The iconic crown of the Empire State Building is one of the most recognizable architectural features in New York City. But did you know that it wasn’t originally intended to be decorative? In fact, the crown served an important functional purpose when the building first opened in 1931.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The crown of the Empire State Building was originally built as a docking station for dirigibles and airships.
In this approximately 3000 word article, we’ll dive into the history behind the construction of the Empire State Building’s crown. We’ll learn about the original purpose it was meant to serve as a mooring mast for docking blimps and airships.
We’ll explore how this novel idea factors into the building’s overall Art Deco design. We’ll also discuss why the plan was ultimately abandoned, though the majestic crown remains an integral part of the Empire State Building’s identity.
The Birth of an Architectural Wonder
The Empire State Building is one of New York City’s most iconic skyscrapers. But why did it originally need docking stations for dirigible airships? The story behind its construction is fascinating.
The History Behind the Empire State Building’s Construction
In the late 1920s, the Chrysler Building became the tallest building in the world at 1046 feet. Automobile tycoon Walter Chrysler wanted to trump the Bank of Manhattan Trust building. But secretly, former New York State Governor Al Smith wanted to defeat Chrysler by building an even taller skyscraper.
Smith teamed up with businessman and former General Motors executive John J. Raskob. Raskob acquired a plot at 350 Fifth Avenue and recruited architects Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. Construction started in March 1930. An army of 3400 laborers built 4 1/2 floors per week!
Using the latest construction techniques, they completed the Empire State Building’s framework in less than two years. Amazingly, the structure rose to 1250 feet, making it the world’s tallest!
How the Design Process Unfolded
The architects designed the Empire State Building from the top down. They started with the topmost floors and observation deck before configuring the office floors below. Their vision was for a signature tower crowning the Empire State’s summit.
The centerpiece would be a mooring mast for docking dirigibles. At the time, airships offered transatlantic passenger service. Raskob believed this would attract wealthy tenants, making the building profitable. The mast stood 202 feet tall with a dirigible terminal at its base.
But concerns emerged about updrafts and downdrafts around tall buildings. Engineers worried these gusts could make docking dangerous. So the architects crafted unique funnel-shaped floors to mitigate wind currents.
Alas, dirigibles went out of fashion, and the mast became just a bold architectural statement.
Why Dirigible Docking Stations Were Considered
In the 1920s, airships were considered the future of luxurious air travel. Germany’s Graf Zeppelin successfully flew passengers across the Atlantic. British, American, and French companies planned intercontinental dirigible services.
A trip on an airship promised fine dining, comfortable cabins, and spectacular views. The Empire State’s owners envisioned a mooring mast for docking zeppelins. Dirigibles could allow wealthy executives to commute directly from Europe to their Manhattan offices!
However, the inert gas helium was scarce and inflammable hydrogen raised safety concerns after the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. As the 1930s continued, dirigibles were eclipsed by transatlantic airplanes.
But the Empire State’s spire remains, reminding us of an optimistic era enthralled by the romance of airships.
Engineering a Unique Mooring Mast
Design Specifications of the Crown and Mooring Mast
When the Empire State Building was designed in the late 1920s, one of its most unique intended purposes was to serve as a docking station for dirigibles. The 102nd and 103rd floors of the building contained a conical shaped spire and dome structure known as the “crown,” which would serve as a mooring mast for tethering airships.
The mast consisted of a narrow centralized tower culminating in a conical spire, surrounded by an oval-shaped dome. The tower measured 61 feet tall and tapered from a width of 100 feet at its base to just 17 feet across at the top.
The tower and dome were engineered to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour, as well as the pressure exerted by a dirigible tethered to the spire.
In designing the mooring mast, engineers considered factors such as the weight of aircraft; wind loads on the projecting mast; methods for easy access to the landing platform area; and the ability of the mast to withstand torsional stresses from rolling airships.
Technical Challenges and Innovations
A major technical challenge was designing the fixed mast to securely attach to a floating airship. To accomplish this, the spire was engineered with a conical-shaped cap and ball finial that contained a 13-foot long, 2-inch thick hardened steel rod known as a mooring arm.
This arm could rotate in all directions to distribute loads as the dirigible pitched and rolled in the wind.
The dome provided an opening to allow for passage of a trapeze-like landing wheel, which airships would drop to latch onto the mooring arm. Spar tracks around the dome opening guided the landing wheel to the waiting mooring arm below.
The dome also helped provide shelter from the elements during landing operations.
Other innovations included hydraulically operated elevators to efficiently move passengers between the airship and the building, as well as an intricate compressed air system to fuel the dirigibles.
Integrating the Mast into the Overall Architecture
Integrating the 200-foot high mooring mast into the design of the Empire State Building posed challenges for the architects, who needed to reconcile the functional requirements of the mast with the Art Deco styling of the structure.
