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Reaching Toward Heaven

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Humans have long reached toward heaven. I don't know whether this desire represents an attempt to get away from the ground, an attempt to associate with God or an attempt to peer over the balcony and look at all the little people below. But the desire to go higher and higher has long shaped the skylines of our cities.


The Empire State Building opened this week in 1931 as the tallest building in the world at 1,250 feet. It retained this designation until the World Trade Center was completed almost 40 years later.

It was developed by John Raskob specifically to be the tallest building in the world.

The architectural drawings were completed in two weeks by the firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. The construction of the building was approached with great speed. The excavation work for the foundation included round-the-clock shifts of 300 men.

Not only was manpower put to work, but so too was ingenuity, with new processes used throughout construction. Instead of using currently owned equipment, the general contractor, Starrett Bros. & Eken, purchased new equipment specifically for the job and sold the equipment at the end of the project. The 10 million bricks needed for the building were staged not in piles on the street as usual, but sent through a newly devised system that would funnel the bricks down a chute and into a hopper, from where they were dropped into carts as needed.

"When we were in full swing going up the main tower, things clicked along with such precision that once we erected 14-and-a-half floors in 10 working days -- steel, concrete, stone and all," said one of the building's architects, Richmond Shreve.


The interior work was begun just as soon as the exterior work was done and completed section by section. There were more than 60 trades (plumbers, electricians, etc.) to coordinate -- in a time before laptops, Excel and PowerPoint. No single elevator services all 102 floors. Instead, seven banks of elevators served different groups of floors.

This building has become recognizable across the world as a symbol of New York, its profile made famous through movies. From serving as a perch for King Kong to a meeting place for lovers in "An Affair to Remember" and "Sleepless in Seattle," to an entryway to Mount Olympus and the Gods in "Percy Jackson & the Olympians," the building remains at the center of stories that are built on our dreams of reaching to others or even to God (or to gods, in Rick Riordan's case).

Impossible in today's world, the construction of the tallest building in the world took only one year and 45 days and was completed under budget (primarily due to lower-than-budgeted labor costs during the Great Depression). The building, with its art deco style, however, has remained current with the times in which we live. In 2001, after undergoing extensive remodeling, the Empire State Building received a gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating. It is the tallest LEED-certified building in the United States.


It's been years since I have visited the observation decks on the Empire State Building, but I remember the feeling of being outside, looking out into the horizon and down onto the street, watching those scurry about below. The view and the feeling of being above the trivial problems of daily life, ensconced in the clouds with God and reaching toward heaven, stays with me. Possibly that's what the quest for the tallest building is all about, getting out of the rat race in which we live and reaching toward heaven.

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