The Empire State Building is an iconic pulse of the New York City skyline, standing apart from the cluster of skyscrapers in the Financial District. It serves as a helpful directional signpost for residents and tourists, who simply have to look up to tell if they are walking uptown or downtown. And for decades the building’s tower lights have broadcasted significant events through color schemes projected against a stark, starless sky. How can a simple patch of land–originally a farm, then the site of the Waldorf Astoria, then the base of the tallest skyscraper in the world, for a time–become one of the most recognizable mastheads of New York City?
Even while under construction, the Empire State Building was a favorite subject of the visual medium. Photographer Lewis Wickes Hine was hired to document the historic project in 1930. Famous for his socially progressive portfolio, which helped lead to child labor reform, Hine documented an interesting angle of his assignment. He brought the skeletal building to life on film through the crew of 3400 construction workers–mainly immigrants from Newfoundland and Scandinavia, as well as Irish-Americans and Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. To match the fearless competence of these men “‘”strolling on the thin edge of nothingness,’” as described by C. G. Poore in the New York Times, Hine had to take extreme measures. His remarkable, floating photographs–now available online in the NYPL digital collection–do not reveal the lengths the photographer went to in order to capture the laborers’ daring feats. “In order to obtain the best vantage points, Hine was swung out in a specially designed basket 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.”
Less than two years after it was opened by President Hoover in 1931, the Empire State Building was immortalized in the 1933 classic movie King Kong. Juxtaposing the animal kingdom with an urban jungle, the mammoth gorilla meets his end perched atop the Empire State Building, swatting planes from the sky and clutching his delicate human prize. Although the original and remakes use footage shot on soundstages and rely heavily on special effects, King Kong helped to embed the Empire State Building in people’s minds as a permanent fixture in the New York City skyline.
Even after the World Trade Centers surpassed its height in the early 1970s, the Empire State Building went on to have a long, storied film career. Synonymous with the Big Apple, the structure has become representative of American prosperity and ambition.
It has featured in the destruction wrought by dystopian films, like Independence Day (1996) and Oblivion (2013), as a symbol of human achievement pitted against the destructive forces of alien invaders and Mother Nature. It has appeared in superhero films, like The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Superman II (1980), as a hallmark of New York pride and perseverance. It has been depicted in movies like Elf (2003) and Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) as a signal for New York newcomers. It has figured into romcoms like An Affair to Remember (1957), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and–perhaps most famously–Sleepless in Seattle (1993), as a crucial rendezvous, a measure of long-distance relationships, and a metaphor for larger-than-life love. And since 9/11, the Empire State Building has become even more critical to the New York cityscape–as a sign of American endurance.