Tag Archives: empire state building

The story of ‘Painters On The Brooklyn Bridge’, a classic photograph taken 100 years ago this month

The photograph above (officially called “Brooklyn Bridge showing painters on suspenders”) is perhaps the best-known image taken by Eugene de Salignac, a city employee who took municipal photography of most major New York structures during the early 20th century.

His work had never appeared in a gallery until 2007, almost 65 years after his death.  His exquisite eye rendered otherwise ordinary shots with a captivating grandeur; this was certainly beyond the call of duty of his responsibilities for the Department of Bridges (later named the Department of Plant and Structures) for which he worked from 1906 to 1934.  In all, it’s estimated the city owns about 20,000 glass-plate negatives taken by de Salignac.

On September 22, 1914, de Salignac headed to the Brooklyn Bridge to observe workers painting the bridge’s steel-wire suspension.  Perhaps a bit inspired by modern artistic photography of the day, the normally workaday photographer returned to the bridge a couple weeks later, on October 7.

To quote Aperture:  “The image was obviously planned, as evidenced by the relaxed nature of these fearless men who appear without their equipment and are joined, uncustomarily, by their supervisor.”

It was, generally speaking, an unspectacular day for the 31-year-old bridge.  It’s believed that the original color of the Brooklyn Bridge was ‘Rawlins Red’ although by this time, the vibrant color might have been replaced with the less dramatic ‘Brooklyn Bridge Tan.’  Can you imagine what this image would have looked like in color?

I would like to think de Salignac took some inspiration from photographers like Paul Strand who were beginning to see New York City as a set of geometric abstracts.  The spirit of this photograph echoes into the work of Berenice Abbott and especially Lewis Hine.  In 1932, while de Salignac was still employed by the city, Hine was hired to document the construction of the RCA Building. In one photo, workers were posed in a way that eventually became quite iconic**:

Most likely, none of those other photographers saw de Salignac’s Brooklyn Bridge picture.  It was essentially lost among the thousands of archives pictures until the 1980s.  For his first film for PBS, Ken Burns used the photograph  in his Brooklyn Bridge documentary which went on to snag an Academy Award nomination.  In 2007, de Salignac was belatedly honored with an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

 De Salignac returned to the bridge to several times to catch more workers in the act of maintaining the bridge. Such as this photograph the following year:

Want to get lost for an hour or so? Check on the New York Municipal Archives vast trove of Eugene de Salignac photographs directly.

**This famous picture was attributed first to Lewis Hine, then to Charles C Ebbets.  Corbis officially lists the photographer as ‘unknown’.  Thank you to Michael Lorenzini for pointing this out!

Top photo courtesy New York Municipal Archives. Hine photo courtesy the George Eastman House

The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History


Postcard from the past: When the Singer Building was the world’s tallest (NYPL)

PODCAST One World Trade Center was declared last year the tallest building in America, but it’s a very different structure from the other skyscrapers who have once held that title. In New York, owning the tallest building has often been like possessing a valuable trophy, a symbol of commercial and social superiority. In a city driven by commerce, size matters.

In this special show, I give you a rundown of the history of being tall in New York City, short profiles of the 12 structures (11 skyscrapers and one church!) that have held this title.  In several cases, these weren’t just the tallest buildings in the city; they were the tallest in the world.

At right: The Metropolitan Life Building, the tallest building in the world in 1909

Skyscrapers were not always well received.  New York’s tallest building in 1899 was derisively referred to as a “horned monster.”  Lower Manhattan became defined by this particular kind of structure, creating a canyon of claustrophobic, darkened streets.  But a new destination for these sorts of spectacular towers beckoned in the 1920s — 42nd Street.

You’ll be familiar with a great number of these — the Woolworth, the Chrysler, the Empire State.  But in the early days of skyscrapers, an odd assortment of buildings took the crown as New York’s tallest, from the vanity project of a newspaper publisher to a turtle-like tower made for a sewing machine company.

At stake in the race for the tallest is dominance in the New York City skyline.  With brand new towers popping up now all over the five boroughs, should be worried that they’ll overshadow the classics? Or should the skyline always be in a constant state of flux?

