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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dirigibles atop the Empire State Building

If you've read Inside the Apple (and if you haven't, there's no reason not to start today), you know that the Inside the Apple archives are chock full of old postcards of New York City. One recent addition to that collection was this wonderful shot of a dirigible moored to the top of the Empire State Building.

Despite the fact that this did not -- and could not -- happen, the image of an airship floating above the skyline has become a remarkably durable image of New York.

As we write in the book, the Empire State Building was in competition with the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street to claim the title of world's tallest building. Famously, the Chrysler Building had beaten 40 Wall by constructing a secret spire, or "vertex," that was put into place in October 1929.

After William Van Allen revealed the Chrysler Building’s vertex, it became imperative to make the Empire State Building taller without adding a “useless” spire. To that end, Smith announced in December 1929 that the top of the Empire State would house a mooring mast, 1,300 feet from the ground, for transatlantic dirigibles. 
This was utter folly. Not only does a dirigible need to be anchored by both the nose and the tail (which is why they landed at air fields in New Jersey in the first place), the updrafts in Midtown were so strong that a zeppelin the length of two city blocks would have whipped around in the wind like a child’s toy. More to the point, a dirigible’s gondola was in the ship’s center; people would never have been able to (as pictured here in an early publicity drawing) exit from the helium-filled balloon straight into the 102nd-story waiting room.

In late September 1931, the New York Evening Journal completed the only successful dirigible mooring. At great danger to life and limb, it delivered a package of newspapers from the Financial District to the Empire State Building’s roof. It looked great on the newsreel cameras, but would be the closest the mooring mast ever saw to real use.
Six years later, the Hindenburg would explode in New Jersey putting an end to any thoughts -- real or imagined -- of dirigibles mooring in Manhattan.

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Read more about the history of the Empire State Building in 

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