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A Walk Through New York's Skyscraper History

June 19, 1988|KARL ZIMMERMANN | Zimmermann is a free-lance writer living in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y

NEW YORK — The exhilarating thrust of the Empire State Building's limestone and granite verticality, accented with gleaming stainless-steel mullions; the extraordinary, automobile-inspired, chromium-like, multiarched crown of the Chrysler Building; Woolworth's Gothicism, even the World Trade Center's twin banalities . . . these are the iconography of New York City.

Whatever the diversity of their environments, most great cities have characteristic architectural styles. The visitor who thinks of Washington, for instance, is likely to conjure up images of the grand Beaux-Arts monuments of Capitol Hill and the Mall, structures formal and substantial.

Historic Boston and Philadelphia both say Georgian and Federal brick--handsome, angular buildings of decidedly human scale, with delicately paned windows and crowned with cupolas, steeples and weather vanes.

For this city, the characteristic mode is the skyscraper, with all its vigor, brashness and elan, as well as the attendant disadvantages of crowded air space and darkened, claustrophobic streets.

Most Still Stand

Skyscrapers are New York--and most of the city's great ones still stand. Not only that, many have recently been spruced up and so look better than they have in decades--a result at least in part of the renewed respect for Art Deco, the style of many of the best buildings.

In addition, many of their spires and crowns have been illuminated, making the city's night skyline more beautiful than ever.

An informal architectural journey through the city's skyscraper history is a perfect excuse to spend a day wandering from mid-town to downtown and back, with a few assists from the subway system.

With just $10 in pocket to cover expenses--that included two hot dogs for lunch from one of the ubiquitous umbrella-shaded carts--I set out to visit some of my favorite skyscrapers.

The Empire State Building stands in the heart of Manhattan--geographically and spiritually. It is the quintessential skyscraper, designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon and completed in 1931.

At 1,250 feet, this streamlined gray eminence surpassed by 204 feet the Chrysler Building, which had reigned as tallest for about a year.

The Empire State's claim to being the world's most famous building has credibility. I began my tour there.

From its observatory I could see the whole of New York's skyline, learn something about the architectural development of the city and enjoy a bird's-eye view of many of the spires and towers I'd be looking up to later on.

Looking up is the secret to enjoying skyscraper architecture. Particularly where buildings are tightly packed together, you really have to crane your neck.

Long Weekend Lines

As I walked south down Fifth Avenue, the Empire State, which fills the block between 33rd and 34th streets, loomed into view about 40th Street, when it came clear of a nondescript new tower that mutilates what once was a fine vista from farther north.

The great building's east flank was dazzlingly lit by the morning sun. I was arriving early for the observatory's 9:30 a.m. opening to avoid the long lines that build on weekends. (The observatory closes at midnight, with the last tickets sold at 11:30 p.m.)

On weekends when the offices are closed, access to the observatories is through the main entrance only, on Fifth Avenue, a fortunate approach, as it brought me face to face with a vast, gleaming, machine-age mural of the building in metal bas-relief.

This is the centerpiece of the lobby--a moderne classic of variegated light- and dark-gray marble, with metal and glass Art Deco accents.

At the ticket counter for the observatory ($3 for adults, $1.75 for children under 12) a sign indicates visibility: 10 miles, 15 miles, 25 miles or unlimited. Unfortunately, the marker pointed to 10 miles.

When I stepped out on the deck of the open 86th-floor observatory, the panorama was impressive but hazy.

Goaded by the Mt. Everest principle ("because it's there"), I lined up to squeeze into the small elevator cab for a ride to the top--the 106th-floor observatory, an enclosed, cramped arcade of riveted girders marred by graffiti. For viewing, the 86th floor is high enough and far more comfortable.

To the north, where the skyline has become increasingly cluttered, I made out the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center against the green patch of Central Park.

I saw the slanted roof of the decade-old Citicorp Building and the unfortunate bulk of the Pan Am Building--its cornice blatantly labeled, making misidentification impossible.

To the northeast shone the metallic, vertically arcaded cone of Chrysler--thought by many to be New York's most interesting skyscraper and my personal favorite.

To the south, in the hazy distance at the tip of Manhattan, a cluster of buildings towered beyond a perceived flatness: a carpet of roofs, modest spires and peaks.

World Trade Center

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