on December 2, 2010
If Manhattan is famous for one thing it is its skyscrapers. Okay, the iron-frame construction that allowed buildings to tower so far overhead that they caress the clouds may have been pioneered in Chicago. Okay, so New York no longer holds any of the top 10 tallest skyscrapers in the world (its current best is 15th place). Yet New York more than anywhere else witnessed the apotheosis of the skyscraper. Nowhere else is there such a concentration of these manmade pinnacles lining canyon-like streets, forming their own reefs and mountain ranges. New York and skyscrapers are as inextricably linked as pastrami and rye.Ascending a skyscraper is a must whilst in New York. And essentially the visitor has two options. The first is the Empire State Building. This of course has many advantages. The Empire State Building is the iconic building of New York. It has been immortalised in movies like An Affair To Remember, Sleepless In Seattle and – of course - King Kong. It is the tallest building in the city and the 15th tallest building in the world. By choosing to ascend to its 86th or 102nd floor ‘observatories’ you get higher in New York than anywhere else. You area also well-placed for views south to the tip of Manhattan. All this comes at a price however: $22 for the 86th floor, and an additional $15 if you want to go up to the 102nd. Furthermore, the queues are legendary!I took the second option, which was to visit the Rockefeller Center, a network of Art Deco buildings constructed during the ‘30s under the direction of John D Rockefeller Jr.. Here, for the ‘bargain’ price of $21 each we bought tickets allowing us access to the observation decks on the 68th, 69th and 70th floors of the GE Building – the ’Top of the Rock’. While not as high as the Empire State’s Observatory (it is only the 9th tallest building in New York City), one of the ‘Rock’s’ big advantages is that from here we could actually see the Empire State Building to the south, its instantly recognisable silhouette dominating mid-town Manhattan. It does indeed soar far higher than any of its neighbours, plonked plumb centre on Manhattan’s axis. Its shape reminded me of an art deco space rocket – or a bulky and rather unpleasant syringe – due to its spindly mast (once used for mooring dirigibles). Beyond it glimmered New York harbour and its speckling of islands; on one the Statue of Liberty could just be seem, dwarfed by scale and distance. The other advantage of the Rock is that by turning north we had a spectacular view down the length of Central Park, a lushly wooded moss-green rectangle hemmed in by tower blocks. We could make out individual features – the shimmer of water from the Lake and the Reservoir, open exapanses of grass marking the Great lawn and Sheep Meadow, and the sizeable jut of the Metropolitan Museum of Art into the eastern section of the Park. To the east we could see over the East River to Brooklyn and Queens (though sadly the beautiful Chrysler Building was mostly obscured by another, less aesthetically pleasing skyscraper). And to the west the sun was sinking, sheening the Hudson River bronze and throwing the long shadows of New Jersey across towards the USS Intrepid.The 68th and 69th floors have viewing terraces which wrap around the exteior of the building; these have tall sheet glass barriers to prevent any accidents or suicides (and hence protect themselves from lawsuits). On the 70th, the very top of the building, these are absent – as the terrace is set back from those below any potential jumper would only be able to plummet one story. The views are vertiginous however, and people with a fear of heights maybe won’t get the best out of a visit.And essentially that is it. The good folk at the GE Building have tried to jazz things up a little bit. Beyond the ticket desk downstairs are displays and video documentaries playing up the importance of the Center in New York and painting the Rockefeller dynasty as benevolent philathropists and visionaries. You can have your photo taken on a replica iron girder to recreate the famous 1932 ‘Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper’ image and then have that printed out or put on a keyring or t-shirt for ridiculous prices. And the lift up to the 68th floor has some rather natty projections designed to give the impression that you are flying through time and space – very Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. But all that is merely window-dressing. What we came for were the views over New York. And I find it hard to believe that these views can be beaten.
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