For a skyscraper of such totemic presence, the Empire State Building has plenty of low-rent skeletons in its closets, as explained by Wall Street Journal reporter Pacelle in this snappy history of the edifice’s ownership.
Product of the pie-in-the-sky real-estate world of the Roaring ’20s, the Empire State Building is a survivor: of the winding-sheet economy of the Depression, of a B-52 crashing into its side, of a legion of suicides dancing off its observation deck, of the neglect of the Helmsley era. And though business seldom rewards monument-building—ego being the undoing of economic sense—the building has never been short of suitors. Pacelle’s history can read like the breathless columns of the society page, but he certainly delivers the dirty goods on those who have put the building in their ownership sights. Except for a brief period when it was unclear who actually owned it, the real story has been the 114-year lease held on the Empire State Building, now by Leona Helmsley and Peter Malkin. No one wants to sink millions into an investment that will be paying savings-bank returns for decades, but when Hideki Yokoi went for the building in the early 1990s, after the yen went ballistic and the Japanese went on a trophy-hunting binge in the US, he understood that “leases were meant to be broken.” His daughter turned out to be his real problem. Donald Trump entered the fray, portending a showdown between “The Donald” and “The Queen of Mean,” but that fizzled in the courts. Indeed, the weakness of Pacelle’s otherwise enjoyable tale is the amount of time spent in real-estate court and the number of offshore companies and false fronts that must be negotiated to understand the machinations of the principals.
But the Empire State Building rises above it all, too beloved a symbol to be smeared by the cheesy world of trophy real estate.