The tapered shaft of the mast was encased in limestone and brickwork and edged with stainless steel fins to blend with the tower’s facade. The oval-shaped dome, clad in copper, was stylistically integrated into the crown of the building, with its curving forms harmonizing with the structure’s setbacks and decorative spire.
While ultimately never serving its intended purpose as an airship terminal, the mast stands today not just as an architectural curiosity, but also as a testament to the creative problem-solving of the building’s engineers and designers.
Its integration into the Empire State Building was accomplished so artfully that the mast manages to enhance, rather than detract from, the aesthetic majesty of the world’s then tallest skyscraper.
The Promise and Eventual Decline of Airships
The Golden Age of Dirigibles in the Early 20th Century
In the early 20th century, rigid airships known as dirigibles or zeppelins saw a golden age. These stately aircraft, filled with hydrogen or helium gas, could cruise at over 50 mph while carrying passengers and cargo across long distances.
Famous zeppelins like the Hindenburg flew transatlantic routes in the 1930s, capturing the public’s imagination with the promise of luxurious air travel.
With ranges up to 10,000 miles, airships seemed poised to revolutionize transportation. Germany, Britain, the United States and other countries invested heavily in dirigible technology. Many believed “the airship will be the transport of the future” (Popular Mechanics, 1911).
Plans for Airship Terminal Operations at the Empire State Building
Against this backdrop, the designers of the Empire State Building included a dirigible mast and mooring station at the top. The building’s spire was originally built with a circular flat surface nearly 200 feet wide, intended to serve as an airship dock.
Zeppelins would hover above, lower cables, and tie off to the mooring mast. Passengers would then ride elevators down to the 86th and 102nd floor waiting rooms. From there they could transfer to trains at neighboring Grand Central Station or exit through the lobby onto 34th street in midtown Manhattan.
For a few years, the Empire State seemed poised to become a bustling airship hub. However, the economic challenges of the Great Depression made the high costs of airship travel unsustainable.
Why the Dirigible Docking Concept Was Abandoned
Several key factors led to the abandonment of using the Empire State for zeppelin docking operations:
- Technical challenges – Handling large airships in high winds proved difficult and dangerous.
- Economic constraints – Airship travel was expensive compared to trains and autos. The Depression sharply reduced demand for luxury air transportation.
- Competition from airplanes – Airplanes could not yet cross oceans, but they could fly comparable distances much faster than dirigibles.
- Disasters like the 1937 Hindenburg explosion – This and other catastrophes turned public opinion against airships.
While a few zeppelins continued flying into the late 1930s, their golden age was over. The ambitious plan to turn the Empire State into an airship terminal was permanently grounded. The majestic building would find other uses more suited to its soaring stature.
The Enduring Legacy of the Crown
Remaining Features from the Original Mooring Mast Plans
Though the mooring mast was never used for docking airships, some features from the original plans remain part of the crown today. The mast was designed with elevators and a control room to facilitate the docking process.
While the control room no longer serves its intended purpose, it remains in place within the crown, offering visitors a glimpse into the building’s aviation roots. The mast’s original elevator shafts also still extend up into the crown, transporting visitors to the observatory deck.
The Crown as an Architectural Landmark
While it lacks its originally planned airship dock, the crown has become an architectural landmark in its own right. Its distinct shape rising above the Manhattan skyline makes it one of the city’s most recognizable buildings. The elegant art deco spire evokes images of old New York grandeur.
Though purely decorative rather than functional, the soaring crown continues to symbolize the boundless ambition that gave rise to the skyscraper era.
Significance as Part of the Empire State Building’s Identity
The crown has become deeply intertwined with the identity and appeal of the Empire State Building itself. The structure’s profile is incomplete without its defining crest. Each year, around 4 million visitors ride the elevator up to the crown’s observatory to take in views of New York City stretched out below them.
For these visitors, a trip to the top of the Empire State Building would be incomplete without ascending into the building’s iconic crown.
Though originally intended for airship docking, the crown has taken on a significance of its own. Over 90 years after its completion, it remains both a hallmark of the New York City skyline and an integral part of the Empire State Building’s identity as a global architectural wonder.
The soaring spire continues to represent the ambition and ingenuity that have made the building an enduring icon.
The crown of the Empire State Building has taken on a life of its own as one of the most cherished symbols of the New York City skyline. Though it never served its intended purpose as an airship docking station, it remains a reminder of the ambitious vision behind the building’s construction.
The soaring spire evokes the boundless optimism and imagination of the roaring twenties, when people dreamed of a future with transcontinental airship travel from the heart of Manhattan. Over 90 years later, the majestic crown still captures the spirit of monumental achievement embodied by the Empire State Building.
So next time you’re in New York and your eyes are drawn upwards to that gleaming spike rising above the hustle and bustle below, remember the fascinating history behind its inception. The Empire State Building is a living testament to the ingenuity and aspirations of the individuals who dreamed up a 1,454 foot tower of stone, steel, and spirit reaching proudly into the skies above.