Thursday, January 3, 2013

A View from the Empire State Building

Cambridge, January 3, 2013

Up until recently, panoramic views of the city were mostly a function of topography.  Hills and other elevations in and, particularly, around cities offered the only vantage points get more encompassing views.  Yes, there were some fairly tall structures in the past--St. Marks's Campanile in Venice is almost 100 meters tall and has been there since the early 1500s--but the 20th century introduced a new, heroic, constructed vantage point to see the city from above: the skyscraper.

When the Empire State Building opened in the spring of 1931, it was the tallest building in the world.  From its 102nd floor observation deck you could see New York standing 1,250 feet (almost 400 meters) up in the air.  The legendary photographer Samuel Gottscho was there on opening day and took some remarkable pictures.  One of them shows the heads of three people looking south.  They can see the tip of Manhattan with an earlier generation of skyscrapers massing together.  Farther out, the New York Harbor, Staten Island and the Narrows.  To the left is Brooklyn, with the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges over the East River.  To the right, The Statue of Liberty at the mouth of the Hudson River.  On the foreground the lower portion of the Manhattan grid.  If you want get your bearings, just look to the right of the woman and you'll recognize the angular shape of the Flatiron Building at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue on 23rd Street.

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