ALSO: New York’s very first tall buildings and the ominous purpose they were used for during the Revolutionary War!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #169 The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History
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CORRECTION: Ack, I keep saying Crystal Palace Exposition when it’s actually Crystal Palace Exhibition! I mean, they basically mean the same thing, almost, right?
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Photo courtesy Huffington Post

The current tallest buildings in New York City are

1) One World Trade Center — 1,776 feet
2) 432 Park Avenue — 1,394 feet
3) 225 West 57t Street — 1,394 feet
4) Empire State Building — 1,250 feet
5) Bank of America Tower — 1,200 feet
6) Three World Trade Center — 1,171 feet
7 tie) Chrysler Building — 1,046 feet
7 tie) New York Times Tower — 1,046 feet
9) One57 — 1,005 feet
10) 4 World Trade Center — 977 feet

It should be noted that eight of these buildings didn’t exist 10 years ago

Statistics courtesy the Council On Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
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The sugar houses owned by the Rhinelander family. Others owned by the Van Cortlandts and the Livingstons would have all been the tallest structures in the city.

Trinity Church in 1889, the final year that it was the tallest permanent structure in New York City. (NYPL)

Trinity would be unparalleled in the New York skyline by any permanent buildings for almost 46 years.  But the Latting Observatory at the Crystal Palace Exhibition for a short time allowed New Yorkers the highest vantage on the island.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building, in context with its surroundings, including its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. This location would be its undoing, as the building was demolished later to make way for an automobile ramp.  (Courtesy Rotograph Project)

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building became a new neighbor for Trinity Church in 1894.  Its lantern top served as a lighthouse and an office for the New York Weather Bureau. (NYPL)

The Park Row Building, the original ‘twin towers’ of lower Manhattan, was criticized for its two-dimensional design but it’s managed to survive into modern times.  It used to host J&R Music World on its ground floor until that business closed last year.

The extraordinarily unusual headquarters for the Singer Sewing Machine Company.  The Singer Building has the rare distinction of being the tallest building every purposefully torn down when it was demolished in the 1960s.

Madison Square was already graced with both the Flatiron Building (below) and Madison Square Garden when it finally got its tallest skyscraper….. (NYPL)

…the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, pictured here with an early airplane above it, in a postcard produced by Underwood & Underwood. (NYPL)

The Woolworth Building (featured here on a cigarette card) is one of the greatest extant examples of pre-zoning law construction with no setbacks along the front side.

The Manhattan Company Building (or 40 Wall Street) sat among a host of other skyscrapers and was only briefly the city’s tallest building until Walter Chrysler and William Van Alen debuted their surprise uptown.

The Chrysler Building in 1930 with its spire freshly attached to the top, making it (for a little over a year) the tallest building in the world.

The Empire State Building became the tallest building — and the defining symbol of New York City — thanks to a determined executive from General Motors and Al Smith, the former governor of New York.

The World Trade Center returned attention to lower Manhattan and set a new record for height, literally leaving other former record holders in its shadow. (Photo courtesy Life Magazine)

SOURCES and RECOMMENDED READING

AIA Guide To New York City 2014
Empire State Building: The Making Of A Landmark — John Tauranac
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City — Neal Bascomb
Manhattan Manners — M. Christine Boyer
Pulitzer: A Life In Politics, Print and Power — James McGrath Morris
Rise of the New York Skyscraper — Sarah Bradford Landau
Skyscrapers:A Social History of the Very Tall Building In America — George H. Douglas
Supreme City — Donald Miller
and resources from the Landmark Preservation Commission and the New York Skyscraper Museum

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library

The real ‘Muppets Take Manhattan’: 21 wacky historical details from Jim Henson’s Big Apple adventure

The Bowery Boys Obsessive Guides look very, very closely at a classic movie filmed in New York City, finding buried history, additional context and a few secrets within various scenes and plot points.  Check out my previous guides for Midnight Cowboy and Ghostbusters.

“We did our first film in Los Angeles and our second in London. I thought it would be nice to do the next one in our hometown.” — Jim Henson

In The Muppets Take Manhattan, our friendly assortment of animal and animal-esque protagonists arrive in New York City to put on a variety show.  But, of course, Jim Henson and his creations had been here for over a decade already, the critical ingredient of PBS’s Sesame Street, which originally filmed on the Upper West Side.

By 1982, production on the children’s show had moved to 55th Street and Ninth Avenue, but the Muppets had gone global — with a successful syndicated variety show (The Muppet Show, from 1976 to 1981, produced in England) and two box office hits, The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper.  Given the theatrical nature of their own weekly show — set in a theater, after all — it made sense to return the Muppets to New York, to finally bring the beloved characters to a cinematic Broadway stage.

