"The gardens are closed." What a disappointment! There they are still, spreading down to the East River with well-kept lawns, trees that are graceful and mature, manicured shrubs, walks and paths flanked by beds of annuals and perennials—all closed. Well within eyesight, enticing as ever—yet all closed. Closed because this is the United Nations compound, this is New York City, and this is the post-9/11 world.
The United Nations Headquarters compound was high on the agenda for Himself and Yours Truly during our most recent trip to New York. We’d never been, and the political symbolism of the UN is important to us. We may be many nations, but we are one world. Like most Americans, we believe in the central ethic of the UN, a body that aspires to bringing peace, justice, and prosperity to all the peoples of the Earth. It’s a noble purpose, and while we humans may quibble with many of the details, the goals themselves are easy to embrace.
We visited the United Nations on a cool, overcast day in late April. The intermittent rain meant that the flags lining the perimeter were not out, which was a small disappointment. Security was clearly evident, given prominence by those familiar barriers we all come to expect with equal measures of dread and relief. Behind the barrier stood the familiar outline of the UN—the tall, slender Secretariat building (39 floors); the General Assembly building with its low, curving roofline; and the Dag Hammarskjold Library with its pagoda-like penthouse. The fourth main structure, the UN Conference building, is tucked quietly out of sight behind the Secretariat building. After being motioned through a gate in the security fence, we stepped from the United States in the international territory of UN enclave—no passports required, perhaps because it belongs to the citizens of all member states.
Before entering the Public Lobby, we wandered about the Plaza inspecting the symbolic sculptures nearest the building. Here we gasped over Carl Fredrik Reutersward’s sculpture Non-Violence, a giant revolver with the barrel twisted into a knot and the barrel tip pointing upward. Just as eye-catching, if less startling, is Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Sphere within a Sphere, with highly polished reflective surfaces that (if one pays attention) quite literally place the viewer within the piece being viewed—hardly a happy coincidence, I should think.
The Public Lobby is a multi-function area that serves as an information center and an exhibit space. When we visited, "Empower Women: 30 Years of the United Nations Efforts to promote Gender Equality" was the featured in the main exhibition area, and "Water for Life: An Exhibition by Students from the High of School of Art and Design New York" occupied a corner of the lobby reserved for assembling tour group. Both themes focus attention toward ongoing campaigns sponsored by the UN.
Important work or art contributed to the UN by member states and individuals are also showcased in the lobby. Be looking for these, but the area is large, and it’s easy to overlook even such impressive pieces are Chagall’s Peace and Humankind, the Foucault Pendulum, and series of portraits of the Secretaries General, past and present.
The information center and ticket desk for tour groups are also located in the lobby. Visitors taking the tour should plan 45 minutes to an hour at intervals assigned at the time of purchase. Groups are kept small, with English-speaking tours offered daily from 9:30am to 4:45pm. (There are a few exceptions to this, so be sure to check ahead of time to accommodate your particular itinerary.) Each visitor taking the tour is issued a badge to wear for the duration and is advised that security concerns require that they stay with their group and not wander. Badges are counted and collected as visitors return to the public area.
Our tour occurred late in the day, and unfortunately, our guide was in a hurry. Although she seemed to make all the required stops, including the chambers used by the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Trusteeship Council, and the Economic and Social Council, she began each station with an instruction that "time will be allowed later for photos" and ended each with a flourish, the briefest of photo ops, and a push toward the next stop. Despite the rush, her presentations were interesting and informative. Visitors approaching the tour cold, with little knowledge of the United Nations and how it works, will find wonderful nuggets of information to carry away. Still, too little time was provided to appreciate the drama of our surroundings—much less to acquire those treasured photos.
Other than the chambers themselves, highlights of the tour included information about various pieces of artwork on display, including The Golden Rule, a mosaic based on a Norman Rockwell painting and presented by the United States; Chengtu-Kunming Railway, an elaborate ivory carving present by the People’s Republic of China; and a 20m-long mural by Jose Zola Zanetti on humanity’s struggle to build a lasting peace, donated by the Guggenheim Foundation. Perhaps the most moving artifact shown during the tour was a stone statue of Saint Agnes that survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The statue was found in the ruins of a Roman Catholic cathedral located about a quarter mile from Ground Zero. The back of the statue is still blackened and shows signs of melting caused by the intense heat of the bomb, whereas the front side presents a serene face to the world, with St. Agnes gently holding her lamb.
Leaving the tour, visitors may opt to return to the public lobby or descend to the basement, where the coffee shop, bookstore, and gift centers are located. Vending machines and restrooms are also found on this level. Tucked into a corner of this basement level is the UN post office, where one can purchase stamps and other philatelic collectables. Cards and letters posted here will carry UN stamps and be franked with the UN postmark—another indication of the UN’s extraterritorial status.
Exiting the General Assembly building, we took a bit more time to wander the plaza to its maximum permissible limits, noting the river walk from a distance, taking in a pink cloud of spring-blossoming ornamentals and spying the far-off outlines of a handful of the statues set in the UN gardens—including the well-known Statue of Peace. It would seem that Peace, like the gardens themselves, is temporarily off limits. With the help a good zoom lens, however, one might still catch a glimpse.
Wherefores and By-the-Ways for Visiting the UN
For tour information, call 212/963-8687. Special group tours and tours in languages other than English must be arranged ahead of time.
1st Avenue at E. 46 St., New York, NY
M-F – 9:30 to 4:45
S-S – 10 to 4:30
During January and February, tours are available on Monday through Friday only.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.
Students (HS/college) $7.50
Students (grades 1-8) $6.50
Children under 5 not admitted.