Prohibited Panoramas

In an age of heightened security and the mass condoization of our greatest buildings, an illicit explorer soaks up the views from the city’s off-limits observation decks.

I first moved to New York in the summer of 2001. On a whim one day, while visiting a friend who worked in the basement of the World Trade Center, I took a trip up to the observation deck. It was a beautiful summer day, and admission was only $10, but there was still no line. I had no idea that, in good weather, tourists were also allowed on the roof. After taking the short set of stairs from the observation deck to the roof, I thought it was the best $10 I ever spent.

That September, along with a lot else, we lost that view. But sometimes forgotten is that we also lost two other views: the view from the Crown of the Statue of Liberty, and the view from the top of the Riverside Church Carillon, both of which closed in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Everyone in New York eventually internalizes that the city we know is temporary, the places we love always at the mercy of destruction in some way, shape, or form. But my particular lesson came quickly and starkly. Losing this building, and its view, led me to see as much of the city as I could–subway tunnels; tops of bridges; old rail lines; abandoned aqueducts, courthouses, and hospitals–and eventually lead me to write a book, Hidden Cities. But I always retained my first love, observation decks, and wondered what other views had been stolen from the citizens of New York City.

And as it turned out, a lot had been. The WPA guide to New York City, published in 1939, lists seven observation decks open to the public–The Chrysler and Woolworth buildings; the Chanin Building (across 42nd Street from the Chrysler Building); two narrow towers on Wall Street: the Bank of Manhattan Building (now the Trump Building) and 70 Pine Street (now the currently-under-renovation AIG building); and of course our familiar friends the Empire State Building and the RCA Building (now Top of the Rock). The Empire State was by far the big boy on the block–despite the depression and the (at least) six other options available, access to its observation deck still cost $1.10–twice as much as the next priciest decks, and the equivalent of $18 today.

A 1997 Metropolis Magazine article by Robert Neuwirth and Seth Robbins about abandoned observation decks detailed five more: the Paramount Theatre building in Times Square; the Park Row building, now home to the J&R complex; 22 William Street downtown; the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in Madison Square; and also one in Brooklyn: The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building.

In 2005, my curiosity got the best of me. One day, a friend and I walked into the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, at the time a shabby office building with an outsized portion of dental offices (it’s informal nickname was “the Tower of Pain.”) A bored guard at the desk never looked up from his paper. We switched to the tower elevator, got off on the floor we thought the decks were on, and got right back in the elevator: we had gotten the floor right, but unfortunately it was currently occupied, the elevator opening onto a small foyer right in front of an active office.

Undaunted, we decided to try a different route. The deck was surrounded by masonry—maybe there was a way down from the floor above?

This time we were in luck–an empty office, the size of a large studio apartment, greeted us when the elevator doors opened, and an exterior ladder actually led from a window down to the abandoned deck. This is when we learned one big advantage of trying to get to abandoned observation decks–since almost all of them opened before WWII, it follows that almost all of them are in pre-war buildings. And pre-war office towers, as opposed to their glass-and-steel post-war brethren, generally have windows that open.

The deck of the Williamsburgh Bank Savings Tower in Brooklyn
The deck of the Williamsburgh Bank Savings Tower in Brooklyn

As I took in the surroundings, I was reminded of how different the city can look from unfamiliar angles. In 1929, when the building was built, we would have had a clear view of the East River and Downtown Manhattan. However, in 2005 it was a different story. The newer skyscrapers of Downtown Brooklyn blocked out most of the river, blending together with the buildings of Lower Manhattan. The effect was eerie–a distorted skyline, one still recognizable as New York City, but one that I’d also never seen before. Since this first excursion, I have, by hook or by crook (mostly by crook), made it up to a few more of these abandoned decks. Each one has a different perspective, a lost little view of the city available to the curious and somewhat resourceful.

