- 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
In 1954 Lester Associates built its first model for Moses’s Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority, the organization under which Moses operated his empire. It was a rather modest rendering of the New York Coliseum, being planned for Columbus Circle, but during the next fifteen years Lester would create ever-larger models for Moses, including such projects as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the never-completed Lower Manhattan and Mid-Manhattan expressways, and the visitors’ centers at Niagara Falls and at Massena, New York. It was all good practice for what Moses had in mind for the fair.
Moses demanded accuracy in all his models, and the contract for the Panorama allowed for only a one percent margin of error. Joseph Ivanick and Werner Neuburger both were involved in collecting information for it, and Ivanick, the president of Lester Associates, remembers the challenge very well: “Everybody thought we could call the city and there would be a book that had every building and street in the five boroughs. Nothing like that existed, and it was then that we realized what a problem we had undertaken.”
“The job was awe-inspiring,” recalls Neuburger, now the firm’s executive vice president, who was in charge of engineering and production. “I don’t think anybody had any idea of what we were getting into.”
To ensure the mandated accuracy, city land maps (designed for tax and insurance purposes) were used. Continually updated, the maps detailed the city, block by block, including the ground plan of every structure, its height, and the materials used. In addition, Lester researchers consulted 109 vertical and 5,000 oblique aerial photographs, thousands of photographs of individual and distinctive structures, 19 U.S. Geological Survey contour maps, and 35 maps produced by the Sanborn Map Company showing the location of municipal buildings and services.
MOSES demanded accuracy in all his models; the contract for the Panorama allowed for only a one percent margin of error.
Since the Panorama was designed to be portable, it was built in 273 sections. The 186 central panels measure four by ten feet; the ones near the edge were cut to fit the city’s profile. Each panel stands on metal legs that lift it above what once was the skating rink. The Panorama required four years to build and cost $672,662.69.
Many innovative techniques and materials went into the miniature city. Each section was made of flakeboard (a material similar to plywood) topped by high-density urethane foam sheets, a material that had only recently been developed. Using the Geological Survey maps as guides, the model makers traced the shorelines and elevations of New York onto the urethane foam, which was then sculpted to shape. Lester deviated from absolute accuracy only to take some artistic liberty with the city’s elevations; exaggerating certain topographic features made them more visible.
Lester designed 190 standardized shapes to represent the majority of the city’s buildings—one- and two-story houses, small industrial buildings, brownstones, tenements, and four-and five-floor apartments—and another twenty-four shapes that could be combined in various ways to create the more than one hundred thousand large but basically geometric buildings scattered throughout the city.
The landmarks that give New York its distinctive skyline, the skyscrapers, large factories, colleges, hospitals, museums, major churches—twenty-five thousand in all—were custom-built. The largest building in New York at the time the Panorama was constructed was the Empire State, and a scale of one inch to a hundred feet means its model stands only fifteen inches high. Since this doesn’t leave much room for detail, there was no attempt to portray windows accurately. Standardized stencils were created, and since the Panorama incorporates a lighting cycle that simulates day to night, the windows were painted with phosphorescent paint. As the miniature buildings were completed, they were glued into position.