The link between New York's Empire State Building and Storeton, Wirral
New York is arguably the most iconic city on earth. Home to eight million people, it's a veritable melting pot of culture and identity, taste and personality. The skyline, resplendent with skyscrapers, is a symbol of American ambition, and no structure captures that essence better than the Empire State Building.
At 443 metres high, it was once the world's largest structure, a monument to bold dreams amid troubling times. Thousands of people flock there each day, eager to take pictures and marvel at the ingenuity. Still, most people are surprised to hear that certain materials for the building were sources here in Wirral, seemingly a world away. Therefore, it's time to shed some light on a most beguiling tale.
As the 20th century dawned, New York City was the gateway to a better life for immigrants flocking through Ellis Island. The Big Apple promised opportunity and comfort, work and community. In this fashion, the city soon coalesced into the globe's greatest commercial powerhouse, as industry boomed and ideas bloomed. With that cache came a great conundrum: how to make room for houses and headquarters in the 22 square miles of Manhattan island, crammed to bursting as people thirsted for a piece of the action. With little room to build outwards, people began to build upwards, towards the sky, under the aegis of governor Al Smith, a little guy full of burning desire.
The Flatiron Building was a fitting example of this trend, as planners made the most of the precious land they were given, regardless of its geometry. Advancements in the science of steel-framed buildings saw skyscrapers proliferate, while refinement to early elevator concepts also helped in this regard. Worries about some kind of dystopian future were prevalent, as many people feared buildings would grow so tall as to block out the sun. Regulations were eventually passed to ensure that buildings thinned out towards the tip, and with that, the famous New York skyline began to take shape.
A race to build the world's tallest building ensued. Of course, skyscrapers had long been a source of intrigue, dating back to the Great Fire of Chicago, when that fine city was rebuilt in a grand vision through the 1870s. But the latest round of building was catalysed by the completion of Paris' Eiffel Tower in 1889. Americans yearned to compete on this front, and the Woolworth Building became the world's tallest in 1913. The Chrysler Building, housing operations for the car magnate, took the title in May 1930, but all the while a far more risky plan was afoot just up the road.
John Raskob, the owner of General Motors, wanted to push the boundaries of architectural ambition. The old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Fifth Avenue fell into his portfolio, and Raskob vowed to bulldoze the plot and build something far more symbolic of American skill in its place. William Lamb was drafted in to design the structure, and Raskob had only one question for him: How high can you build it without it falling over? Using a plan similar to that of a child's school pencil, Lamb completed his design, and focus turned swiftly to construction.
When Wall Street crashed in 1929, the great building drive of New York City threatened to grind to a halt. A decade-long Depression put incredible strain on resources, for businessmen and residents alike. Raskob felt the pinch on his finances, and a loan was required to keep the Empire State dream alive. With creditors watching keenly, a swift construction time was mandated. Work began on 17th March 1930, with crews of up to 4,000 workers dedicating over 7 million man hours to the job.
Rising into the sky like a dominant phoenix, the Empire State Building became a physical monument to what American once was, and what it hoped to be again. By building it, and powering on through the darkest times to a distant glory, Raskob yearned to inspire the city and encourage its residents to do something similar in their own lives. Like America, the building would climb its way to the heavens through hard toil, then look down with confidence, but without forgetting its roots. In every way, it was a triumph of thought and engineering.
The base consisted of two square acres of solid concrete, some 55 feet below sea level. From that foundation, 60,000 tonnes of steel and 10 million bricks were used to form an Art Deco structure that reached a quarter mile into the sky. With so many people eager for work, the Empire State Building rose in record time, all while normal life carried on nearby. Few roads were cordoned off, as one of the busiest streets in the world doubled as a construction site. Ample blood, sweat and tears went into the project, and 14 people even lost their lives working in such perilous conditions.
In total, the project cost $40.9 million. Adjusted for inflation, that's approximately $637 million, or £522 million, in 2016 money. The steel came from Pittsburgh, America's industrial heartland. Marble was sourced from Italy and and France. But the most intriguing fact, at least for us, is that sandstone to clad the building was quarried in Storeton, a sleepy village near Bebington in Wirral. An outpost that once had strong Viking influence, Storeton featured deep quarries upon a ridge dating back to Roman times. From 1838, a tramway was used for transporting stone to the quayside at Bromborough Pool, while a branch onto the Birkenhead-Chester railway helped ferry produce further afield.
Indeed, the creamy stone of Storeton was used in construction of several significant buildings throughout Merseyside. Birkenhead Town Hall, Liverpool Lime Street station and Lever House at Port Sunlight are perhaps most notable. However, producing the material to clad part of the Empire State Building must surely be Storeton's greatest claim to fame.
Quite how the village was chosen, and how the stone was transported, remains something of a mystery. The passage of time hasn't been kind in this regard, and obtaining information on the subject is notoriously difficult. For instance, while researching for this article, I contacted Empire State Building officials, and even they could not provide additional details about its links to Wirral. Still, the story has been referenced in enough reputable places to convince me that it did happen, and for that we should be proud.
Of course, there's another link between Wirral and New York in the form of Central Park, which was based loosely on the design of Birkenhead Park. I covered that story in an earlier feature for this magazine, and it was very well received. Now, you will have another piece of trivia with which to impress your friends: the fact that Wirral played a small but important role in completing what stood for nearly 40 years as the world's tallest building. I suppose you do learn something new every day.