Empire State of Mind: In Praise of New York’s Most Beloved Building

Empire State Building in 1946
Al Fenn—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
The Empire State Building in 1946.
Al Fenn
'30s

In May 2013, when 1 World Trade Center reached its final, dizzying height, topped off with a distinctive stainless-steel spire, the glass-sheathed structure became the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. Well before that, it had already claimed the title of the tallest building in New York City. But no matter how high 1 WTC might be, and whatever monumental skyscrapers follow in the years and decades to come, in America or elsewhere around the world, there will always be one, inimitable building that looms larger, and is viewed more fondly, than any other.

The Empire State Building opened for business on May 1, 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, with New York governor Al Smith’s grandchildren cutting the ceremonial ribbon that introduced the 103-story wonder to the world. For four decades, it was the tallest building on the planet, before it was finally surpassed in 1972 by the World Trade Center towers anchoring lower Manhattan three miles to the south.

[See more NYC landmarks in the gallery, "A Love Letter to New York"]

Today, long after losing its title as the tallest building in the world, and at a time when taller structures (everywhere, but especially in Asia) are rising at a dizzying clip, the ESB nevertheless still stands alone—literally and figuratively—on the New York skyline.

Empire State Building by Alfred EisenstaedtLiterally, because when seen from the east or west of Manhattan island, the Empire State’s immediately recognizable, graceful bulk rises unchallenged from a neighborhood that, by design or lucky chance, is empty of any other buildings even close to its size or grandeur; figuratively, meanwhile, the ESB stands alone because, for innumerable people around the globe, the Art Deco masterpiece remains, at something like a primal, subconscious level, the world’s iconic—perhaps even its Platonic—skyscraper.

Yes, Dubai’s mind-boggling Burj Khalifa, almost a quarter-mile higher than the ESB, quite simply dwarfs it; Malaysia, Canada, Chicago, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and other cities and countries all have buildings or freestanding structures that are taller than the Empire State. But one would be hard-pressed to find—with the possible exception of the ESB’s even more ornate, gleaming Deco neighbor to the north, the Chrysler Building—a more treasured skyscraper anywhere on earth.

An elegant and imposing tower of limestone, granite, glass and steel, the Empire State Building when glimpsed from afar, or when encountered from mere blocks away, is unique among modern edifices in its capacity to so suddenly and fully stir imaginations and cause hearts to race. (On what other building, anywhere in the world, could the lovestruck King Kong have so dramatically, romantically battled airplanes before plunging to his death?)

So . . . congratulations, 1 World Trade. It’s heartening to see a truly phenomenal skyscraper soaring, once again, above lower Manhattan. But know that, three miles to the north, as it has for 80 years, the city’s most beloved tower stands alone in the hearts of countless millions.
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Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
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