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The Race for the Tallest Building: a Comparison between Lansing and New York

The Tower of Babel, an early example of the human quest for the sky

The Tower of Babel, an early example of the human quest for the sky

The Great Pyramid at Giza, exalting the Pharaohs and the world's tallest structure for many centuries

The Great Pyramid at Giza, exalting the Pharaohs and the world's tallest structure for many centuries

Ulm Minster, Germany, for many years the tallest cathedral and answering spiritual needs

Ulm Minster, Germany, for many years the tallest cathedral and answering spiritual needs

New York's Woolworth Building, the "cathedral of commerce" and a  forerunner of the Empire State Building

New York's Woolworth Building, the "cathedral of commerce" and a forerunner of the Empire State Building

The Chrysler Building, New York, the immediate predecessor to the Empire State

The Chrysler Building, New York, the immediate predecessor to the Empire State

View of Empire State Building looking upward from street level--even today, nothing in New York says height like the Empire State!

View of Empire State Building looking upward from street level--even today, nothing in New York says height like the Empire State!

View looking south from 86th floor observatory--still one of New York's great perspectives

View looking south from 86th floor observatory--still one of New York's great perspectives

King Kong goes ape atop the Empire State in classic 1933 b/w film

King Kong goes ape atop the Empire State in classic 1933 b/w film

And does it again in 2005 color remake

And does it again in 2005 color remake

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The Boji Tower, Lansing's Empire State Building showing unique eastward-facing clock

The Boji Tower, Lansing's Empire State Building showing unique eastward-facing clock

Downtown view showing Boji Tower and State Capitol--such an effective pair

Downtown view showing Boji Tower and State Capitol--such an effective pair

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world's tallest tower

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world's tallest tower

The Azerbaijan Tower, soon to be the world's tallest, but a planned Tokyo tower would dwarf it at over a mile in height

The Azerbaijan Tower, soon to be the world's tallest, but a planned Tokyo tower would dwarf it at over a mile in height

The Empire State Building and the Boji Tower and How They Define Their Cities

The Empire State Building in New York and the Boji Tower in Lansing have a lot in common. Both opened the same year (1931). Each was constructed to crown its skyline with the tallest tower in town, which the Boji Tower still holds but the Empire State no longer does. They both seemed to symbolize the eternal quest for supremacy of the local sky through the most vertical statement of their times: height. Perhaps they both summarized the age-old aspiration of people to look skyward and have a sense of civic pride in what they behold. Whatever the motive, both are so integral to the two cities that no one could contemplate the skyline without them.

The Empire State Building

New York's Empire State Building held the title of world's tallest from its completion to the construction of the World Trade Center in the early 1970's. It was intended to eclipse the Chrysler Building some eight blocks away, which opened in 1930. It was commenced as the stock market crash was heading toward the deepest Depression this country has ever known. Curiously at a time of intense pessimism, it seemed to offer an optimistic outlook on the future. It was the culmination of the runup in the stock market and the general economy in the boom years of 1924-29. It was finished in only a year and a half, and set world records for speed. Indeed, in one week, an incredible fourteen floors were fully completed! More than five million people visited the tower in its first five years. The brainchild of former New York governor Al Smith and John Raskob--who held top positions at General Motors and Du Pont--it became instantly identifiable with the tall urban office building, and seemed to become an unreachable tower to surpass. Many celebrities and crowned heads of state have gone there and it was featured in two King Kong movies in 1933 and 2005. And while today it has been greatly overtaken in height by many other towers especially abroad, it still seems to be the epitome of America's contribution to world culture--the tall skyscraper.

The Boji Tower


The Boji Tower can be thought of as Lansing's Empire State Building. And although it falls far short of its legendary New York counterpart in sheer height, it is the tallest tower in mid-Michigan. It stands twenty-five floors above street level and two floors below ground. Like the Empire State, it has an antenna on top. It was constructed by Ransom E. Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile, and was financed through the profits made on one business deal, much like New York's older Woolworth Building. Olds had offices on the tenth floor. It was initially called the Capital Bank Tower, but in later years was the Michigan National Tower before becoming the Boji Tower. It has a unique clock, and the novelty comes from the fact that it faces only an eastward direction, unlike most four-faced clock towers. It is visible from miles away, especially at night, and commands the Lansing skyline. As impressive as the exterior is, the interior is also noteworthy. A huge banking hall on the street level--no longer used for that purpose--gives a hint of what is to come upstairs. Richly designed elevators and doors, featuring motifs such as locomotives and other inlays, whisk visitors to their destinations after boarding. Some years ago, a plan was developed to enhance the tower to thirty-four floors, accentuating its already tall presence. It is hoped that if this scheme ever comes about, it will be undertaken with a care and sensitivity to the building's integral design, and will not compromise its essential appearance or tamper with its now rare brick and stonework.

The Future of Tall Towers


In a sense, the race for the tallest tower has really only just begun. Since ancient times, people have stretched for ever greater heights in their architecture. From the tower of Babel--whether it existed or not--through the Pyramids and the Gothic cathedrals to the Nineteenth Century, humans have aimed for the sky. Previously, the quarter-mile high barrier was thought to define the limit to the tall building. Both the Empire State Building and the former World Trade Center were examples of that limit. However, they served as mere milestones and landmarks along the journey. Such recent examples as the Burj Khalifa in the Persian Gulf have decisively shattered that barrier, with many more to come. Currently, there are towers rising in Saudi Arabia, China and Azerbaijan that have already exceeded the half-mile barrier. The Azerbaijan Tower indeed points the way toward the mile-high structure, the altitude of Denver, Colorado above sea level--and reached by a tower that still sits on the ground! Although the conventional wisdom has been that such structures were not economically viable--even if technologically feasible--there is clearly a new trend toward that latest goal. In this context, it can be seen that the Empire State and Boji towers were guideposts for the future, if also important in their own times. With only seventeen hundred feet to go, the mile-high building is coming soon.

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