The Muppets Take Manhattan opened thirty years ago, on July 13, 1984.  This week comes the latest Muppets film, Muppets Most Wanted, sending our foam-formed friends to points around the globe.  But let’s stay local, shall we?, and reminisce about their antics through early ’80s New York.  Below are 21 often trivial, mostly historical points of interest from Henson’s zany, most exuberant homecoming:

NOTE ON TIME AND SETTING:  The Muppets Take Manhattan, directed by Frank Oz, was released in the summer of 1984 and filmed the previous summer in a variety of New York and New Jersey locations, with interior shots at Empire Stages in Long Island City (today Paris Film Productions).  However it’s set sometime in the summer of 1982, judging from flying calendar pages that set September 1 on a Wednesday.

“Broadway? But this show isn’t good enough for Broooadway!”

1.  The film opens with some terrific overhead shots of Manhattan, before taking us over bridges to Poughkeepsie, NY, the home of the fictional Danhurst College (as played by Vassar College).  The Muppets are on stage, delighting an over-enthusiastic crowd with their new variety show ‘Manhattan Melodies’.  With charming naivety, they decide to bring the show to New York City.

‘Manhattan Melodies‘ was actually the name of a successful New York radio show in 1932, broadcast by WOR from Times Square.  History was made with a unique multi-location broadcast featuring The Do Re Mi Trio, three voices recorded from three different skyscrapers.  “‘Do’ was on the Empire State [Building], eighty-six stories in the air, ‘Re’ was on the seventy-first floor of the Chrysler Building, and ‘Mi’ was on the roof of the Manhattan Bank Building [aka 40 Wall Street].” [source]


Port Authority in 1980, photo by Jeremy Gilbert/Flickr

2. The Muppets arrive through the unglamorous hallways of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  In the early 1980s, this was considered one of the most crime infested areas of Midtown, a marketplace for prostitution and crack dealers. The bus terminal was “an ideal place for these illegal activities” during this period due to a recent expansion that left many corridors unguarded at night.  Crime here “escalated to an uncontrollable level.”

Despite this, the Muppets decide to move into a wall of lockers. “I’ll trade with anybody who has a Jacuzzi!” says the free-spirited Janice.

3. Animal wears an I HEART NEW YORK T-shirt throughout the film. This was a rather new emblem then, created in 1977 by graphic designer Milton Glaser.  The irony of loving a particular city that was in a serious social and financial crisis was not lost on the designer.

“It was the mid-seventies, a terrible moment in the city.  Morale was at the bottom of the pit,” Glaser said in an interview with The Believer. “….[T]hen suddenly the city simultaneously got fed up and said, ‘It’s our city, we’re going to take it back, we’re not going to allow this stuff to happen.”  And part of that was this campaign.”

He gave away the rights to the design, so he gets paid nothing for the use  — in the film, on tourist T-shirts, or anyplace else.

4.  With Variety Magazine in hand, the Muppets venture off to pitch the show to big Broadway producers.  The first, disreputable Martin Price (Dabney Coleman), has offices at the Paramount Building (1501 Broadway) in Times Square.

Originally built for the film company Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation in 1926, it rapidly became a key center for Broadway theater wheeling-and-dealing, “a hive of suites where ideas are hatched, partnerships forged, contracts signed, legends born,” according the New York Times.  In the basement was a Walgreen’s lunch counter, popular with struggling actors and writers, “a poor man’s Sardi’s”.

 Between 1979 and 1982, there were over 7,000 reported murders in New York City. (In comparison, there were less than 2,000 between 2009-2012.).  This partially explains the dialogue exchange between Kermit and Price: “Well, it’s all about life in the big city.” “The big city? Cops, shootings, car chases — that kind of stuff?

5. With no luck finding a producer, the Muppets sullenly trudge down a street in the West Village — Varick Street, between Downing and West Houston.  You can see the subway entrance in this scene as well as the green Graphic Arts Center Building. (Just out of view — the Film Forum.)  They find solace at Pete’s Luncheonette, which resides on the Downing Street corner.  Today it’s a McDonalds (at left).

6. Rizzo the Rat delivers a hamburger with no patty to a customer.  He turns and shouts to Pete: “Hey Pete. Where’s the beef?”  The first Wendy’s commercial featuring the ‘Where’s The Beef’ lady Clara Peller debuted in January 1984 — after principal filming was completed — so this is most likely a weird coincidence.

