William F. Lamb: The Architect Behind the Empire State Building

By: Evan Scoboria, Last updated: May 28, 2023

Standing tall in the heart of New York City, the Empire State Building is an icon of architectural brilliance and human determination. Recognized worldwide for its Art Deco style and impressive height, it has graced the city's skyline since 1931, becoming an enduring symbol of New York's vibrant spirit and America's ingenuity. But have you ever wondered who was behind this colossal structure that attracts millions of admirers yearly? Let's take a journey back in time and trace the genesis of the Empire State Building to its original architect - William F. Lamb. From Lamb's vision to the building's construction, every phase of the Empire State Building's story is a testament to the power of human ambition and innovation. Buckle up as we delve into the rich tapestry of history, architecture, and tales surrounding this iconic skyscraper.

William F. Lamb - The Architect behind the Iconic Skyscraper

William F. Lamb

William F. Lamb is synonymous with architectural ingenuity and the Empire State Building. The impressive 102-story skyscraper that stands tall and proud in the heart of New York City is the brainchild of this distinguished architect. Born on November 21, 1883, Lamb hailed from Brooklyn, New York, and graduated from both Williams College and Columbia University, where he honed his design skills and nourished his keen eye for architecture.

Lamb's career started to take off when he joined the architectural firm Carrère and Hastings, known for its Beaux-Arts designs, including the iconic New York Public Library. However, when he became a partner at Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, he was tasked with designing the Empire State Building.

In the late 1920s, a heated competition was brewing in New York City to construct the tallest building in the world. Among the contenders were the Bank of Manhattan Building and the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building, financed by business magnates including John J. Raskob and Pierre S. du Pont, aimed to surpass them all.

Lamb faced a colossal challenge that required innovative design solutions to reach such lofty heights. The architect looked to the recently completed Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, also a Shreve & Lamb design, for inspiration. With its distinctive stepped-back style, this structure became a prototype for the Empire State Building, illustrating how Lamb could adhere to New York City's zoning laws while still reaching for the sky.

The design of the Empire State Building was a triumph of practicality. Lamb's drawings, completed in just two weeks, showcased a simplistic, streamlined design. The stepped-back profile of the building was a result of the 1916 Zoning Resolution, which aimed to prevent skyscrapers from blocking too much sunlight on the streets below. This design choice led to the building's distinctive Art Deco silhouette, which has since become a symbol of the era.

But Lamb's genius wasn't only in the exterior design; he also worked meticulously on the building's interior layout to ensure it was as practical as it was aesthetic. The Empire State Building was designed to house multiple tenants, with flexible floor plans and vast rentable space. It was also one of the first buildings to incorporate central air conditioning, a novelty at the time.

William F. Lamb's architectural prowess gave birth to one of the most iconic structures in the world. His innovative and practical approach to design resulted in a skyscraper that won the height race of its time and continues to stand as a testament to human ingenuity and the power of architectural design.

Design and Construction of the Empire State Building

With a blueprint and firmly secured foundation, the Empire State Building project shifted gears from planning to implementation. This architectural marvel's design and construction phases were feats of human ingenuity and resilience, depicting an era when ambition knew no bounds.

The design of the Empire State Building was a nod to the Art Deco architectural style, which was popular in the 1930s. Characterized by its clean lines, geometric shapes, and lavish ornamentation, Art Deco was the perfect choice for a building to symbolize modernity and progress.

Foundations of a Giant: Planning and Preparation

The creation of the Empire State Building was a masterclass in planning, preparation, and execution. It required the collaboration of architects, engineers, construction workers, and many other professionals. The venture was driven by a desire to create the tallest building in the world, a symbol of New York's economic prowess during a time of financial uncertainty—the Great Depression.

William F. Lamb, a partner at the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, was at the helm of this ambitious project. Lamb was tasked with designing a building that was not just tall but also functional and aesthetically pleasing. He took inspiration from early skyscrapers and the popular Art Deco style of the time and introduced new design elements to help the building stand out.

Much planning and preparation were needed before the first brick could be laid. The site chosen for the building was an entire city block between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) and between 33rd and 34th Streets. It was previously occupied by the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a prestigious establishment that had to be demolished to make way for the new skyscraper.

Demolishing the Waldorf-Astoria was a feat, but it was just the first step. Once the site was cleared, the construction team excavated the bedrock to create a stable foundation for the massive structure. This involved removing more than 50,000 cubic yards of earth and rock—a task that took several months to complete.

While this was happening, Lamb and his team were finalizing the building's design. They created detailed blueprints for every part of the building, from the towering spire to the intricate lobby decorations. They also coordinated with various suppliers to ensure they would have the needed materials, such as the Indiana limestone used for the facade and the steel for the building's frame.

