Henry Crown; Once Owner of Empire State Building

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Henry Crown, the billionaire industrialist who once owned the Empire State Building but sold it after his interest waned, has died at 94.

The match peddler’s son who amassed a $2-billion fortune through a mammoth construction supply firm died Tuesday at his Near North Side apartment in Chicago.

Crown was a founder of Material Service Corp., which served as the cornerstone of his financial empire.


Born Henry Krinsky to Lithuanian immigrants, he began working at age 12, delivering ties for 50 cents a day. At 19, he had $50 in the bank and an eighth-grade education.

In 1919, he and his brothers, Sol and Irving, formed Material Service Corp. with $10,000, most of it borrowed.

The company helped build such Chicago landmarks as the Loop subway, the Merchandise Mart and the Civic Opera House.

The firm was merged in 1959 with General Dynamics of St. Louis, and though Crown maintained a substantial stake, he was not happy with the relationship.

Crown helped guide General Dynamics out of difficulties encountered as the result of the company’s effort to enter commercial aviation. Then the firm bought out his interest in 1966 for $132 million--$62 per share. Crown then started buying General Dynamics stock for less than $33 per share and eventually built up a 22% stake, which enabled him to retain control of Material Service.

In 1951, Crown’s syndicate bought New York’s Empire State Building for $51.5 million, but he sold what was then the world’s tallest skyscraper in 1961 because “the building no longer interested me.”

His company had renovated the 102-story Manhattan landmark, adding air conditioning and making it more appealing to tenants and visitors.

“A television mast on top cost $5 million alone,” he said as he sold it.

Crown held interests in banks, building materials, electronics, financing, hotels, insurance, natural gas, oil, retailing, railroads, shipbuilding and towing and had widespread real estate interests throughout Illinois, California and New York.

His Southern California interests at one time included Del Mar Race Track, the Greystone Estate in Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hilton hotel.

He is survived by his second wife, Gladys, two sons, 15 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.