From the Architectural Archives: Skyscraper Airship Docks

September 29, 2013

Maybe this will turn into a series - I can’t tell yet. Just pretend this is the first installment of a series of posts on historical architectural curiosities.

Justin asked me the other night if it was true that the Empire State Building was built with the intent of mooring zeppelins (German airships, which themselves have a fascinating history) to its mast. I thought I had recalled hearing this tidbit myself, and had to investigate. Turns out the answer is a somewhat qualified yes! The New York Times describes some of the history of this architectural quirk, along with great photocollages of the intended result. Apparently, the skyscraper’s spire was given additional height during the construction process, which the building developers claimed was to give it the advantage of a landing platform for dirigible traffic. The real goal seems to have been to achieve the extra height needed to surpass the Chrysler Building. Evidently the whole dirigible-landing-platform idea wasn’t given much engineering forethought, as no airship was ever able to dock there successfully, due to the high winds at the top of the building and lack of proper tethering locations.

But it does make one wonder - what if airships hadn’t gone out of favor so quickly, and had been developed to be safer and use something other than hydrogen or helium? Somehow I never realized that the Hindenburg explosion happened so close to New York, but it was just about an hour and a half south of the city, in Lakehurst, New Jersey. In an alternate history, would a better landing system have been devised for Midtown Manhattan, making it an airship hub? Would we then have had masses of airships hovering above New York, a quiet multitude casting shadows on the streets below, bringing aerial traffic in and out of the center of the city? If airships had continued to be developed along the lines envisioned in the 1920s, perhaps we would even have had wealthy bankers commuting by airship from Westchester, docking at the tops of their skyscraper offices, and returning home through the sky, never having to touch the ground. Frank Lloyd Wright would have been proud.

Then again, maybe it’s all for the best. These past years, our friends on Wall Street have needed some grounding even without getting to ride airships to work.

Image of old magazine article (Modern Mechanics, 1930?) with illustration of giant airship docked to the Empire State Building