Midtown Manhattan, completely new York City, completely new York, United States
The Empire State Building is today the best-known symbol of completely new York City, its name, its profile, and the view from its summit are familiar the world over, and a visit to completely new York is generally conceded to be incomplete without a trip to the Empire State Building’s observatory. The symbolic welcome of its chapel-like Fifth Avenue lobby, and the concourse-like effect of its lobby walls with long rows of elevator banks and interior storefronts, still provide an appropriate grand entrance.
The Empire State was the final and most celebrated product of the skyscraper frenzy produced by the economic boom of the 1920s, a boom which gave midtown a completely new modernistic skyline and a series of _new ‘ Art Deco lobbies. The building’s opening in May, 1931, on the former site of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, marked the transformation of midtown from completely new York’s preeminent residential area for the social elite into the commercial center of the metropolis.
The design of the Empire State building, in many ways shaped by the constraints of time, cost and structure, was the finest work of architect William Lamb, chief designer for Shreve, Lamb £. Harmon. The building’s interiors were designed with concerns similar to those guiding the design of its exterior: simplicity of detail, long unbroken lines, beautiful materials. Like that of the exterior, the design of the interior was a product of the extraordinary practical requirements of the size and scope of the building, and of Lamb’s stylistic leanings towards a spare, somewhat utilitarian elegance, with the addition of striking modernistic details.
The interiors of the Empire State Building were designed to be "imposing and of great scale," In order to be "in keeping with the Importance of the building." The grand Fifth Avenue entrance lobby, arranged as a long, narrow hall focusing on the aluminum silhouette of the Empire State Building on the far wall, symbolically welcomes visitors before they turn down the long corridors leading to the elevators.
The corridors, elevator banks, and inner store entrances and windows create a sense of •a grand concourse, an appropriate entrance to the enormous office building housing a working population of many thousands. Modernistic details such as the aluminum silhouette wall, aluminum mezzanine bridges, zig-zag ribbed ceilings, and silhouetted elevator doors, symbolically suggest the technological future foreshadowed by the creation of the world’s tallest building.
The interior continues to be a welcoming and overwhelming introduction for the millions of visitors drawn annually to the Empire State Building,
John Jacob Raskob and Al Smith.
The man who conceived the Idea for the world’s tallest speculative office building was a self-made multi-mi 11ionaIra industrialist named John J. Raskob. Born into a poor family In Lockport, completely new York, Raskob went to work early in life to support his widowed mother and family. He found work as a secretary for a modest street railway company In Lorain, Ohio, that happened to be owned by Pierre Du Pont, of the Du Pont chemical industry family. When Du Pont bought the Dai las Street Railway Company in Texas, he made Raskob treasurer, and eventually he took Raskob with him to Wilmington, Delaware, where Du Pont became president of E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Raskob became vice president In charge of finance.
Shreve, Lamb & Harmon
John J. Raskob was no doubt attracted to Shreve, Lamb S Harmon by their business-like approach to architecture. Raskob first encountered Shreve S Lamb in 1926 when his company, General Motors, commissioned a completely new headquarters on West 57th Street from the firm. He must have been impressed by their performance; he may also have considered it an advantage that Shreve, Lamb £ Harmon had been called in as consulting architects for the Bank of Manhattan Building, and therefore had some experience in races for the "tallest building" title, as well as experience working with the Starrett & Eken construction company which built the Bank of Manhattan and which was later awarded the Empire State contract.
Richmond Harold Shreve was born in Cornwall is, Nova Scotia, son of a former Dean of Quebec Cathedral. He studied architecture at Cornell University, graduated in 1902, and spent the next four years on the faculty of the College of Architecture there. While at Cornell he supervised construction of Goldwin Smith Hall, designed by the prominent completely new York firm of Carrere £ Hastings, and at the conclusion of the work he joined the firm. William Frederick Lamb , son of completely new York builder William Lamb, was born in Brooklyn. After graduating from Williams College in 1904, he studied at the Columbia University School of Architecture, and then went to Paris to study at the Atelier Deglane. Having received his diploma from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1911. he returned to completely new York and joined Carrere & Hastings. In 1920, both Shreve and Lamb became partners in the completely new firm of Carrere £ Hastings, Shreve £ Lamb. Four years later they broke away to form Shreve £ Lamb, and in 1929 they were joined by Arthur Loomis Harmon to form Shreve, Lamb £- Harmon. Harmon, born in Chicago, had studied at the Art Institute there, and graduated from the Columbia University School of Architecture in 1901. From 1902 to 1911 he was a designer in the office of McKim, Mead £ White, in 1912-13 an associate of the firm of Wall is & Goodwillie, and then practiced under his own name until joining Shreve £ Lamb. His work alone included battle monuments at Tours, Cantigny and Somme-Py In France, a YMCA In Jerusalem, and the award-winning She I ton Hotel In completely new York.
