- 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
THE PANORAMA is built on a scale of one inch to a hundred feet, which means that the Empire State Building stands only fifteen inches high.
One of the most impressive features of the Panorama is its thirty-five bridges. Another innovative technique simulated the supporting structures and spider-web-like cables. Detailed line drawings of the bridges, made using the original blueprints, were transferred to sheets of thin brass by a photographic process. When the brass sheets were dipped in acid, the unexposed areas dissolved. This etched brass process is used today by modelers to create a multitude of detail parts.
A complex lighting system installed on the Panorama identified various city agencies and departments by color-coding through the use of a primitive form of fiber optics. Different colors identified each agency’s function: protection, education, health, recreation, commerce, welfare, and transportation.
The model was finished and installed in all its complexity when the fair opened on April 22, 1964. Visitors entered the lobby of the New York City Pavilion, which featured a model of New Amsterdam as it appeared in 1660—a dramatic contrast with what lay beyond. They then paid ten cents to take what was billed as a “helicopter ride” around the Panorama. While they traversed the model’s perimeter in tracked cars that each carried four passengers, an audiotape commentary by Lowell Thomas celebrated the “center of civilization, this electric metropolis has opened opportunity to all, and its reward has been greatness.” Exiting the ride, visitors went through a corridor designed to look like a much-sanitized Times Square at night. This led to a glass-enclosed balcony overlooking the Panorama where they could watch the day-to-night lighting cycle and listen to more Lowell Thomas.
COMPUTERS and cinema now make it relatively easy to create a simulated city; nothing like the Panorama will ever be built again.
The Panorama was a great success, and tens of thousands of people saw it. When the fair closed, Moses intended to move his little city to Manhattan, first to the planned Manhattan Civic Center (which was never built) and then to the World Trade Center. Instead, the Panorama remained in Flushing Meadow.
This was exemplified when Donald Trump proposed his megacomplex “Television City,” which was going to contain the world’s tallest structure. A group of concerned citizens who called themselves Westpride had a model of the proposed project built to the same scale as the Panorama and installed it on the model city. It instantly became obvious that Trump’s project was indeed dauntingly gargantuan, and it was never built.
For several years Lester Associates provided the Panorama with annual updates. In 1972 the brand-new Queens Museum moved into the New York City Building, and the Panorama came under its jurisdiction. But once Moses’s power eroded during the decade, official interest in the model faded. Lester Associates provided the last major update in 1974, this time paid by the city instead of by Triborough.
During the 1970s and 1980s funds were scarce, and the museum depended on donations of models from corporations and developers and architects who were designing New York’s distinctive new buildings, among them Citicorp, IBM, AT&T, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Even with these additions, the Panorama existed in limbo, stuck someplace between 1964 and the present. Manhattan Community College was missing, as were the Roosevelt Island tramway, the Javits Convention Center, many office towers and luxury high-rises in Manhattan, and the vast developments that had sprouted in the other boroughs. There were also a lot of things on the Panorama that had disappeared from the real New York: sections of the West Side Highway, some piers for ocean liners now long gone, and blocks of now burned-out buildings in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. The miniature airplanes at the airport still had propellers.