7. Hopeless that their musical will ever be produced, everyone decides to leave town except Kermit.  Scooter bikes away through New Jersey, Fozzie hops a train hobo-style, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem hitch a ride to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  But, no surprise, Miss Piggy’s departure is the most glamorous, taking one of Thomas Edison’s original 1930 electric traincars from Hoboken Terminal.





“You hear me, New York? We’re going to be on Broadway. You hear that, New York? I’m staying here! The Frog is staying!”

8. A dejected Kermit the Frog finds some renewed encouragement when he visits the Empire State Building‘s observation deck, looking north over the darkened city.  To the right is the Pan Am Building which would remain branded with the airline’s logo until 1992, when it would become the Met Life Building.

However, presuming this scene was filmed in 1983, Kermit would not have been the only animal superstar on the Empire State Building.  In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the movie King Kong, a 3,000 lb nylon King Kong balloon was attached to the top of the building. (Photo courtesy Hamburg News/New York Daily News)

9. Kermit meets up with Pete’s daughter Jenny, a wanna-be fashion designer, in front of the Plaza Hotel, with everything in Grand Army Plaza looking almost the same as it does today.

For some reason, those grumpy curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf are sitting on a bench, sunning themselves.  The duo has a rather profound link to New York City history; they’re both named for classic New York hotels — the Statler (today’s Hotel Pennsylvania) and the Waldorf Astoria.  And, yes, Waldorf’s wife is actually named Astoria.  She appeared in this 1979 episode of The Muppet Show starring Dizzy Gillespie.

10.  Miss Piggy is spying on Kermit from under a scaffolding in front of Bergdorf Goodman. (Just as we missed out on a shot of the Film Forum earlier, so too is Bergdorf’s neighbor The Paris Theater cut from view.)  It’s later revealed she’s working at a perfume and makeup counter with Joan Rivers.  This was not far-fetched casting; before making it big as a comic, Rivers worked as a fashion consultant for Bond Clothing Stores and even designed window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor.

11.  What are the rest of the Muppets up to?  Scooter works at a Cleveland movie theater, with the Swedish Chef manning concessions.  The film playing there is Attack of the Killer Fish in 3D, an obvious parody of 1978’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Believe it or not, Killer Tomatoes owes a small New York film festival for some of its cult cred.  Two years after it was produced, the film piqued the curiosity of the media when it screened at the World’s Worst Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre in 1980, co-hosted by movie critic Michael Medved.

The film festival was a de facto Woodstock for schlock cinema, with Killer Tomatoes a star attraction.  Said co-writer John DeBello, “The Wall Street Journal had the poster on its front page, the CBS Evening News used the song to close their credits.  When people heard the title, just like when I heard the title, people loved it.”  At right: Killer Tomatoes at the Beacon Theatre.

12.  Sardi’s Restaurant takes center stage of perhaps the film’s most famous scene, as Kermit, disguised as an elegant producer, sends Rizzo’s rat friends in to create a ‘whisper campaign’ about his new musical.

Sardi’s has been inextricably linked to the Broadway industry since its opening in 1927, hosting hundreds of cast parties, business meetings and probably a few professional break-ups.  It even gave birth to the Tony Awards.  (You can listen to the whole fabulous tale of Sardi’s in our 2011 podcast.)

Vincent Sardi Jr., who appears in the film (see below), hosted the glittering greats of Broadway for over a half-century. He was considered the unofficial “Mayor of Broadway.

Kermit also squeezes his own likeness onto Sardi’s famous wall of caricatures. To do so, he must take down that of Liza Minelli, which does not please her.

In fact, not only does Liza’s caricature still appear at Sardi’s, Kermit’s is still there too.  (At least last time I checked!)  Liza’s is by Brooklyn artist Richard Baratz.  Look for his other likeness of Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Whoopi Goldberg and dozens more.  Kermit’s?  No one knows who drew that.

13. Jenny consoles Kermit in Central Park, somewhere on Cherry Hill, next to Bethesda Fountain.  Near this spot was the site of New York City’s first-ever frog jumping competition in 1935, inspired by Mark Twain’s short story “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calavaras County.”

Local children’s organizations could sponsor one of 175 frogs shipped in from Louisiana.  But this was not a trivial event.  Ten thousand people took part, with former governor Al Smith presiding over the event and boxer Jack Dempsey serving as referee.  The winner was a female frog named Abbie Villaret. (You can see a picture here.)

