Where King Kong once stood

At first the key doesn't work, but Bill Stassen gives it a sharp rap with the side of his hand, and the door opens. He cautions me to "step carefully; you don't want to fall down those stairs." then he flips on a light. And, suddenly, I can see the cavernous shaftway.

There is a shaky flight of metal stairs going down into a pool of water about 20 feet beneath us. The walls, carved out of bedrock, are moist and moldering. I can hear the echo of dripping water and the roar of a distant engine, muffled and the dark silence beneath us.

"This here water down here is from a couple of capped springs on the original Astor farm. I guess the caps is weepin' a little," Mr. Stassen explains with a laugh as he follows me down the swaying stairs to a point just above the waterline.

We can feel a cool wind pressing against our backs and rushing past us along the length of an air shaft which he says "slants up and cones in," although I can barely make out the end of the tunnel in the dim light.

We are 45 feet underground. Above us is 365,000 tons of concrete, steel, and marble shaped into a 37 million-cubic- foot skyscraper, once the world's tallest man-made structure and still one of the most remarkable: the Empire State Building.

I am taking what chief engineer Bill stassen calls "the 50- cent tour" and getting a view of the building that few people ever see, from this nethermost point of the skyscraper -- a deep old shaft that is part of the ventialation system -- to the seldom-visited top dome of the antenna tower, crowded with sophisticated microwave and broadcast equipment.

My guide is a hard-boiled veteran of the building's bowels who speaks fluent Brooklynese and who came up through the engineering ranks of the Empire State Building's 400 employees, after getting a "temporary" job here in 1952. Today, 28 years later, as chief engineer, he is married to the building, for better or worse; and he knows the systems, cranks, and pulleys that make it work as well as any person alive.

Charging around here in a houndstooth jacket and a regulation army haircut, he is a perfect replica of a noncommissioned officer in a World War II movie. Brusque but friendly, he's the kind of guy you'd want minding the controls of your tank when you're losing speed, the engines have failed, and you are under attack from enemy bazookas. In fact, he came to this job after service as a reservist in the Korean conflict, where he served as a tank platoon sergeant.

One wall of his office (in what he refers to with mild sarcasm as the "lower lobby, in today's parlance") is covered with dials and controls for the building's multitude of engineering systems. It all looks like the type of equipment assembled by mad scientists in 1930s movies. Which makes a lot os sense, because this building was built in the '30s, and much of machinery you see humming and trobbing in the basement is original equipment, although it looks as clean and well-oiled as the engine of Paul Newman's latest racing car.

Down here there are 5,450 tons of refrigeration equipment used to manufacture chilled water that is pumped through the building for air conditioning. This equipment handles only part of the 300,000 gallons of water the building uses every day. (The Empire State Building also inhales a million pounds a New York City steam for heat on a good, cold day.) And there are switchboard stations that vector off the building's daily payload of nearly 100,000 killowatt-hours of electricity.

These and other systems in the basement feed a network of pipes, conduits, and wires in a building that really amounts to a small town with a population of 16,000 persons, requiring 475 miles of electrical wire, 50 miles of radiator pipes, 3,500 miles of telephone and telegraph cable, 70 miles of water pipe, and a total of 73 elevators with 7 of shaft. And it is Mr. Stassen's job to make sure all this keeps running.

It's no mean task. The day he and I meet for a tour of the building, a huge, black series of switches has just blown sputtering sparks and smoke everywhere, and reducing the air conditioning on five floors of the building to a brow-dampening half power.

"That's not just something you send out to the corner hardware store for," he says, shaking his head in disgust, and stalking away from the faulty controller. It could take a month of 10 weeks to rebuild the switches, and in the meantime the mammoth red engine they control will sit on the cement floor in the next room, not making a whisper of noise or a breath of conditioned air.

Normally, this machine joins its behemoth companions in the refrigeration room in creating a deafening roar. the biggest of these engineering dinosaurs, a 2,000-horsepower engine, runs an 1,800-ton compressor and was, until recently, the largest electrical motor in private use in the world. It sounds like it.

Standing in the midst of a hurricane of sound in what looks a little like the engine room of the Queen Mary, Mr. Stassen brings his mouth to within a couple of inches of my ear and, shouting at lung-deflating capacity, just about makes himself heard. "The colors of the machines and rows of pipes identify the fluids they contain. Blue is for chilled water, green is for condensed water, and red is for machine components," he explains patiently.

