The shelf life of the Empire State Building

By Morgan Williams

During a one-week curatorial externship, Swarthmore College student Morgan Williams shadowed Allison Marsh in the engineering collections. Here he describes his encounter with one object and the story that unfolds.

Within an old, worn-out leather binding I discovered floor-by-floor blueprints of the Empire State Building as it stood in 1968. I became transfixed with the various companies and stores that occupied the timeless landmark. Although the artifact by itself didn't strike me as particularly valuable, I was encouraged to look further. As Peter Liebhold, Chair and Curator of the Work and Industry Division, put it, "Collections by themselves are interesting... but when you find the reason that something was collected, you find its story."

blueprints of the Empire State Building as it stood in 1968
blueprints of the Empire State Building as it stood in 1968

Allison helped me track down some supporting archival material: a report by Morris Jacks to accompany the plans. Jacks, a consulting engineer, was hired to appraise the building for tax purposes. He had to account for every permanent feature and detail its depreciation.

Jacks’s handwritten field notes breaking out costs by category
Jacks’s handwritten field notes breaking out costs by category

I found a copy of testimony Jacks gave to the New York Supreme Court in defense of the "life" he assigned to the steel support beams of the structure, which he gave as 60 years. It was not that he thought the steel would fail in 60 years; he didn't think that the building would continue to function as intended. It would have outlived its usefulness. Here's an excerpt from his cross examination:

Q. Structurally, wouldn't the structural steel in this building, or any major office building, last far longer than 60 years, Mr. Jacks?

A. Only if it is a building—I have written an article where I can prove that, if you take a new building today and do nothing with it, in 25 years, you won't have a building that can be operated.

Q. Isn't it frequently the case that even where they wreck new buildings in New York, they use the structural steel in the old building to erect the new building on?

A. Now you are getting into an entirely different philosophy. Now you are saying: Is it cheaper for us to use the steel that is there or is it cheaper for us—

Q. Can't you answer the question?

MR. SEGALL: Let him finish.

A.  —to put in new steel? Are we willing to put up with the old steel and the restricted spans and so forth, or should we tear it down and put in new steel? That becomes a question of economics for the designer and the banker and the people that want to go into business.

Q. But, structurally, structurally, isn't it possible for the steel to be used for well over 100 years?

A. You can't answer that question categorically. They took down a beautiful steel structure around the corner from the Savoy Plaza Hotel because, in that case, it didn't pay them to leave them, and it was only 35 years old.

Q. Isn't that economics, Mr. Jacks?

A. I don't think that an engineer has to be blind to economics. He might not be in the real estate business, but you have to consider the economics of materials and whether it pays to build a building or not.

Although there was a pattern of limited standing life for similar structures in the area (a 30 year old Waldorf-Astoria hotel was demolished to make room for the Empire State Building), what I found interesting was that Jacks failed to account for the increasing iconicity of the structure, something which I believe will alone preserve its existence for at least another 60 years.

This story of the Empire State Building's shelf life, the one that I stumbled randomly upon, is one of many in the museum's expansive collections. With only one to three percent of the entire collection on display at one time, the National Museum of American History is an iceberg of a place. Now that I know what's under the surface, I can't wait to learn something excitingly random again.

Morgan Williams '13 is a political science and psychology double major at Swarthmore College.