Exclusive look inside the Empire State Building's $160 million makeover

Last Updated Oct 11, 2019 8:15 AM EDT

Visitors to one of the most iconic buildings in the Big Apple will soon be taking in a whole new view of the New York City skyline. The Empire State Building is set to open its newly renovated 102nd floor observatory this weekend, complete with 360-degree views of New York City and beyond. It's just one part of the Empire State Building's massive four-year renovation.

"CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil got an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the multimillion-dollar project that will change how the skyscraper's 4 million annual visitors see the city below it.

CEO Tony Malkin is the third generation in his family to run the Empire State Building, but it's safe to say this is no longer his grandfather's skyscraper. Malkin is making changes. Now tourists have something to see closer to the ground. What was once essentially a hallway – and the line to the elevators – is now a multimedia, interactive museum. It pays homage to the building's construction in 1930 and 1931 with recreations of how workers built the tower by hand.

The Empire State Building went up in a little more than a year at a cost of $41 million. By contrast, these renovations are a four-year project and cost more than $160 million. Tourism brings in around $130 million to the building each year.

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The renovations feature a multimedia interactive museum where there was once just a hallway and line to the elevators. CBS News

But if what's new on the second floor is entertaining, what's going on 1,200 feet above the ground is eye popping. Malkin showed "CBS This Morning" a small platform jutting from the side of the building on the 90th floor. It's from there that workers hoisted what's known as the cocoon – part scaffold, part construction platform to the 102nd floor.

Over the course of the summer, we watched as steel walls were replaced by floor-to-ceiling glass — 24 panes each weighing about 450 pounds, installed from the outside of the building. The result: 360-degree views 102 floors above Manhattan.

But why do this? It was already an iconic building, already bringing in more than $100 million per year in tourism dollars.

"What we really wanted to do was to connect with people … give them something magical. So 102 is the absolute pinnacle of that magic," Malkin said. 

The real reason for its 200-foot mast

At the very top of the Empire State Building is what's called a mast. Many people think this was built as a docking space for blimps and airships in the 1930s but historians say this isn't the case.

Until 1930, the Chrysler Building, which sits just a few blocks away, reigned as the tallest building in the world standing at around 1,000 feet. The team building the Empire State Building wanted that record. Their initial plan would have only topped the Chrysler by a few feet. So, they went back to the drawing board and later added a 200 foot mast – just to be safe – ensuring its place as the tallest building when it opened in 1931 and providing the building with an iconic design that's graced the New York skyline ever since.

Why the Empire State Building has a 200-foot mast

Empire State Building – the movie star

The Empire State Building is an iconic symbol of New York City, and it's also a movie star. Just two years after the building was complete, Hollywood deemed it fit for a king – King Kong that is. The 1933 monster flick was the first of many roles for the skyscraper.

It co-starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in "An Affair To Remember," Will Ferrell roamed its famous halls in "Elf," and it was on the observation deck where the final scene played out in the tear-jerking 1993 romantic comedy, "Sleepless in Seattle."

"For so many years it's had this kind of singular silhouette that seemed to anchor Manhattan's incredible concentration of this bristling skyline," said Carol Willis, founder of New York's Skyscraper Museum. "It is the building that represents modernity as New York began to emerge as the world's most modern metropolis."

It went up – all 102 floors of it – in less than 14 months, thanks to the death-defying efforts of thousands of workers. Five people died during construction.

When it opened in May of 1931, it soared more than 200 feet above the nearby Chrysler Building, stealing its status as the world's tallest.

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The renovation includes a multimedia, interactive museum and a simulation from one of the skyscraper's most iconic moments in film.  CBS News

What turned the struggling skyscraper around

Despite its fame, the Empire State Building started out in tough times.

"This was built just after the stock market crashed. The depression really didn't sink in until the mid-1930s," Malkin said. "So the stock market had crashed. The economy was in serious trouble."

The massive office building had trouble attracting enough tenants and wouldn't be profitable for about 20 years. In July 1945, a B-25 bomber crashed into the side of the building, killing 14 and causing $1 million in damage. But the building had something going for it in those early years: The observation deck. 

"The observation deck saved the building, keeping an income stream to operate the rest of the building, that idea of being lifted above the city was something that was extremely thrilling at the time," Carol Willis said. 

Its observatory remains New York's highest 360-degree outdoor view. No matter how tall the towers around it get, the Empire State Building is poised to remain the center of it all.

"When you say, 'I'm gonna meet you at the Empire State Building,' there's not anybody who wouldn't know where that is," Willis said. "You don't need an address in order to find the Empire State Building."


You can hear more about this iconic building — along with other buildings that make up the New York City skyline — on the "CBS This Morning podcast. CBS News' Anna Werner talks with New York Times reporter Sam Roberts, author of "A History of New York in 27 Buildings: The 400-Year Untold Story of an American Metropolis."