14.  Central Park is depicted as a destination for people in exercise clothes and a place to ride through in carriages.  Oh, and the place you get mugged.  While Piggy is spying on Kermit, a mugger grabs her purse. (The mugger is played by Gary Tacon. Today he’s an accomplished stuntman and was recently in The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Crime was a factor people assumed was a regular component of New York’s most famous park.  In 1982, the year it set an attendance record of 14.2 million, there were 22 reported rapes and over 700 robberies.  [source] Although it would take several years to meaningfully reduce crime, the park’s infrastructure steadily improved, thanks to the efforts of the Central Park Conservancy.

Oh, by the way, Piggy borrows roller-skates from Gregory Hines, chases down her assailant and retrieves her purse.  Here’s a video of some fine roller-skating style exhibited in the park during the 1980s:

15. Of the many special guests who appear in the film, the hottest star of the moment was perhaps Brooke Shields.  The Blue Lagoon star filmed this cameo at Pete’s Luncheonette a few months before entering Princeton:

Masterson the Rat:  Do you believe in interspecies dating?
Brooke:  Well, I’ve gone out with a few rats if that’s what you mean.

In 1982, Shields briefly dated John F. Kennedy Jr. and took Ted McGinley to her prom.

16. Meanwhile where’s Gonzo?  He’s trying to make a living on the road, performing in an aquacade in Michigan.  But these acrobatic scenes were actually filmed closer to home — Rye Playland, the historic amusement park overlooking the Long Island Sound.  Gonzo’s fiery derring-do takes place by the Playland Lake (in the top right corner of the 1927 picture below, courtesy NYPL).

Four years after Gonzo conquers the park, a young boy consults an arcade fortune teller here at Rye Playland and becomes Tom Hanks in the movie Big.

“Just because the whole thing is crazy doesn’t mean it won’t make it on Broadway!”

17. Finally, somebody’s interested in Manhattan Melodies’!  Playing esteemed producer Bernard Crawford is Art Carney, who had acted on Broadway for almost thirty years by this time, not to mention, of course, his performance as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners.

But it’s Bernard’s son Ronnie who takes on Kermit’s script to produce and direct.  He’s played by Lonny Price in a role that would almost precisely predict his future.

Price was an in-demand theater actor (best known for Broadway’s “Master Harold”…and the Boys) before Muppets.  Afterwards, he became an in-demand theater director, recently helming 110 in the Shade with Audra McDonald and a new variation of Camelot with the New York Philharmonic.

18. Things are looking up for Kermit when he is suddenly hit by a cab in front of Madison Square Garden. And not just any cab, but a Checker Taxi, which had actually ceased manufacturing in 1982.  They stayed on city streets for several years after.  According to the New York Times, there were ten left in 1993.  The final one left service in 1999.  Photo above courtesy Inside New York.


19. Kermit’s accident gave him amnesia, and confused about his identity, he gets a job at Mad Ave Advertising, a Madison Avenue advertising firm.  Decades before Mad Men, Kermit is immediately thrown into pitch meetings, displaying a Don Draper-like salesmanship.  Unlike the offices of Sterling Cooper, female frogs seem to be treated equally. (At least in name — Bill, Gil and Jill.)

1982 was a turbulent year for New York advertising firms with dozens of buyouts and mergers, including one between Madison Avenue’s two largest firmsSaatchi and Saatchi and Compton Advertising — worth over a billion and a half dollars.  Given that Mad Ave Advertising is seeking the assistance of an amnesia patient, it doesn’t seem like this firm will be long for this world.

20. The Muppets tear through Manhattan, looking for Kermit.  Scooter races his bike by the Shubert Theater and its smash hit A Chorus Line.  In September 1983, the show became Broadway’s longest-running show of its day.  By the time The Muppets Take Manhattan opened in movie theaters, a movie version of Chorus was already begun filming in New York.

Other Muppets search the New York Public Library, Central Park, even the sewer.

But it’s Gonzo that gets the privilege of interrupting Mayor Ed Koch during a press conference at Gracie Mansion.

Gonzo: I’m looking for a frog that can sing and dance!

Koch: If he can also balance the budget, then I’ll hire him.

