- Historic Sites
ROBERT MOSES built small with the same imperial vigor as he built big, and at his behest the art of making scale-model cities reached its peak. The result still survives, and although few New Yorkers know about it, they can see their whole town—right down to their own houses or apartment buildings—perfectly reproduced.
December 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 8
All, however, is not crumbling or lost. In the heart of the Queens Museum of Art is a superb fragment of the 1964 World’s Fair that the vast majority of New Yorkers have no idea exists. It is a model, a model of New York City, an incredible 9,335- square-foot rendering of all five boroughs in miniature. Photographs only hint at the impact of this miniature metropolis. Conceived by the builder Robert Moses, the Panorama of New York City has to be seen to be believed.
During the half-century he controlled New York’s public works, Robert Moses personally conceived and built a remarkable assortment of bridges, highways, parks, public housing, and major civic structures costing more than $27 billion. His biographer Robert Caro calls him “the greatest builder America (and probably the world) has ever known.” Throughout his career Moses commissioned scale models of his proposed projects and had them prominently displayed to marshal public favor. As his projects grew in scale and ambition, so did the size and complexity of his models.
The 1964 New York World’s Fair offered Moses the two things he liked best: power and reputation. The fair also gave him the opportunity to show the world how he, more than any other individual, had shaped twentieth-century New York City. To do this, he would build the world’s largest scale model, the Panorama of New York City. Every building in the five boroughs would be represented, a total of more than 830,000 wood and plastic structures, built to a scale of one inch to a hundred feet.
The Panorama would emphasize the building czar’s myriad accomplishments. The sixteen highways and seven mighty bridges, the Coliseum, Shea Stadium, Co-Op City, the United Nations complex, Lincoln Center, hundreds of parks, public and private housing—all would be there.
The year plans for the fair were announced, 1959, found Moses in an unaccustomed position: He was fighting for his political life. The man who at one time held twelve different state and city jobs and whose philosophy was “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize” had made a lot of enemies. Reporters managed to link Moses’s slum-clearance agency to organized crime, and headlines blared the accusations. When Moses accepted his appointment as president of the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair Corporation in February of 1960, he needed the fair as much as it needed him.
Moses was far too astute to have missed the fact that the most popular exhibit at the earlier fair was the Futurama, designed by Norman Bel Geddes for the General Motors Pavilion. People waited in line for hours to sit in moving chairs and travel alone the edge of a 35,738-foot model landscape that predicted what GM thought America would look like in 1960 (there were a lot of highways).
Nearby, housed in the Perisphere, which with the Trylon made up the fair’s still-ubiquitous symbol, was Democracity, Norman Bel Geddes’s model for the soaring, trouble-free metropolis of 2039.
Both the Futurama and Democracity were destroyed when the fair closed, and that wasn’t going to happen to Moses’s masterpiece. The contract for the Panorama specifically stated: “The complete model should be designed as a comprehensive planning and study device for use after the closing of the World’s Fair.”
To build his Panorama, Moses chose Raymond Lester, a model railroader with a background in graphic design who had got his start building models for the Navy during World War II. After the war Lester opened a shop in New York City’s Greenwich Village. As business grew, he moved his operation to Westchester and later to West Nyack, north of the city. His clients included major architectural firms, the U.S. government, IBM, and General Electric.