- 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 1992 the Queens Museum began a three-year $15 million renovation, including an $850,000 overhaul and renovation of the Panorama by Lester Associates. Landfill would be added to shoreline areas, buildings added or removed, playground and park areas brought up to date, roads and airports modified, even more tiny tombstones added to the city’s cemeteries—nearly sixty thousand changes in all.
During the late spring of 1992 the Panorama was taken apart and returned to Lester Associates in six semi-trailers. “Thirty years’ worth of dirt was a major problem,” says Joseph Ivanick. “We had to start there.”
Each panel was cleaned, first with small bristle brushes and vacuum cleaners, then with larger brushes and water. Next the model makers used the land maps, the same ones from the original Panorama, and a new development, satellite photographs, to begin block-by-block changes. Time had taken its toll on the phosphorescent paint, and most of the windows had to be redone, as did the lighting system representing city facilities.
And residents of Far Rockaway can take satisfaction in having their homes fully represented at last. The orphaned panel that was never installed had been saved, and during the renovation the structure was altered so it could finally join the rest of the city. “Yes, Far Rockaway is finally in,” says Ivanick. “It sure would have been a shame to leave it out twice .”
The refurbished Panorama is a miniature mirror of the New York of today, but it still reflects the vision of Robert Moses. John Tierney, writing in The New York Times Magazine , lamented, “The good news was that the Panorama looked just like the original. That was also the bad news … all in all, the three decades’ worth of building looked like about six months’ work for Moses.”
Moses’s brand of social engineering got things done, but his empire was built on implicit faith in big government and public authority. Today’s New York, with years of neglect, reduced tax revenues, and endless regulations, finds it hard to maintain itself, much less consider projects on the scale of those created by Moses. But New York is a city that thrives on chance. We can only hope that thirty years from now Lester Associates will be loading the Panorama into trucks for another sixty thousand changes. Robert Moses would have wanted it that way.