Did You Know The Empire State Building Was Originally Designed To Be A Blimp Airport?
Hidden above its 102nd floor, the Empire State Building has a historical secret – a blimp parking spot. In the late 1920s, as Germany was ramping up dirigible technology, and the Empire State Building was being put together beam by beam, Alfred Smith, former New York City mayor and head of the group constructing the tower, proposed a grandiose plan to create the Empire State Building mast, a 200-foot addition that would make the Empire State the largest building in the world. Unfortunately, blimps and the Empire State Building just don't mix – and blimp parking spots half a mile in the air are not only terrifying but also exceedingly hazardous.
The Empire State Building mast only ever saw three minutes of genuine connection with a blimp before the project was skipped over and forgotten. A few short years later, dirigibles fell out of favor thanks to highly publicized accidents like the Hindenburg disaster and the fact that fossil fuels made airplane travel faster, safer, and cheaper. Today, the floating aircrafts are reserved for advertising and sporting events rather than public transportation, but the Empire State's blimp dock remains a weird blip in New York City's strange and exciting architectural history.
People Were Kind Of Having A Love Affair With Zeppelins Before The Empire State Dock Was ProposedPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Even though the first transatlantic airplane flight happened in 1919, there was something really magical about the idea of airships peacefully floating across the pond – so much so, that the first transatlantic zeppelin flight drew a crowd of over 50,000 people. The flight was delayed because of bad weather, but that didn't stop thousands from gathering and waiting for its landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. One voyager summed up the difference between traveling via airplane and traveling via airship as follows: “On a plane you fly, but on the Graf Zeppelin you voyage." Said voyage, however, didn't come cheap. A round-trip transatlantic ticket cost $3,000 (worth about $40,000 today). Today, an economy flight from New York City to London costs about $600.
Zeppelins Were Considered The Future Of Luxury Travel In The 1930sPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Since their disappearance from the aeronautical scene, airships have been seen as pretty impractical; however, the 1930s were a different story. Dirigibles represented the future of luxury travel, and as the Empire State Building was being built, people expected it to be their gateway into a life that saw them dining and dancing in these floating hotels. That's right, dirigibles were far from the squished, ever-shrinking airplane seats of today (but they were also super slow). Magazines even touted two-day trips to Europe in flying hotels. However, they also portended a hopeful future of aviation innovation and a warning of military strength. In 1931, Soviets created a fleet of military airships in the name of Lenin, and dirigibles were used in bombing raids during World War I.
In 1929, Investors Announced The Height Of The Empire State Building Would Be Increased By 200 FeetPhoto: Lewis Hine / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Just a year after the first transatlantic dirigible flight, investors announced their plan to raise the height of the Empire State Building by 200 feet to allow for a mooring mast for zeppelins. The plan was announced by Alfred E. Smith, who noted that passengers would exit the airship via a gangplank. The proposed plan would get passengers off of the zeppelin and onto the streets of Midtown Manhattan in just seven minutes.
Dr. Hugo Eckener, Commander Of The Graf Zeppelin, Said The Project Was Not PracticalPhoto: US Naval Historical Center / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The innovative dirigible dock was dismissed as completely impractical by Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the Graf Zeppelin and the leading expert on dirigibles. In an interview with the Times, he noted that traditional zeppelin landings required dozens of ground crew and tons of rope, and even then, landings were still "dicey." That's just on the ground – not even close to unpredictable wind conditions 1,250 feet in the air.
The notion that passengers would be able to descend an airport-style ramp from a moving airship to the tip of the tallest building in the world, even in excellent conditions, "beggars belief,” wrote the Times.
The Dock Was (And Still Is) A Floor Above The 102nd Floor ObservatoryPhoto: Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia Commons / No restrictions
The Empire State Building was built to have a docking floor, despite the fact that the plans never worked out. The docking level is one above the 102nd-floor observatory behind an unmarked door. If you climb the stairs behind the door, they lead to a circular room that's 25 feet in length. At the opposite side of the room is a door that leads to a circular terrace. This is where passengers from Europe or South America would step on American soil for the very first time, and the view was apparently terrifying. The Times reported that the terrace was just two-and-a-half-feet wide, and felt like standing on "the raised lip of a Campbell's soup can," a quarter mile in the sky.
The Docking Station Was Said To Be A Ploy To Make The Empire State The Tallest Building In The WorldPhoto: Sracer357 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
In 1929, passenger traffic on airships was minuscule. And the Germans, who largely led the dirigible technology race, didn't ask for a docking station either. For these reasons, many people believed adding 200 feet to the top of the Empire State was merely a thinly veiled ploy to make it the world's tallest building.