Koch had a special affection for Gracie Mansion, throwing weekly dinner parties there and organizing press conferences on the porch.  Having the mayor of New York live elsewhere, said Koch, would be “like asking the president not to live at the White House.” [source]

The mayor made several appearances with the Muppets throughout his tenure.  The mayor’s itinerary from June 28, 1984 reads as follows:  “Courtesy call with Yasushi Oshima, Mayor of Osaka, Japan; views new uniforms for Taxi and Limousine Commission inspectors; accepts check for $500,000 donated by Mobil Corporation for the Summer Youth Employment Program’s Clean Team; attends Financial Control Board meeting; drops in at reception celebrating the opening of The Muppets Take Manhattan.”

The Biltmore Theater in 1944

21. Finally, Manhattan Melodies opens! And on a swanky stage too — the Biltmore Theater.  A stage that unfortunately is on its last legs in the film.

The Biltmore opened in 1925 and hosted dozens of shows in Broadway’s golden years.  After briefly becoming a CBS television studio, it reverted back to live theater and was most notably the home for the Broadway transfer of Hair in 1968.  The line-up of shows that appeared here in the early 1980s include Deathtrap with Victor Garber and the Garry Trudeau-written musical Doonesbury.

However, in 1987, the theater was ravaged by fire, most likely arson.  According to the New York Times report, “Hypodermic needles were found inside the theater, indicating that drug users may have been using it as a shooting gallery, and storage lockers had been rifled.” 

The theater finally reopened in 2008 — under the ownership of the Manhattan Theatre Club — as the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, named for the renown Broadway publicist.  Opening there next month — Casa Valentina written by Harvey Fierstein.  He happens to be a regular in the Muppets universe; Fierstein has starred on Sesame Street, in the film Elmo Saves Christmas, and even wrote a recipe for Miss Piggy’s cookbook in 1996.

As quickly as the show begins, however we cut to a shot of a wedding chapel for the nuptials of Kermit and Piggy.  Nearly all the existing Muppets appear in this scene. (Muppets Wiki actually has a complete seating chart.)   Piggy’s gown gives a subtle nod to that of Princess Diana’s when she wed Charles in 1981.

AFTERWORD:  The Muppets Take Manhattan was a modest box office success when it opened in July 1984.  The film was up for the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song Score.  But the film lost the award to Prince for Purple Rain.

The artist took to the stage wearing a garment which Miss Piggy would have desperately coveted:

My thanks to the Muppets Wiki for the inspiration for this article..  All images are courtesy Tri-Star Pictures/Jim Henson

A giant Coke bottle atop the Empire State Building? Almost.

Did you see the spectacular debut of the Empire State Building‘s new LED lights last night, choreographed to the music of Alicia Keys, being simultaneously broadcast on four New York radio stations?

 

 The allure of the Empire State Building as a glamorous light spectacle has been around almost since the mast — originally designed, but never used, as a mooring mast for zeppelins — was raised in 1931.

Nearby Times Square was bathed in the light of neon advertisement, and its master of manipulation was lighting designer Douglas Leigh.  The iconic beacon would have been irresistible to Leigh, and in 1941, he proposed for the top of the Empire State something that would have been easily his most ambitious, most striking lighting display to date — an illuminated bottle of Coca-Cola.

According to author John Tauranac, the famous curvaceous bottle would have sat along the spire, changing color based upon the weather. It was one of several potential Empire State Building/Coke tie-ins planned, including a Coke-sponsored performance by the orchestra of Andre Kostelanetz performed at the top, broadcast nationwide on the radio. Coke products would have featured “a small guide to decipher the colors.

The Empire State Building could have used this publicity at this time, as owners were scrambling to fill vacancies within the building. With Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and dozens of other towers now constructed, midtown Manhattan was experiencing a glut of office space.  A Coke sponsorship would have given the Empire State Building free publicity, not to mention sizable rental fees.

Below: Leigh’s famous smoking Camel ad in midtown Manhattan. The Empire State Building can be seen up in the corner.

But Leigh’s timing was terrible; even as the plan was being drafted, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and America entered World War II.  During the war, there would be no lights at all atop the building or in its upper floors.

A few years later, in July 1945, a B-25 bomber would crash into the Empire State Building, killing the pilot and several within the building. More amazing facts about that tragic accident here.

Leigh never gave up his dream of transforming the Empire State Building. After the war, Leigh told Life Magazine he wanted to put a gigantic, lighted cigarette on the building. [source]  Many decades later, Leigh would finally get his chance — albeit without product placement — designing a new, colorful lighting system  in time for the country’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

New York landmarks: No stranger to lightning

The city received a right, proper Transylvania-style thunderstorm this weekend, with more than a few bolts streaking overhead early Sunday morning. You might find this shocking: According to the National Weather Service, the Empire State Building is struck by lightning an average of 23 times a year, or slightly more than one might be comfortable with while standing in its observation deck. [source: NYC.gov]

Ten years ago, the brunt of New York’s lightning strikes not surprisingly hit the World Trade Center, the tallest building in the city. In fact, after the towers fell, scientists worried about an uptick of lightning fatalities in the city.

