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Beyond the Village and Back: The Empire State Building

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of the Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

On May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building opened on 34th Street and 5th Avenue. At 102 stories and 1,250 feet, it was the tallest building in the world from 1931 until 1973, when the World Trade Center surpassed it. While it is no longer the tallest building in the world, or even New York (there are now six taller buildings in Manhattan, including those currently under construction), it nevertheless remains a symbol of the city and one of the world’s most iconic structures. The Art Deco Empire State Building was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers and was ranked number one on the American Institute of Architects’ List of America’s Favorite Architecture in 2007. The building exterior and lobby interior were designated landmarks on May 18, 1981.

The Empire State Building replaced the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. William Waldorf Astor opened the Waldorf Hotel on the site in 1893. His cousin, John Jacob Astor IV, opened the Astoria Hotel next door in 1897. The combined 1,300 bedrooms made it the largest hotel in the world at the time. But by the 1920s, the hotel was dated and the Astors decided to build a replacement hotel further uptown. The old hotel closed on May 3, 1929, to make way for the new development. The stock market crash in October 1929 almost halted the project, but it pushed on as canceling would have brought great losses to the investors. It took over 20 years for the Empire State Building to become profitable, finally breaking even in the 1950s.

The Empire State Building was named after New York State, “The Empire State”, although no one is sure of how we came to acquire that nickname.

But what is the Empire State Building’s connection to the Village?

While it’s certainly the most famous Empire State Building, the skyscraping structure on the corner of 34th Street and 5th Avenue was not actually the first “Empire State Building.”  That title belonged to a somewhat more terrestrial, but still extant, building at the corner of Bleecker Street and Broadway.

In the mid-late 19th century, a six-story brick and stone structure sat on a 25′ x 300′ footprint at 640 Broadway between Bleecker and Crosby Streets. The ground floor was home to the Empire State Bank, with manufacturers located in the lofts above.

In November 1895, a fire, later determined to be arson, burned the building to the ground. The fire ended the Empire State Bank, which applied to the Supreme Court for dissolution on February 18, 1896. The owner immediately moved to rebuild. He hired architects De Lemos and Cordes, who that same year designed the Siegel-Cooper Building (now part of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District), and would go on to design Macy’s Herald Square.

Opening in 1897, the new building at 640 Broadway helped transform this neighborhood (designed the NoHo Historic District in 1999). At the time, the area was transitioning from 5-6 story loft buildings to taller buildings, such as the Bayard Condict Building located directly across the street from 640 Broadway at 65 Bleecker Street.

In honor of his former tenant, owner B. Lichtenstein named 640 Broadway the Empire State Building. This was more than 30 years prior to the development of its more famous namesake.

When the “original” Empire State Building opened it housed dozens of manufacturing companies employing hundreds of young women. Fires broke out in the building in 1904, 1909, 1919, and 1921, but miraculously no one was killed. Dramatic rescue stories were reported in the Sun and Times.

With the advent of its taller and more famous cousin uptown, it became less and less common to refer to 640 Broadway as “The Empire State Building.”  On top of that, during the 1940s and 50s, the neighborhood in which 640 Broadway was located went into a precipitous decline. Many of the once grand hotels in the area became flophouses and shooting galleries; some even collapsed.

By the 1960s, the building had taken on an entirely different character. In 1965 the offices of the protest group May 2nd Movement were located in the building. This group provided legal counseling to those seeking to avoid the Vietnam War draft.

In 1971 the building housed the offices of the Law Commune, who successfully defended the Black Panthers against 156 counts of bombing, arson, attempted murder, and other crimes. They also defended Abbie Hoffman following his September 5, 1973 arrest for selling $36,000 worth of cocaine with a street value of $500,000. When arrested, he gave his address as “640 Broadway in Greenwich Village”. Hoffman skipped bail and underwent plastic surgery. After six years in hiding, sometimes dressing as an Orthodox Jew, Hoffman surrendered and was sentenced to three years, of which he served one year.

But much as this area has experienced a significant renaissance in recent decades, so too may the Empire State Building return to the corner of Broadway and Bleecker Street.  In 2015 the owners of 640 Broadway building received approval from the Landmarks Preservation to make several modifications to the building, including bringing back the original “Empire State Building” signage on the Broadway side of the building.

51 Fifth Avenue

But that’s not the (midtown) Empire State Building’s only connection to Greenwich Village. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12 Street stands 49-51 Fifth Avenue. This 16-story Colonial Revival apartment house was constructed in 1929 and designed by renowned theater architect Thomas Lamb. Upon opening one of the building’s first residents was Alfred E. Smith, who had just lost the 1928 Presidential campaign to Herbert Hoover. Smith nevertheless holds his place in history as the first Catholic major party candidate for President of the United States. While living here Smith was the President of Empire State, Inc., the firm which built the Empire State Building in just 13 months, with construction commencing on St. Patrick’s Day 1930 and reaching completion on May 1, 1931. The building remained the tallest in the world from 1931 until 1973, or forty-two years – the longest any building has held that title during the skyscraper era. 49-51 Fifth Avenue lies in the unprotected area south of Union Square for which we are seeking landmark protections

Al Smith at the Empire State Building opening, May 1, 1031

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