“As I Stood There, ‘Twixt Earth and Sky”


The Empire State Building has been named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The building and its street floor interior are designated landmarks of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissionand confirmed by the New York City Board of Estimate. Designed by Gregory Johnson (reputedly, in two weeks!!!) and his firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, built by Starret Brothers and Eken, financed by John J. Raskob (creator of General Motors) under the chairmanship of Alfred Smith, former Governor of New York, the building was constructed in a little over a year and officially opened on May 1, 1931.

Unfortunately, its opening coincided with the Great Depression and this resulted in most of its designated office space remaining unrented and the building unprofitable. Critics began calling it the “Empty State Building” and derided it as a white elephant. Visitors to its observation decks were the Empire’s State Building primary source of revenue for its first years of operation; this would continue to be the case, more or less, until 1950.

Within less than six years, over 3,000,000 people from all over the world had visited the building’s two observatories: the broader 86th floor gallery and the primary 102nd floor tower. There are many stories regarding these first visitors to the Empire State Building and the following are only a handful.

An experienced pilot and his wife. She was terrified of flying and had never set foot in an airplane but when she reached the gallery she took-off with abandon; when she ascended the tower, she was soaring with fascination. The view from 1,250 feet of New York City and beyond enthralled her so, that she even wanted to climb the mooring mast (a misguided and abandoned extension to the tower for dirigible landings) for an even better view. Meanwhile, her aviator husband, who had flown thousands of miles around the world, was terrified by this static height and stood inside the terrace’s glass-enclosure.

One day the King of Morovo in the Solomon Islands (soon to witness some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II) arrived. His name was Kata Ragoso, a giant chieftain with a kinky jounce of hair and bare legs beneath his wildly colorful apparel. His like had never been seen on Fifth Avenue before…at any altitude. Oblivious to the curious stares of others, he abandoned himself to his delightful viewing of the city: drawn out like a tapestry before him, the stream of automobiles and ships moving diversely on streets and rivers, gleefully chuckling and excitedly commenting on various sights in his native language.

A young Mexican girl who had come to New York from Texas, staying with a family in Brooklyn. She was glib towards most of the sights of New York City until she came to the top of the Empire State Building. She trembled with emotion and began to cry, not uttering a single word until she returned to the home where she was staying. She tearfully remarked that she’d “rather live in Texas…everything here is so towering it frightens me.”

Two great men stood atop the Empire State Building one overcast day in 1932 and conversed for the press: Alfred E. Smith and Winston Churchill. Smith, as chairman of the project, had made the Empire State Building’s creation and future plans a personal crusade and would talk with anyone who would listen, tirelessly endeavoring to rent its empty office space and show a profit. Some beneficial moments of national and international public relations were always welcome.

In the course of their casual talk, Smith and Churchill shared views and impressions of what they observed. “I can’t see the Statue of Liberty,” Churchill mildly remarked. “You can on a clear day,” answered Smith. “Ah, quite so, quite so, ” Churchill agreed, “the Statue of Liberty does seem to be in a bit of a fog, what.” As the talk proceeded, Churchill said that he had “never been so high up before.” To which Smith replied, ” And I don’t suppose I shall ever get any higher myself.” Alfred Smith would remain a legend in New York State, while Winston Churchill would go on to be a legend for the world.

Of all the visitors to the Empire State Building’s aerie heights, no single person captured the majestic view and grandeur of the building with more intensity and passion than Helen Keller. Rendered deaf and blind as a child by an affliction (possibly meningitis), she was still able to see and hear with the heart of a poet. In a letter to Dr. John Finley, she wrote as follows of her visit:

What did I “see and hear” from the Empire Tower? As I stood there ‘twixt earth and sky, I saw a romantic structure wrought by human brains and hands that is to the burning eye of the sun a rival luminary. I saw it stand erect and serene in the midst of storm and the tumult of elemental commotion. I heard the hammer of Thor ring when the shaft began to rise upward. I saw the unconquerable steel, the flash of testing flames, the sword-like rivets. I heard the steam drills in pandemonium. I saw countless skilled workers welding together that mighty symmetry. I looked upon the marvel of frail, yet indomitable hands that lifted the tower to its dominating height.

Let cynics and supersensitive souls say what they will about American materialism and machine civilization. Beneath the surface are poetry, mysticism and inspiration that the Empire Building somehow symbolizes. In that giant shaft I see a groping toward beauty and spiritual vision. I am one of those who see and yet believe.


Sources: Atop the City’s Great Peak by Julia Chandler; NY TIMES, January 17, 1937

Churchill Is Guest Of Smith On Tower; NY TIMES, February 10, 1932

Wikipedia & related links


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