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Small World

June 2024
10min read

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.

THERE ARE FEW REMINDERS THAT TWO WORLD’S FAIRS were held in New York’s Flushing Meadow. The Unisphere—the 140-foot steel globe encircled by the orbits of the first satellites—is still there, and a granite monument marks the spot where two time capsules were buried—one in 1938 and the other in 1963 —to be opened in the year 6939. Elsewhere more than thirty years of neglect have taken their toll. The futuristic New York State Building is slowly turning into a rusty hulk; the rockets that blasted America into space are falling apart; the Amphitheater, home of Billy Rose’s Aquacade , was recently torn down.

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.


THE PANORAMA OF New York City would be installed in the New York City Pavilion. Originally built for the 1939–40 World’s Fair, it was one of the few structures not demolished when that fair ended and was currently earning its keep as a roller-skating rink. The Board of Estimate allocated more than $2 million to refurbish the building, and Moses began planning the displays.

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.

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.

WHEN THE CON- tours were finished, the city’s streets, highways, sidewalks, blocks, and parks were traced onto the panels with paper-and-masking-tape templates. The model was then painted in a uniform color code: Local roads were dark gray; highways and parkways, light tan; city blocks, off white; and so forth. A more porous open-cell urethane foam was used to simulate trees and shrubs. Two of the more than one hundred workers who built the Panorama used shrubs to guarantee themselves immortality. If one looks carefully, “Bill” and “Ed” can be found sprouting on two islands in Jamaica Bay.

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.

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.

ONCE FINISHED, THE PAN- els were transported from Lester’s shop and installed in the New York City Pavilion, where touchup crews using tape, putty, and paint sealed the joints between sections. During the installation it was discovered that because of support columns there was not enough space for the entire model, and a section representing the easternmost end of Far Rockaway could not be installed. (A couple from that neighborhood, so the story goes, visited the fair on opening day and demanded to know why their house had been omitted.)

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.

THE 1964 WORLD’S FAIR WAS Robert Moses’s last major project. Now in his seventies, he saw his style of urban master planning falling out of favor. Moses used his model on a few occasions, but the Panorama was more of a commemoration of his past achievements than a tool for future planning. The size of the model actually proved a disadvantage, since only the largest buildings could have any impact.

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.

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.

BY LATE 1994 THE RENOVA- tion was complete, and the Panorama was reloaded into the trucks for the trip back to Queens and an exciting new environment designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. A new entrance faces the Unisphere, and a ramp connects the two levels of the museum, “echoing,” according to one curator, “all the ramps of the World’s Fair’s past.” Access to the Panorama has been vastly improved, allowing visitors to get much closer to the massive model than ever before. Cantilevered glass floors make them feel as if they are flying high over the city.

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 .”

NOTHING LIKE THE PANO- rama will ever be built again. Today’s world’s fairs and expos are dominated by technological extravaganzas, while the combination of computers and cinema makes it possible to create a city of the past, present, or future on the screen with comparative ease. At the Seville World’s Fair in 1992 every pavilion, save one, was devoted to a movie. And a film can be repackaged to generate additional income after the fair ends. A model, especially on the scale of the Panorama, needs a permanent home or has to be destroyed.

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.

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