The Empire State Building may no longer be the world's tallest building (it currently ranks as the seventh), but it is certainly one of the world's best loved skyscrapers, and its pencil-slim silhouette stays a symbol for New York City and, perhaps, the 20th century. The skyscraper craze of the 1920s generated a slew of buildings in Manhattan, each outstretching the next in the quest to claim the title of world's tallest building. Developer John Jacob Raskob was no different, asking architect William Lamb, "Bill, how high can you make it so it won't fall down?" The art deco behemoth opened in April 1931 after not less than 13 months of construction; the framework rose at a rate of 4 stories per week, making the Empire State Building the fastest-rising major skyscraper ever built. Many floors were left completely unfinished, however, so tenants could have them custom-designed. But the depression delayed occupancy, and most of the building remained unfinished and empty, causing critics to deem it the "Empty State Building." The crowning spire was originally designed to dock dirigibles - another example of the period's soaring ambition - but after two failed attempts, the idea was set aside. In 1951 a TV transmittal tower was added to the top, raising the total height to 1,472 ft (its signals reach 8 million television sets in four states).
Ever since the 1976 American bicentennial celebration, the top 30 stories have been spotlighted at night with seasonal colors. Today the holidays celebrated in lights include: Martin Luther King Jr. Day (red, black, and green); Valentine's Day (red and white); the Fourth of July (red, white, and blue); Columbus Day (red, white, and green); Hanukkah (blue and white); and Christmas (red and green). The building has appeared in more than 100 movies, among them 1933's unforgettable King Kong and 1957's An Affair to Remember, in which Cary Grant waited impatiently at the top for his rendezvous with Deborah Kern.
Today about 20,000 people work in the Empire State Building, and more than 3.8 million people visit its observation decks annually. Tickets are sold on the concourse level; on your way up admire the illuminated panels depicting the Seven Wonders of the World - with the Empire State Building brazenly appended as number eight - in the three-story-high marble lobby. If you choose one observatory, make it the 86th (1,050 ft high), which is open to the air and spans the building's circumference; on clear days you can see up to 80 mi. The 102nd-floor deck (1,250 ft high) is smaller, cramped, and glassed in (but if you have time for both, it's fun to compare the views from the different heights). It's worth timing your visit for early or late in the day (morning is the least crowded time), when the sun is low on the horizon and the shadows are deep across the city. But at night the city's lights are dazzling. The French architect Le Corbusier said, "It is a Milky Way, which comes down to earth." Really, both views are a must; one strategy is to go up just before dusk and witness both, as day dims to night.