Of the three architects In the firm, Lamb was generally acknowledged to be the designer, and Shreve the administrator. Shreve was also active as a planner outside the firm’s work; he was the director of the Slum Clearance Committee of completely new York after Its formation In 1933, and chief architect of the group preparing plans for the Williamsburg Housing Project, as well as chief architect of the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side and also of Parkchester In the Bronx.’
Shreve, Lamb £ Harmon worked principally on commercial office buildings, although they also designed a number of estates and residences in the completely new York suburbs, and a few apartment houses in Manhattan. Their residential work largely In the neo-Tudor and other popular styles of the 1920s, while their commercial work tended to be spare and functional, reflecting little of the Beaux-Arts ornament for which Carrere £ Hastings had been famous. Their buildings in completely new York, including 500 Fifth Avenue, 14 Wall Street, the Lefcourt National Building, and the Mutual of completely new York Building, and also their commissions outside the city, such as the Standard Oil Building in Albany, the Reynolds Tobacco Company building in WInston-Salem, and the Chimes Building in Syracuse, are all similarly designed with unadorned limestone cladding, metal framed windows, and simple set-back massing, occasionally with Art Deco or Streamlined ornamental motifs.
The sparseness and economy of the firm’s designs were a reflection of several architectural notions gaining currency in the 1920s. As office buildings grew larger and their engineering and financing more complex, the nature of architecture had to adapt to completely new conditions. Many architects in the 1920s and 1930s, recognizing completely new constraints, adapted the language of the International Style and functionalist schools of thought and wrote about a completely new art of architecture.
All three architects in the firm wrote on the subject of the changing nature of architecture. Harmon listed the various forces at work on design as: steel construction, congested business areas, the need for light and air, property shape, Internal lighting, zoning, the ratio of rentable area to overall area, the cost of steel, wind bracing, and elevators. William Lamb, the partner concerned least with organization and most with design, concurred:
An interesting development in the planning of present day office buildings is the change in the conception that the architect has of his work. The day that he could sit before his drawing board and make pretty sketches of decidedly uneconomic monuments to himself has gone. His scorn of things "practical" has been replaced by an intense earnestness to make practical necessities the armature upon which he moulds the form of his idea. Instead of being the Intolerant
aesthete, he is one of a group of experts upon whom he depends for the success of his work, for the modern large building with its complicated machinery is beyond the capacity of any one man to master, and yet he must, in order to control the disposition and arrangement of this machine, have a fairly accurate general knowledge of what it is all about. Added to this he must know how to plan his building so that it will "work" economically and produce the revenue for which his clients have made their Investment.
Lamb’s design inclinations corresponded very well to the kind of work that Shreve brought into the office. Mrs. Lamb recalls that his tastes in most matters tended to the simple and classical. The architecture he loved best was the spare Romanesque of the southern French cathedrals. Among his contemporaries he greatly admired Raymond Hood, particularly his spare, vertical Daily Mews Building; Hood also wrote about the practical side of architecture, dismissing fantastic design as unnecessary. The two men were close friends. Although Lamb’s work had much of the Modernistic to it, his opinion of the flamboyant variety of Moderne represented by the Chrysler Building was rather low—he referred to it once as the "Little Nemo school of architecture," meaning fancy and fantastic, like the comic strip. He never considered his work to be In any way describable as "Art Deco."
Precisely because the firm was a well-organized producer of practical and unadorned office buildings, it was able to organize the myriad elements involved and produce a striking, handsome, but still economical design for the Empire State Building, which was above all a creation of business considerations and an unrivalled engineering feat.
Conception and Design
The design of the interior lobby of the Empire State Building is based very much on the same perceptions of needs and aesthetic notions as the design of the exterior of the building. The spare, elegant design of the tower outside corresponds to the simple marble walls with long horizontal lines In the lobby Inside.
Lobbies of contemporary office buildings generally combined two functions: a grand entrance and public space, and a passageway to the elevator system. The Chrysler Building’s lobby Is a prime example: a highly ornamental triangular-shaped lobby, whose vertex is the entrance and whose base is a wall opening with two sets of elevator banks. The size and layout of the Empire State Building, however, required the separation of these two functions. The grand entrance is a chapel-like space entered from the main Fifth Avenue front, while the passageway to the elevators is a series of corridors stretching down either side of the building In a long concourse.
