Backstory: An electrifying job atop an American icon

We make the rounds with Bill Tortorelli, the Empire State Building's chief electrician.

In the early 1950s, when Bill Tortorelli was just a boy, his father used to take him to the roof of his grandmother's tenement on West Broadway and Prince, point out the Empire State Building, and tell him it was the "most amazing building in the world." His father's enthusiasm made an indelible impression on the little boy, and it remains one of his most vivid memories of his father and his youth. So much so that, decades later, when he took the job as chief electrician at the aging patriarch of skyscrapers, his children had to give him a hard time.

"My kids, when I first got this job, they said, 'Dad, what's with you and that building? You were always talkin' about the Empire State Building,' " Mr. Tortorelli says about the position he took in 1991. "I guess I'm passing it on to them now – I guess they'll always remember me now when they see the building. So, I'll have quite a monument!"

This year, as the building celebrates its 75th anniversary, it remains a kind of generational touchstone, a monument marking both the beginning and end of an era in New York – if not the world. When it first opened in 1931, having been built during the height of the Depression, it capped off two decades of construction that saw four Manhattan buildings each becme, for a time, the tallest building in the world.

Today, eight buildings stand taller in other cities, but for 41 years the Empire State Building reigned as the world's tallest building. Standing at 1,454 feet, with 102 stories, it is perhaps the preeminent symbol of the 20th century's feats of engineering.

But like Tortorelli's kids – and many New Yorkers – I've sometimes scoffed at the Empire State Building, which, along with the Statue of Liberty, can seem to be one of the clichés of the city: a tourist destination, a movie prop, an image for a T-shirt or tchotchke sold at a Times Square shop.

Even so, since the destruction of the Twin Towers, the building has once again become the city's tallest building, and once more the visual epicenter of Manhattan. Built in the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s – a stark contrast to the more modern glass-and-steel high-rises that dominate most of Midtown – it hearkens back to a time when it first transformed the urban landscape, and made throngs of people point and call it the most amazing building in the world.

But amazement was not the only reaction, and some people lamented the transformed landscape.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his 1932 essay, "My Lost City," wrote: "Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits...[He] saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground."


On a recent hot summer day, as some of the year's 3.8 million visitors stood in line for the observation deck, Tortorelli walked me through the electrical plant on the 84th floor – "Not the bowels, but the throat of the building!" he says – to check the temperature of rooms holding massive generators and voltage switches.

"It's good to do a physical check – keeps me in touch with the building," Tortorelli says, proudly standing in his grey plaid workshirt, name stitched on the right and "Chief Electrician, Empire State Building," stitched on the left.

"We have monitors that tell us, but it's always good to take a physical check once in a while, so I'll stop off at least twice a week in every room, just to get an eyeball of what's going on, what's working where, and what's happening in the building."

Tortorelli's father taught him to develop such a physical feel for a building's electrical system and to be wary of monitors and gauges, which can easily malfunction.

His father had been an electrical inspector for the City of New York, and father helped son get into the union as a teenager.

After working as an electrician for almost 30 years, Tortorelli simply answered an ad for the position at the Empire State Building and was hired. As chief electrician, he usually works alone, making sure everything is running smoothly.

The exception is when he is overseeing what may be the building's most distinctive feature: the three-tiered, multi-colored illumination that every evening commemorates various historical or local events.

A series of 204 1,000-watt floodlights, beginning at the 72nd floor, light up the building, but the colored plastic gel cover that slips over each spotlight must be individually changed, a painstaking two- to three-hour process that requires help.

"I remember when Frank Sinatra died – Old Blue Eyes, fellow paisano – so we made the building blue," Tortorelli explains. "And when the Pope came to visit, we made it gold – yellow – and it almost felt like a prayer to me, if you believe in prayer." When Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 50 years on the throne in 2002, the lights were purple and gold.

"Hey, you know, this is the Empire State Building – this is probably the most famous building in the world," Tortorelli says. "So that probably makes me the most famous electrician in the world."

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