By Denver Nicks
The traveling spirit tends to seek out unfamiliar, untrammeled places, so as a denizen of New York who sees the Empire State Building almost daily, I wasn’t sure what to make of my invitation to take a “behind the scenes” tour.
But I had never seen it like this.
The iconic Art Deco building, if you’ll allow the indulgence, has gone back to the future. In the last few years, its interior has been restored to the resplendence befitting a product of the Roaring Twenties. But make no mistake, the renovations go beyond skin deep — the building has been updated and greened, with improvements that will cut its energy consumption by nearly 40 percent.
Our tour began in the lobby, where a likeness of the building (sans its famous antenna spire) lights up a massive golden plaque on the back wall and colorful geometric murals adorn the ceilings. It hasn’t always looked this good. During that mystifying architectural period that led to “urban renewal,” the lobby became a monument to blandness: fluorescent lights deadened the golden glow and horrifying soundproof tiles covered over the vaulted Art Deco ceiling.
But today the lobby shines once again. In fact, it’s so shiny and new that you feel as though you’ve traveled more than 80 years into the past to the building’s grand opening. Everything — down to the building attendants positioned throughout the main floor in their captain’s hats and long-sleeve suits (in a shade of burgundy that, I’m told, is trademarked by the building’s management) – looks old school.
The storied structure’s history continued to be revealed as we ascended to its upper floors. Here and there Art Deco flourishes have been added or restored — like the golf ball-sized holes, artifacts of the building’s now-defunct central vacuuming system, that can be found on each floor — each a testament to the building’s extravagant origins. (If you need more evidence of this, consider that it was originally intended as a sky dock for dirigibles.)
Parallels abound between the Empire State Building’s beginnings and its painstaking restoration. The idea to erect what would become the tallest skyscraper in the world was born in the 1920s, but construction began just after the onset of the Great Depression.
Work continued in defiance of the global financial crisis, providing badly needed construction jobs and, one imagines, an equally needed symbol of American resolve.
Similarly, plans to restore the building to its former glory were hatched before the 2008 financial crisis and completed even as the world economy unraveled. Amid all the talk of reigniting the economy by greening the planet, the Empire State Building has actually done it (for instance, 6,514 windows were replaced, making them eight times more energy efficient).
From the building’s main observation deck on the 86th floor, you can peer out at the city from above cell-service range (though supposedly one of the guards can tell you the sweet spots for each carrier if you ask nicely). A costlier ticket gives you elite access to the 102nd floor observation deck — and sweeping views of the island of Manhattan. I emphasize island because when you’re in the city’s ground-level maze of streets it’s easy to forget what this view makes obvious.
We climbed the “stairs” (it was really more like a ladder) to the crow’s nest on the 104th floor for a view that few (Sir Ian McKellen, King Kong, et al excluded) have had the privilege to see. Here, the observation deck is so narrow that two people can’t pass by each other shoulder-to-shoulder.
I have a comically irrational fear of heights, so I’m confident I was the most terrified journalist in the group (though no one was doing cartwheels).
The Empire State Building’s eco-friendly restoration and return to its former aesthetic glory is timely. At its root, the structure was a monument to scientific and social progress — a beacon for what the rest of the world could accomplish.
The rest of the world caught up, of course, but while it’s no longer the tallest building in the world (or in New York, for that matter — the Freedom Tower recently surpassed it), here’s hoping other old buildings follow suit.
Denver Nicks has written for The Daily Beast, The Nation, AlterNet and other publications and recently authored his first book, Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History. Follow him on Twitter @DenverNicks.