Lightning has thrilled and frightened New Yorkers even before the days of skyscrapers. A letter in a May 1853 issue of the New York Times mentions a large loss of life in the city due to lightning strikes and urges property owner to equip themselves with Benjamin Franklin’s century-old invention of the lightning rod. No rods were evident a couple months later in Green-Wood Cemetery, when a series of bolts destroyed part of its new picket fence.

Meanwhile, lightning might have presented itself a most dangerous hazard (after drowning, heatstroke and overdrinking) along Brooklyn’s southern beaches back in its glory days. A few cursory searches on news articles from the 1890s-1910s brings up a few horrifying articles. From 1893: “ONE KILLED, THREE INJURED; LIGHTNING STRIKES A BATHING PAVILION AT CONEY ISLAND.” While in 1905, a series of lightning strikes killed five and injured eight, including a death at Ulmer Park.

According to a 1884 journal on the wonders of electricity, an errant bolt even struck the Brooklyn Bridge while it was under construction, snapping a mast and sending currents through the wires.

Above: An Arent cigarette card, from the Age of Wonder and Power series. Yes, collectible cards in a cigarette box! (Courtesy NYPL)

Today in history: crash at the Empire State Building!

Above: War-time Empire State Building, circa 1943. The upper floors would dim at night to conserve energy costs (Photo Andreas Feininger)

Sixty-four years ago today, July 28, 1945, a B-25 bomber on its way to Newark Airport accidentally meandered over the foggy city and smashed into the Empire State Building. Some rather startling details of the event:

— The pilot, Lt. Colonel William Smith, was simply on his way to pick up his commanding officer

— Finding himself off-course and over the city, Smith managed to avoid crashing into the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center and the New York Central building (today’s Helmsley Building).

— It was impenetrably foggy that morning, which would explain his final words: “From where I’m sitting, I can’t see the top of the Empire State Building”

— It was a Saturday, however a few businesses were open that day. As a result 11 people in the building died that day, on top of the three crewmen in the plane. Eight employees of the Catholic War Relief Office, on the 79th floor, were killed.

— One engine crashed through the entire length of the building and came out the other side to land and promptly destroy the penthouse apartment (and thousands of dollars of artwork) of sculptor Henry Herring at 10 W. 33rd Street, a building owned by Vincent Astor.

Betty Lou Oliver, on the 80th floor, barely escaped the crash, but when rescuers attempted to lower her out of the building via the elevator, the cables snapped and she and the elevator car plummeted 75 stories (over 1,000 feet). She survived.

— The Army ended up shelling out payments for damage, including compensation for a restaurant plate-glass window that had been blown out over ten blocks away.

(Above: Ernie Sisto’s famous front-page photograph of the wreckage for the New York Times)

Empire State Building suicides: a morbid tradition

Yesterday the media reported the grim news that a woman committed suicide by leaping out a 39-story window of the Empire State Building. The woman was an employee in the building; however New York’s most recognizable symbol, and its 102 floors, has been the final destination for over 30 people since it opened its doors in 1931. (According to one source, 35 as of 2006. Make that 36, I guess.)

Why do people choose famous places to leap from? Is it simply to grab attention, to attach a sense of the iconic to your final moment? Are they hoping they get caught before leaping? The Empire State, destined to represent the city’s promise and pure ambition, has also been a magnet for morbid thoughts even during its construction.

A construction worker, laid off in a swath of Great Depression job cuts, jumped from the building before it was even completed. (He chose to go in a different direction : the elevator shaft.) In 1947, a 23 year old woman jumped from the building to hit a United Nations limousine, resulting in an extremely famous Life Magazine photograph. (Go ahead, look. It’s strangely serene.) In fact, there were a rash of suicide attempts from the observation deck in 1947, including one jumper who seriously injured a pedestrian walking in the street below.

