The Empire State Building Is Still Full Of Surprises

The Empire State Building, arguably New York’s most iconic skyscraper, celebrated its 90th birthday last year. The tower was officially opened on May 1, 1931, barely a year after its first steel beams were installed. The grand opening ceremonies were attended by Mayor Jimmy Walker and Governor Franklin Roosevelt. At 11:30AM, President Hoover pressed a button in Washington DC, illuminating the new building’s lobby and kicking off a day of speeches and celebrations.

At 1,250 feet, the Empire State Building so completely towered over every other building that any discussion of superseding it was mere conjecture. The previous world record holder, the 1,046-foot Chrysler Building, topped out some 200 feet short of the Empire State’s pinnacle. In theory, some future tower could rise higher than the Empire State. But would there ever be such a behemoth? “Rivalry for height is seen as ended,” said the New York Times. The opening of the new tower “has brought to an end, for the time being at least, a friendly contest for skyscraper honors.”

The Empire State Building remained the world’s tallest for more than forty years. It was finally dethroned in the 1970s, when glassy boxes like the original World Trade Center and Chicago’s Sears Tower soared to new heights. In recent decades, a host of taller towers has risen all around the globe, from Shanghai to Dubai and beyond. Even so, nothing captures people’s collective imagination quite like the Empire State Building. Its streamlined silhouette remains a symbol not just of New York City, but of a whole bygone era.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I was given an all-access VIP tour of the Empire State Building. It’s a tip-to-tail experience crafted for visiting celebrities, but accessible to the general public for a fee: $500 for groups of up to 4 people (according to the building’s website). For that price, VIP guests are paired with their own tour guide who escorts them to a private lounge for drinks, snacks, and introductions. There’s even a makeup room for last-minute primping for photo shoots.

Leaving the lounge, All-Access guests are taken up to the elevator bank via a literal red carpet, bypassing the public queue and crowds. The Empire State Building has two observatories: the main outdoor deck on the 86th floor, and a smaller indoor aerie on the 102nd. Both are included as part of an All-Access tour, but the 102nd floor observatory costs extra for everyday visitors (Adult prices are currently $44 for the 86th floor and $77 for both).

Evan Joseph Images

All-Access guests can generally choose the nature of their visit, with their guides happy to oblige virtually any request or timetable. You want a glass of champagne? Sure thing. You want to visit the 102nd floor observatory first? No problem. You’ve got questions about the building’s history? They can tell you all about it. There’s an old-fashioned sort of intimacy to the whole experience. The secret passageways, the private elevators, and the uniformed tour guide lend a luxuriousness visitors may not expect from such a tourist mecca in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.

For me, the most thrilling moments of the tour were when I was granted access to avowedly off-limits spaces. There is an inimitable thrill in being taken to places no one is supposed to go. Our guide seemed giddy to show us some of the inner workings of the tower, such as the open-air deck from which its pinnacle is illuminated by an impressive array of LED beacons. We also were able to halt the elevator midway between the 86th and 102nd floors, stepping out onto metal gangways inside the tower’s spire. To be inside the shaft of undulating glass, such a recognizable piece of the New York skyline, was enough to give me chills.

By far the greatest experience of the day was being allowed up onto the 103rd floor. Through a locked metal gate and up a set of stairs so steep as to be hardly more than a ladder, we emerged onto a circular open-air platform at what certainly felt like the top of the world. Leaning over the waist-high railing (not recommended for those with a fear of heights), tourists on the 86th floor observatory look like ants. The city unfolds in every direction, the rivers and bridges melting into the curvature of the horizon. On a clear day, visitors can see as far as Connecticut and Pennsylvania. It’s the same view as the 102nd floor, but the excitement of being outside, enveloped by the wind and sky, is impossible to match.

Courtesy Empire State Realty Trust

There is much about the Empire State Building which is inimitable. By virtue of its age, it stands in a class of its own. Aside from the Eiffel Tower, there is nowhere on earth where guests can stand 1,000 feet above the ground, atop what is essentially an enormous antique. Today, there are dozens of taller buildings around the world, many of them quite flashy, and most of them built in just the last decade or two. But how many of them can really be considered iconic? How many of them will still even be relevant 91 years from today?

Relevance is an important word when considering the Empire State Building’s seniority on the New York skyline. With tourism rapidly recovering from the throes of the pandemic, there are millions of dollars up for grabs among the city’s countless cultural attractions. Prior to 2020, the Empire State Building welcomed roughly 4,000,000 visitors per year to its 86th- and 102nd-floor observatories.

But the nonagenarian tower is no longer alone on the skyline. For a brief period, after the loss of the original World Trade Center, the Empire State Building was New York’s only public observatory. But in 2005, it was joined by “Top of the Rock,” the long-shuttered roof deck at Rockefeller Center. Then in 2015, the glassy new One World Trade Center opened its sleek indoor deck, drawing long lines for months.

More recently, tourists have flocked to “The Edge” at Hudson Yards and “Summit One Vanderbilt” high above 42nd Street. The former is essentially a triangular balcony stuck to the side of 30 Hudson Yards, with an eye-popping glass floor which often has to be cordoned off to control the flow of selfie-takers. The Edge even allows guests to strap in and climb to the very tip of the tower (for a premium price), where they lean out over the city from 1,400 feet up. One Vanderbilt took things a step further, allowing guests to rise above the outdoor observatory in all-glass elevators built onto the exterior of the tower’s facade. Inside, they’ve built a thrillingly disorienting room with mirrored ceiling and floor.

Courtesy Empire State Realty Trust

The Empire State Building doesn’t need such gimmicks. It’s the Empire State Building, after all. What it lacks in shiny add-ons it makes up for in romance and nostalgia. To be sure, the building has taken steps to modernize itself, with its VIP lounge and spiffy new 102nd-floor aerie. Its PR team has found unexpected success in its “unhinged” TikTok videos which often pit an anthropomorphized Empire State Building against the city’s newer, less attractive towers.

But even without these changes, tourists would still be drawn to the Empire State Building. After all, King Kong didn’t fight planes atop Hudson Yards. Meg Ryan didn’t rendezvous with Tom Hanks in a glass elevator at Summit One Vanderbilt. For more than 90 years, the Empire State Building has been the backdrop for countless films and television series. It’s immortalized in song and on stage. No other building is so indelibly linked with the city. Today, as it approaches its centenary, no other tower so perfectly captures the imagination of the world and the essence of New York.

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