Owning the Empire State Building

Cartoon by Dan Rattiner
Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

For about 10 years, I owned the Empire State Building in Manhattan. Or I was one of the owners. Or I thought I was.

I had always been a big fan of this building. When it was built, which was almost a century ago, it was taller than any other building anywhere. It also became, along with the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of New York City, which was now the greatest city in the world. For the next 50 years, the city continued to lead the world, and this building remained the tallest. The city led in finance, advertising, trade, politics, fashion, education, sports, industry and the arts. It was selected as the headquarters of the United Nations when the time came. We had Broadway, two world’s fairs, the New York Yankees, the Great White Way, the Met, Greenwich Village, Central Park. New York was even the most populous city in the world. And looming over it all, looking down benevolently, was the unmatched Empire State Building — 102 stories high.

I often wrote about the Empire State Building in this newspaper. After World War II, a flier flew into it by mistake. He died. Guess he couldn’t imagine anything being that high. The back of his plane, a war plane, stuck out from the 78th floor for a while. But then it was fixed. King Kong fought his last while hanging on to the top of the Empire State Building. The dirigible Los Angeles tied up to its mast. On another occasion, somebody jumped off the 86th floor observation balcony. After that, barriers were put in to keep others from also doing that. Then came television and cable and, of course, their aerials had to be placed on the mast of the Empire State Building, bringing it even higher.

And, it had an amazing history. It was built around the same time as the Chrysler Building. And the two buildings, going up and up and up, battled to see which one could end up taller than the other. In the end, the Empire State Building won. Workmen who had built it in just an astonishing 13 months, at the last minute, as a finishing touch, raised it a few feet higher than the Chrysler Building. Walter Chrysler conceded.

In 1980, after the Twin Towers were erected to a height of 110 stories and I wrote in Dan’s Papers that the Empire State Building still ruled because the Twin Towers looked like a couple of pathetic Wheaties boxes, I received a remarkable letter.

It came from the people who owned the Empire State Building. They’d been following all that I’d written. They were very pleased. Enclosed was a card identifying me as an honorary officer in the company that owned the Empire State Building. I could flash this card, and it would entitle me to enjoy all the privileges and courtesies of the Empire State Building that officials of the company were allowed. I could go up to the company offices. I could go up to the top anytime. (There were long lines at the elevators to get up there, and you had to pay to get up.) Flash the card and I’d be escorted to the front of the line. I could get into the private club up top. When they had events there, I would be invited. They also told me they intended to bathe the building in colored lights at night from time to time. And there would be an exclusive press release sent to me shortly. I’d be the first one to get it.

I was overwhelmed. I wrote back and thanked them. I told them they should have appropriately different colors on different holidays, and they should have the building lit all the time, not just part of the time. And some of the lights should blink on and off. The building should continue as it had, as, along with the Statue of Liberty, the two unchallenged landmark structures in the city of New York.

They did the lights as I suggested. I don’t know if they did them because of me. But it seemed that they did. Of course, I soon arranged to go there. The card worked like magic. It got me to the front of the line. But there was a wait. Turned out, I was waiting for the special guide assigned to me. I got a private tour. Went to the club up top. People shook my hand. When I asked to meet my partners, they told me they weren’t there that day. But they’d tell them I’d been there. I was so happy.

The owners and I continued to write back and forth. I made suggestions. And they wrote back that all was much appreciated. And I continued to visit it and write about it. The Empire State was supreme.

Then one day about 1991, I went there and was told my VIP card wouldn’t work anymore. The building had been sold. I was to now be treated like anybody else. They pointed to the end of the line.

I was angry. “Don’t you know who I am?” I yelled. “You should check.” Nobody had told me about any of this. I demanded a meeting with the new owners. The new owners, it turned out, were not interested in me. My anger turned to despair. This wasn’t fair. I was actually being evicted!

Friends told me life was like that. I should get used to it. After all, there was nothing I could do about it.

But even to this day, sometimes, when in the city, I’ll look up and — even though taller buildings have been built in Chicago, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Dubai and even back here in New York City, as ridiculous-looking needle-tall apartment buildings on Park Avenue and on 58th street for Russian oligarchs went up a few feet higher than the Empire State — I’d get a pang of remorse and spend a day or two brooding.

Only after the Freedom Tower was built nearly twice the height of the Empire State Building, did I finally get over it.

But yes, there was a time I owned the Empire State Building.

You could look it up.

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