In lieu of candles, the Empire State will be bathed in a series of changing monthly light shows for the year ahead.

Built in just over a year during America's Great Depression, the 436-metre-high tower opened on May 1, 1931 and stood for 40 years as the world's tallest building.

The mainly steel and aluminium tower was conceived by John Raskob, then head of General Motors, and the governor of New York, Al Smith. The pair shrewdly waited until rival Chrysler Corporation erected its own building - itself another New York landmark - to make sure they would win the race for the sky.

"People were going to come off the blimp, go down the ladder, maybe have a couple of cocktails, come back up here and climb back in the blimp"

Lydia Ruth, the Empire State Building's spokeswoman

For good measure, a 60-metre stainless steel spire was added to the original design, initially conceived as a dock for passenger airships.

"People were going to come off the blimp, go down the ladder, maybe have a couple of cocktails, come back up here and climb back in the blimp," said Lydia Ruth, the Empire State Building's spokeswoman.

"I just can't believe people thought that would happen."

The mast was never used because of dangerous updrafts but it did serve in the original 1933 movie King Kong as a perch for swatting fighter planes.

Other famous visitors over the past three quarters of a century have included Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev and Lassie, the Hollywood canine star.

The Empire State remains an icon
of the New York skyline

But it has not been all glitter and glamour. More than 30 people have leapt to their deaths, mostly from the building's 86th-floor observation deck.

And on one foggy day during the second world war, a disoriented army pilot crashed his B25 Bomber into the 79th floor, killing 14

Nonetheless the Empire State Building held onto its position as the world's tallest structure until 1972 when the World Trade Centre took over. 

Today it ranks ninth in the world, second in the United States and, since September 11, 2001, first again in New York City, after highjacked planes destroyed the 110-storey Twin Towers.