According to a paper by the New York Academy of Medicine, midtown Manhattan has seen dozens of suicides over the years, particularly from non-residents of the city, combining fantasies of their own ends with those of the city’s grandeur. This has of course caused safety concerns for people on the ground — “They said the man landed on a van parked on 33d Street” says a New York Times account of one event in 1981 — to the extent that the Empire State Building has had ‘suicide fences’ on its observation deck for many years. (Since, no surprise, 1947.)

However, believe it or not, somebody did survive a leap from the Empire State Building. She just didn’t fall very far.

As the story goes, in 1979, a depressed woman Elvita Adams jumped from the 86th floor to end her life. Yet the wind gusts can be quite powerful that high up and, unfortunately for her, one powerful gust actually blew her back into the building one floor below, breaking her hip. She was apprehended before she could try again. (And really, if something that extraordinary happens, she might have wanted to reconsider it anyway.)

Of course, not everybody who attempts this horrible leap has a deathwish. Stunt aficionado Jeb Corliss was arrested in April 2006 when he tried to leap from the building wearing a parachute. Some of you may remember the heart stopping video of the man being apprehended from the other side of the fences. (A screenshot is below.)

Having just written all of that, I almost feel required to put information for the New York Suicide and Crisis Hotline. You may now return to enjoying the Empire State Building as the vibrant, living, joyous icon of the city.

Gimbels Bridge over troubled shoppers

The blocks just south of Herald Square are pretty grim. Malls full of chain stores, bland electronic store fronts and fast food restaurants disguise a once vibrant shopping outpost, as department-store competitors of Macy’s flocked to the neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century. One strange vestige of this retail nostalgia still exists, in the form of a fabulous green copper traverse above 32nd Street.

Gimbels was a more than worthy adversary of nearby Macy’s. The two were Coke and Pepsi of early American shopping, with an early, antiquated catchphrase ‘Well, would Macy’s tell Gimbels?’ exemplifying the top-secret, competitive tactics of the business world.

Yet Macy’s was always the more respectable brand. Gimbels arrived in the Herald Square area in 1910 with a lackluster building by no less than Daniel Burnham (of Flatiron Building fame) who was clearly having an off-day. Despite (or perhaps, because of) innovations such as the first ‘bargain basement’, Gimbels never reached the same hallmarks of class and reputation that Macy’s did.

One way in which the Gimbel family did one-up its competitor was branching to a more fashionable street — Fifth Avenue. It did that by merging with its neighbor, Saks Thirty-Fourth Street, in 1922. Two years later, Saks Fifth Avenue, a joint venture of the Gimbels and the Saks, opened uptown and one block over.

Symbolically bridged to more desirable Fifth Avenue, Gimbels decided to link its Herald Square store more literally with a recently acquired annex across the street, building a custom traverse in 1925, a beautiful copper bridge, three story tall, created by the Richmond Shreve and William Lamb, a teeth-cutting project for two young architects who would go on to help design the Empire State Building.

Both the original Gimbels store and its annex have been horribly modified over the years, becoming Manhattan’s saddest mall. Yet, for some amazing reason, the copper bridge has been left virtually intact. Until the 1990s, both ends of the bridge were completely walled off and were only reopened to replace the bridge windows. Despite some fears that it might be getting ripped down, the musty but still beautiful sky bridge still hangs high above shopper’s heads, a reminder of a universe of cut-throat department-store wars.

Picture courtesy Flickr/moufle

Bowery Boys get older! Plus: 200 years of fire hydrants

Early engraving of some Bowery b’hoys lolling about a fire hydrant, up to no good

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of our very first podcast. We just want to say thank you to everybody who has subscribed on iTunes and other podcast services. Our first year has been a huge success and we have a lot of exciting plans coming up for year two!

I know we have some rather massive topics that we’ve yet to cover (Empire State Building, the subway system, Central Park) but we’ll get to most of them in the coming months, as well as experimenting with some more obscure topics.

I’ll try and keep updating this blog 4-5 times a week depending on my schedule.

Again, it’s been a blast so far and we’ve got lots of great ideas to keep improving the show. Thanks for letting us go ballistic geeky about this city that we love.

And now, more old New York City fire hydrant pictures. Why you ask? This year is the 200th anniversary of the very first hydrant in the city. Go here for a fairly comprehensive history of these invaluable street features:

Below: more fire hydrant shenanigans, this time from some wacky Lower East Side kids, picture dated July 9, 1936

Also from the 30s, a more sedate usage of a hydrant, a father and his son take a sip with the five-year-old Empire State Building in the background

A fireman from 1908 (Photo courtesy Old Picture of the Day)