The logic of the lobby floor was in large part dictated by the solution of the general office floor plans and layout. The architects had found
it necessary to place the elevator banks in the center of the building, surrounding them with corridors and then with offices. Lamb wrote:
The logic of the plan Is very simple. A certain amount of space in the center, arranged as compactly as possible, contains the vertical circulation, toilets, shafts and corridors. Surrounding this is a perimeter of office space 28 feet deep. The sizes of the floors diminish as the elevators decrease in number. In essence there is a pyramid of non-rentable space surrounded by a greater pyramid of rentable space…. 41
Consequently, the lobby had to be laid out in a similar manner:
In the design of the entrance halls and lobbies much thought was given to the problem of adequate and easy access to the
elevator system…..their compact layout, which proved very
economical throughout the rest of the building prevented the usual ground floor central corridor with the elevator groups on each side. Two great lateral corridors were therefore planned, each about 16 ft. wide, directly adjacent to the elevators. The side entrances lead into these corridors at about their third points, bringlng these entrances close to the elevator groups. Thus travel from street to elevator Is reduced to a minimum and accomplished with as little confusion as possible.
Lamb’s plan surrounded the central core of elevators and other utilities with circulation corridors and then a ring of shops. The effect of the long corridors and elevator banks is that of art enormous public concourse: seemingly endless corridors, elevator banks, stores, and marble walls. The layout left little room for a grand symbolic entrance; Instead, a separate such entrance was placed at the Fifth Avenue front of the building.
The symbolic Fifth Avenue entrance lobby is In fact laid out rather like a chapel. A long, high, narrow rectangular space is entered through revolving doors. At the end, where the walls narrow slightly, Is an aluminum Image of the Empire State Building, with the rising sun behind It, superimposed on a map of completely new York State. The effect of the lobby is to offer a visible iconographical welcome to a self-defined monument.
The adornment of the spaces thus created was approached in the same spirit as the design of the building’s spare, vertical, metallic exterior:
In order to be In keeping with the importance of the building, the treatment of the hall, or this series of halls, had to be Imposing and of great scale. The final choice of marbles used was made after a long investigation, which Included an inspection of many of the European quarries.
The quarries chosen had to meet the same strict requirements of time that had affected many aspects of the building itself.
These Investigations resulted In the use of two German marbles, very rich and highly colored in tones of gray and red: Estrallante, with its rich, dark-gray background flashed with deep red, for the lower portion and above it Rose Formosa, with a pinkish-gray background, and the same deep red markings.
Then, as the exterior was simple and elegant, so, wrote Lamb:
…these marbles were used with the utmost simplicity, the effect of the entire scheme being dependent upon their own beauty, relieved by the use of bright metal and simply decorated silvered ceilings
The other major decorative element used In the Interiors—aluminum—continued the metallic design of the exterior:
The inlaid aluminum map at the end of the Fifth Avenue hall, the aluminum bridges which cross the center of the two-story side corridors and give access from the elevators to the second floor, and the further Introduction of aluminum in the stair rails and in the interior show windows that line the halls accentuate the simple color scheme of gray, red and silver, which is dominated by the great ceilings that serve as the source of light.
One of the themes emphasized during the ..conception of the. building was the contributions by the various groups of skilled craftsmen, financiers, engineers, and architects towards creating the world’s tallest building. The decorative scheme of the lobby incorporates this theme by including plaques and medallions on the walls listing craftsmen and representing the different crafts and industries represented by the building. A dozen and a half industries are represented in abstractly designed bronze medallions; plaques Include lists of the board of directors, the architects, and workmen who received awards for their efforts.
Despite Lamb’s restraint, and protestation against the excesses of Art Deco, the Empire State Building interior is handsomely designed with strictly modernistic details. The aluminum silhouette wall in the Fifth Avenue lobby is a classic Art Deco creation—the motif of the sun rising behind the building can be seen on the front of the Dally News Building, and the ‘ Chrysler building lobby’s mural includes a portrait of that building. The narrowing of the Fifth Avenue hall towards the silhouette is consciously dramatic. The modernistic emblems of crafts and Industries connected to the building are symbolic of the technology celebrated by Moderne design. The aluminum bridges crossing the corridors at the mezzanine level are suggestive of futuristic multi-level travel, while the zig-zag ribbed ceilings and silhouetted elevator doors suggest rapid modern transportation. The result is a handsomely designed Art Deco lobby, suitably suggestive of the technology which made possible the erection of the world’s tallest building.
The interior of the Empire State Building consists of two sections: the main entrance lobby off Fifth Avenue, and the long corridors and elevator banks which, with the inner store windows and entrances, create the effect of a grand concourse.
The main lobby, entered from Fifth Avenue, is a long, high, narrow hall. At the eastern end is the major entrance, and at the western end a wall with a map and building silhouette; Its north and south walls are lined with storefront windows and doors. The lower portion of the entrance wall consists of a double door flanked by a revolving door on either side; these are set off by sets of modernistic tubular marble piers which rise to the height of the doors. Above the doors are Inset panels of horizon* zig-zag metal strips. Over each door is a bronze medallion with an abs representation of one of the crafts or industries involved In the Empire State Building: Electricity over the northern door, Masonry over the die door, and Heating over the southern door.
– From the 1981 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report