Today In History: The Empire State Building

May 1, 1931


Today in 1931, President Herbert Hoover hit a button in Washington, D.C. that turned on the lights of the new Empire State Building, officially marking its opening. The opening happened a full forty-five days before it was originally projected to. A private opening ceremony was attended by 350 people, who enjoyed a lunch on the 86th floor. Unfortunately, the view was blocked by fog. In attendance that day were Governor Franklin Roosevelt, Al Smith and Jimmy Walker.

The Empire State Building opened to the public the following day. It was, for a time, the tallest building in the world. It was also the first building to ever have more than 100 floors.

1931 was the second year of the Great Depression. In the first year of the Empire State Building being open, less than a quarter of its available office space was occupied. Contrast with the early 20’s, when a booming economy saw a typical building enjoy about half occupancy on opening and nearly full occupancy within the first five years. New Yorkers started referring to the Empire State Building as the “Empty State Building.”


One of the longest-term residents, Jack Brod, says that when the building opened, there were only around twenty tenants. The building managers left the lights on, even in unoccupied offices, to make it look less empty.

The observation deck was about as lucrative as the rest of the building combined. In the first year, the observation deck made about $2 million in gross revenue, from $1 elevator tickets sold to tourists. By 1944, five million people had visited the observation deck.

Despite all of this, and despite a huge marketing push, the Empire State Building was extremely non-profitable. The building lost about a million dollars a year by 1935. It also remained largely unoccupied well into the Depression.

Obviously, that turned around. The Empire State Building is still one of New York’s most visited tourist attractions. Needless to say, it does not have the occupancy problems it once did.

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