Preparation also involved securing the necessary permits and approvals from city officials. Given the building's unprecedented height and potential safety risks, this was an enormous task. However, the project had the backing of influential figures like former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, who was the building's first president, which helped smooth the way.

The planning and preparation for the Empire State Building were meticulous and comprehensive, setting the stage for a construction process that would break records for speed and efficiency. It's a testament to the dedication and expertise of everyone involved and a crucial part of the building's enduring legacy.

The Building's Form and Facade

The Empire State Building's form and facade are among its most distinctive features, setting it apart from other skyscrapers and making it a true icon of the New York City skyline. William F. Lamb's design for the building is a testament to the principles of Art Deco architecture, blending form and function in an innovative, practical, and aesthetically pleasing way.

Let's start with the form. The Empire State Building has a unique shape that's often compared to a pencil or a needle. It's built in a rectangle, with the narrow ends facing north and south. The building narrows as it ascends, with setbacks at various points that create a tiered effect, leading up to the distinctive spire. This design was not just an aesthetic choice but also a practical one. The setbacks allowed more natural light to reach the streets below, a critical consideration in the dense urban environment of Manhattan.

The spire, or the mast, was initially intended as a mooring mast for airships, a common form of transport at the time. However, the idea proved impractical due to high winds at the building's summit, and the mast is now used for broadcasting signals.

The facade of the Empire State Building is a marvel of Art Deco design. The building is clad in Indiana limestone and granite, giving it a light gray color that can change depending on the light and weather conditions. The stone is arranged in vertical and horizontal bands, creating a pattern that draws the eye upward and emphasizes the building's height.

One of the building's most iconic decorative elements is found at the entrance: a stunning metal relief of the skyscraper. This art showcases the building in all its glory and adds a sense of grandeur to the entrance.

The Empire State Building's facade is adorned with lights illuminating the building at night. These lights often change color to commemorate different events or holidays, creating a dazzling display visible from miles away.

In essence, the form and facade of the Empire State Building showcase the best of Art Deco design, blending practical considerations with aesthetic ones to create a truly iconic structure. It's a testament to the ingenuity and vision of its architect, William F. Lamb, and continues to captivate visitors worldwide.

Interior Features and Lighting of the Empire State Building

The exterior of the Empire State Building might be its most recognizable feature, but its interior is equally impressive, showcasing a mix of practicality, luxury, and art deco elegance. When designing the inside of this architectural marvel, William F. Lamb had to balance the needs of potential tenants with a desire to create an aesthetic that matched the grandeur of the building's exterior. And, of course, he had to do it all while focusing on safety and efficiency.

Upon entering the Empire State Building, visitors are greeted by a majestic, two-story lobby. The lobby was restored in 2009 to return to its original 1930s splendor. The ceiling is adorned with a stunning mural representing the mechanical age, with planets and stars set against a sky of gold leaf. The art deco design, with its geometric patterns and symmetrical designs, is evident throughout the interior, from the marble and granite surfaces to the stunning aluminum leaf motifs.

The Empire State Building boasts 6,500 windows, and while the view from these windows is undoubtedly the star of the show, the building also features a state-of-the-art lighting system. In 2012, a new LED lighting system was installed, allowing the building to illuminate the New York skyline with 16 million colors, often used to commemorate holidays or events.

The interior also features 73 elevators, including service elevators. When it opened, the building had a groundbreaking elevator system that could reach speeds of 1,200 feet per minute. This allowed for quick and efficient movement throughout the building, a necessity given the number of people it was expected to house.

As for the office spaces, they were designed with versatility in mind. The building's pin-shaped layout allows for various office setups, accommodating businesses of multiple sizes. Many floors are almost an acre and can be partitioned differently to create smaller offices or left open for larger firms.

Furthermore, the Empire State Building was one of the first commercial buildings to offer air conditioning, a significant innovation in its construction. This made the interior spaces more comfortable and appealing to prospective tenants.

In short, the interior of the Empire State Building, from its majestic lobby to its functional office spaces, reflects the same attention to detail and commitment to excellence that characterizes its famous facade. Whether you're marveling at the art deco details or gazing out of one of its many windows, the inside of the Empire State Building offers a truly unique and unforgettable experience.

Conclusion: The Icon that Stands the Test of Time

The Empire State Building officially opened on May 1, 1931, just 13 months after construction. This was ahead of schedule and under budget, a testament to the skill, efficiency, and perseverance of all those involved in the project. At its completion, the Empire State Building, with its 102 floors and a height of 1,454 feet, including its antenna, was the tallest in the world—a title it held for nearly four decades.

The Empire State Building remains one of the most recognized structures globally, a testament to the vision of its architects and the skill of thousands of workers. Its design and construction represent a milestone in architectural history and the spirit of an era that dared to reach for the sky.