob’s exceedingly tight deadline.
Moreover, there were an incredible amount of men tasked with erecting the magnificent structure. In August 1930, for instance, an astonishing 3,439 workers were recorded as being employed at the Empire State Building site. At the most active times of construction, the building’s principal contractors, Starrett Brothers & Eken, had 1,900 men on its books alone.
Furthermore, men practicing numerous different construction trades were needed for the gargantuan undertaking. The bulk of them were immigrants to the U.S., too – men perhaps attempting to chase their own piece of the American Dream.
However, the workhands on the site often faced punishing workdays, completing 13-hour shifts that started at 3:30 a.m. and only accommodated one half-hour break for lunch. This was far from ideal, given the treacherous nature of their work.
The wages served as scant recompense, too, as the men typically earned an hourly rate of under $2. However, the Great Depression had just begun, so it’s likely that the majority were simply glad to be in employment and taking home some pay, no matter how small.
This was, though, incredibly dangerous labor. Riveting teams, in particular, would carry out their tasks balanced perilously on beams that could be more than 1,000 feet in the air. And all of this without many of the precautions taken for granted in construction work today, such as hard hats and safety harnesses. For these men, a single careless step from a narrow beam could be a fatal movement.
National Geographic Channel’s documentary about the construction of the Empire State Building, “Men of Steel,” details a frightening account from one young water boy about his own near-brush with death at the site. “Once, about 12 stories up, I slipped,” he said. “I locked my legs around the girder. I would have been a grease spot, but when you’re 16 years old you don’t have enough brains to be scared.”
Indeed, the hazardous conditions meant that workers had to demonstrate significant agility – something that impressed many spectators and journalists, including eyewitness Harold Butcher from British newspaper the Daily Herald.
In his rather florid report, Butcher described the laborers as “classical heroes in the flesh, outwardly prosaic, incredibly nonchalant, crawling, climbing, walking, swinging, swooping on gigantic steel frames.” The New York Times added that the “sky boys,” as the men were known, “put on the best open-air show in town.”
Given the sheer number of men often on site and the precarious manner in which they worked, the number of fatalities throughout the Empire State Building’s construction period was perhaps surprisingly low. In his book Skyscrapers: A Social History of the Very Tall Building in America, George H. Douglas recounts that only 14 men died during the skyscraper’s erection; other sources report as few as five fatalities.
However, Douglas did note that this tally was “not an enviable record when one considers that only one life was lost in the construction of the Chrysler Building.” On top of that, he wrote, “Injuries were fairly numerous.”
Regardless, the work rate of the laborers was ferocious: the building’s skeleton was being completed at a speed of four and a half levels every week. Raskob’s tough schedule would perhaps be met after all.
In fact, construction on the Empire State Building was completed faster than Raskob had initially envisioned. The landmark building was formally opened on the first day of May 1931 in a ceremony overseen by Alfred E. Smith.
However, the accomplishment was not without its critics at the time. The New Republic writer Edmund Wilson questioned the tastefulness of constructing and celebrating such a building when around nine million people were out of work – perhaps now including those thousands of men who had labored so hard to make the building a reality.
Nevertheless, even Wilson had to admit the Empire State Building’s aesthetic appeal. He said of the brand new structure, “In a warm afternoon glow the building is rose-bisque with delicate nickel lines; the gray air of rainy weather makes a harmony with bright pale facings on dull pale gray.”
Over 80 years since its opening, the Empire State Building has more than stood the test of time, claiming its place as one of the most iconic features of the New York City skyline and remaining an ever-popular tourist attraction. The 1,453-foot, 102-story structure’s lasting appeal is testament to the unbelievable work done by those thousands of men who toiled for hours at a time in dangerous, arduous conditions – the “sky boys” without whom the Empire State Building would never have come to be.