New York City's tallest building for many years was the Empire State Building. "Empire City" is also the title of a 2002 book edited by Kenneth T. Jackson and David S. Dunbar.
Benjamin Wood Richards (1797-1851), mayor of Philadelphia, toasted "New York; the empire state, and emporium city," in November 1830. "The Empire State, and the Emporium Capital" was cited in May 1831. New York City was called the "empire city" in March 1833.
George Washington allegedly started this all off, calling New York the "Seat of the Empire." However, both "Empire State" (1830) and then "Empire City" (1833) are well after George Washington's writing in 1784.
On 16 Dec. 1784 Duane wrote to GW enclosing an address from the City of New York and a certificate making him a freeman of the city, but Duane did not send the packet until 10 Mar. 1785 when he enclosed both the letter and its enclosures in a letter of that date. The certificate and address are in note 1 of Duane’s letter of 16 December. In this letter of 10 April to Duane, GW enclosed a formal letter of thanks to Duane and another to the city officials, both also dated 10 April.
“I pray that Heaven may bestow its choicest blessings on your City—That the devastations of War, in which you found it, may soon be without a trace—That a well regulated & benificial Commerce may enrichen your Citizens. And that, your State (at present the Seat of the Empire) may set such examples of Wisdom & liberality, as shall have a tendency to strengthen & give permanency to the Union at home—and credit & respectability to it abroad. The accomplishment whereof is a remaining wish, & the primary object of all my desires”
(Oxford English Dictionary)
Empire State n. chiefly U.S. (a nickname for) the state of New York; also applied to other states with regional modifier, esp. to the state of Georgia (as Empire State of the South).
[1820 B. Silliman Remarks Tour Hartford & Quebec 65 Albany contains from ten to twelve thousand inhabitants, and is the second city in the State (we might almost say empire,) of New-York.]
1830 Poulson's Amer. Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia) 9 Nov. 2/5 Mr. Richards, the Mayor of Philadelphia, then rose and said..'I present the following sentiment: "New York—The Empire State, and Emporium City"'.
1860 Leisure Hour 29 Nov. 765/2 Illinois, the ‘Empire State’ of the mighty West.
1903 N.Y. Evening Post The saloon men of Tennessee have not, perhaps, the literary finish..of their brethren in the Empire State.
2008 N.Y. Rev. Bks. 9 Oct. 47/2 We, the empire state of the South, the jewel of the South, the great state of Georgia.
15 November 1830, Pennsylvania Inquirer and Morning Journal (Philadelphia, PA), "Late Penn Celebration," pg. 2, col. 3:
Mr. RICHARDS, Mayor if the City, gave "New York; the empire state, and emporium city."
31 May 1831, Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), pg. 2, col. 3:
The Empire State, and the Emporium Capital, may desire, may deserve, to lead, to predominate the Union.
17 June 1831, The Georgian (Savannah, GA), pg. 2, col. 5:
THE FASHIONABLE SEASON. -- The fashionable travelling season is just commencing. -- From every point in the country, the gay, the haut ton and beautiful, are turning their eyes to the "Empire State." In a few weeks -- perhaps days -- the numerous watering places, picturesque spots, cool shades, and mountainous scenery, which diversify the state between New-York and Niagara, will swarm with travellers from every section of the country.
1 June 1832, Richmond (VA) Enquirer, pg. 4:
Without these exigencies, Pennsylvania would have reminded the "empire state" of the years for which she had possessed the Vice Presidential office;...
1 September 1832, Portsmouth Journal & Rockingham Gazette (Portsmouth, NH), pg. 2:
This desertion from men and adhernce to measures, leaves Jackson without an efficient paper in the city of "the Empire State."
April 1833, American Turf Register, pg. 418:
Will the Old Dominion pocket this? Where are Mary Randolph, Goliah, Flying Dutchman, Zinganee, Trifle? and then the Empire state, with her Black Maria, O'Kelly, Medoc, Terror, Miss Mattie of New Jersey, and Mr. Craig's stable -- ...
25 June 1833, Star and Republican (Gettysburg, PA), pg. 2, col. 5:
The pride of the Ancient Dominion took fire, and as soon as an opportunity was afforded him to take the floor, he replied to the lofty airs of the New Yorker as follows: -- "Mr. President -- the Honorable Gentleman who spoke last, boasts that he is a representative from the Empire State. But, sir, that Honorable Gentleman should remember that in the Empire State he cannot sit down at table, nor ride in a stage coach with a white man - whereas in Virginia we can do both."
July 1833, The Princeton Review (NJ), pg. 302:
Suppose the great State of New York were to repeal every law that forbids polygamy and divorce, every law that gives redress for the breach of marital rights, every one that makes marriage and its fruits subject of civil regulation, what corruption, bloodshed, and havoc would reign throughout that empire State!
30 March 1833, The Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD), pg. 2, col. 6:
The Ajax, at New York, bought 3,820 bushels of Wheat, to feed the Americans withal -- This is a new direction of the currents of Commerce. Not long ago, a large lot of other grain reached the empire city, from Constantinople.
11 April 1833, New-York (NY) American, pg. 2, col. 3:
If any sister craft can outjump the Walter, -- whether in the port of the empire city, or in any of the harbors along shore, even to the regions of Cape Cod, and parts adjacent. it would be well to have it known. (...) -- [Phil Gaz.]
28 May 1833, Richmond (VA) Enquirer, pg. 3, col. 6:
... mighty Editors of N. Carlina, who may see, that, while they are talking of the poverty of their native State, and looking out for a Rail Road, that is to aggrandize New York, that the Empire city "is trying to foster a plan to supply the eldest and only daughter and moral fief of North Carolina with goods through Charleston, and to export their produce by that port to foreign markets."
19 October 1836, Alton (IL) Telegraph, pg. 3, col. 2:
GENERAL HARRISON IN NEW YORK.
(...) (Col. 3 -- ed.)
He comes to the Rome of America, the Empire city of the New World, and he will plough down corruption, and raise up reform, as Cincinnatus of old, if the Romans of America will but put the reins in his hands.