The equipment here, and in the other engine rooms around us, is an odd mixture of industrial antique and lowtech modern: 60 ventilation fans, nine feet high; circuit breakers the size of small-car transmission; pipes the width of a man's trunk filled with steam; horizontal red pumps, 50 to 200 horsepower; and internal vacuum systems sucking in air from outlets on each floor (the Empire State Building has one of the few centralized vacuum cleaner systems in the world -- all the maids do is hook their vacuum hoses into the wall adn clean).

Does the building's age -- it will be 50 years old next year -- forebode more breakdowns like this morning's?

"Listen, this building was put up during the depression," Mr. Stassen says with conviction, as we are carried by an elevator into the upper reaches of the structure. "The way they put it together was unbelievable. If something callef for a 2-by-4, they used an 8-by-16. Same with the steel. We have steel in this building like you couldn't begin to afford in this day and age."

In fact, the building was a marvel of design and construction when it was conceived, and it's still a marvel today.

The Empire State Building fulfills the aesthetic prophecy uttered in 1896 by Louis Sullivan (an architect who helped pioneer tall buildings) that a skyscraper must be "tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top is a unity without a single dissecting line."

The Empire State Building is all of that. It is difficult to spend much time in New York without being affected by the commanding presence of this monolithic structure, which is astride its narrow world like a colossus. From almost every part of the city, and as far away as 80 miles, you can see the grand stature of this architectural wonder; and, after a while, it begins to speak to you, the way mountains and oceans speak to people who live near them.

But it speaks to Bill Stallen with more mundane sounds, like the gurgle of a boiler and the whine of an electric motor, and he's come to recognize the meaning of these sounds with the total absorption of a man possessed by his job.

Turning the corner of a fire stairway on the 86th floor, he rattles on about ejection pumps as he marches you past the mechanical personae of his structural world.

"This thing was built under an exceptionally rigid fire code," he says, entering a narrow passageway between two brick walls and making his way past some monster fans sucking air up through 80-story air shafts. "And I guess she is remarkably fireproof. The only building anyplace with something called 'eight-inch standpipe risers [an exceptionally large fire hose system].'"

We are now scurrying through a narrow passage on the 88th floor, two floors above the open-air observation deck, traversing a locked tunnel through nameless green doors that lead into an air tunnel, then up a meatl ladder into the open air, and suddenly we're out on a metal platform suspended 89 stories above the city.

The sounds of traffic and sirens reach up to us with a wispy, remote quality. It's oddly still up here, as though all of the power and energy of the city had been absorbed into the far reaches of the atmospher, and all that was left was the presence of the city itself lying in endless abstraction below us. A strange solitude above a churning New York.

Above us reaches the final tower of the building, hammered stainless steel and aluminum with glass channels running up through the middle, housing long fluorescent tubes that add to the illumination from the floodlights scattered around the base of the tower. These floodlights splash different colors over the tower to announce special days (green and red for Christmas, orange for Halloween, blue and white for the Yankees' World Series triumph).

Leaning against a guardrail and staring out across the expanse of city at the distant and 100-foot-taller World Trade Center, Mr. Stassen invites me to "come up here on a cold, crisp winter night, just before sunset, and stand here and watch the lights blink on all around you. That's when it's really beautiful. And I guess the only place you can do it is from this old girl. I guess you gotta say you accumulate a certain fondness for it.

"One of the things about it is, you can always find someone -- I don't care whether you're in the jungle wilds or a metropolis of the world -- who has heard of the Empire State Building. We get mail from all over the world addressed to 'Empire State Building, New York.' People expect it to get here, and it does. The Sears tower in Chicago is bigger [by 204 feet], and it has a shape and beauty to it. But I guess this building is still it."

As if he weren't sure I would believe him, he takes me on up even higher through the building, past the 102nd-floor observatory, which is all enclosed and only permits spectators to look out at the city through thick glass portholes, up another flight of metal steps, and through a trapdoor into the dome itself, a tightly confined chamber full of pipes, conduits, and hot wires, all feeding the televisions and radios of 17 million people.

Pushing open a dustry door, he leads me out onto a narrow balcony 103 stories above the city, the highest open-air observation post anywhere, curling around the dome where King Kong supposedly stood. We are flattened against the wall of the dome by gridlike ice shields. Above us sway unusual antennas shaped like Coptic letters. Beyond and below them, you can see the Pan Am Building, the Chrysler Building, Madison Square Garden,a ribbon that must be Fifth Avenue, the green carpet of Central Park with a huge water-spill lake in the middle of it, the bridges, the rivers, the foothills of New Jersey.

Standing here, above everything, you can see why Bill Stassen has such affection and respect for the building. Up here you momentarily become a part of its structural greatness. And you realize that the building somehow retains its stature: that, despite the Sears Tower and the World Trade Center, the empire State Building is still the tallest building in the world.

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