Looking down from the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower
Looking down from the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower

As an added bonus we found seven signs surrounding the deck commemorating, of all things, the American Revolution (we would later find out there was another deck on the opposite side of the building with eight additional signs). Each sign described a different event in the Battle of Brooklyn during the war’s early days: “Washington’s Night Retreat Saves the American Army”; “American’s Retreat to their Inner Line.” As we read the history lesson, we looked out over the exact landscape where these events took place more than 200 years ago.

A historical panel along the deck of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower
A historical panel along the deck of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower

I started to think about what a shame it was that this view wasn’t available to everyone, and how great it would be if we could reopen some of these old decks. They should at least let school groups up; history is so much more exciting when you can experience it firsthand. And surely, with all the tourists and attention New York receives, there was a demand for more views.

And I was right. Soon enough, one was reopened. I got to see this in progress, tagging along on a tour to the top of the then-shuttered roof of 30 Rockefeller Center, whose observation deck had closed in 1986 to make way for an expansion of the Rainbow Room. Since then, “Top of the Rock” has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. In another marker of the difference between 1986 and today, what was a $2 ticket when the deck was closed twenty-seven years ago is currently $25, over twelve times the price, affirming my thoughts about the market demand for access to observation decks in New York. A ticket to the Empire State Building costs the same amount. When the Observation Deck of the new 1 World Trade Center opens, it’s a safe bet it’ll cost significantly more than the $10 I paid to head up to the top twelve years ago.

Construction at the "Top of the Rock"
Construction at the “Top of the Rock”

A hundred bucks to take your family to an observation deck is a bit steep, but still accessible enough that millions of people can afford to visit every year. But, unfortunately, a different, much less accessible way of monetizing some of these spaces seems to be in the cards. A few years after our visit, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower was converted to condos, with the Penthouse housing the observation decks going for $1.35 million. The old signs–still around because the building is a landmark–played no small role. The New York Times quoted the winning bidder:

“‘I was very swayed by the terraces’, she said, which … bear plaques retelling the history of the battle of Brooklyn. They were an important feature for her daughter… a public school teacher for whom she is buying the apartment.”

This is the fate of many of these old decks–a place and view that was once public is now reserved not just for members of a certain business, or for the curious and intrepid, but for a single individual. The Park Row building and 22 Exchange Place have already been converted into apartments. 70 Pine and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower are also undergoing a residential conversion.

One more that’s slated for the same fate is the Woolworth Building. Pretty soon, a view that was once freely available to anyone with fifty-five cents is going to be reserved for one person with about fifty-five million dollars. A friend and I decided to snag the view before this happened. We hit the staircase in what, one hundred years ago, was the tallest building in the world. A good workout later, we were rewarded with an incredible view.

Atop the Woolworth Building
Atop the Woolworth Building

While Top of the Rock has reopened, the Statue of Liberty found a way to let visitors up to the crown again (although Liberty Island is currently closed because of damage after Hurricane Sandy) and the top of the Marriot Hotel hosts a revolving restaurant (caged inside a large glass box, leading to not much of a view), we still remain woefully short of observation decks in New York. Never mind that our world peer cities like Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo all have more public observation decks than we do. We have as many observation decks as Kansas City, and fewer than both Seattle and Boston.

In addition to the abandoned decks, all of which were in private buildings, there are actually several municipally-owned buildings or structures that could house an observation deck. One great option is the terrace of the Municipal Building on Centre Street, across from City Hall. The building’s crown (topped by the third-largest statue in New York, a twenty-five-foot golden figure called Civic Fame) is often described as “the wedding cake,” and access to it would be as simple as opening a door. It’s small, and perhaps couldn’t handle mass traffic, but maybe its moniker could be put to good use, and NYC newlyweds allowed to take pictures with their wedding party after filing their license with the City Clerk.

The view from the Municipal Building
The view from the Municipal Building

The city also missed a great chance to reopen the deck of the Prison Martyrs Monument, accessible by a spiral staircase until 1921, when the staircase was removed for the cost of a dime. While the monument is a bit shinier now, thanks to the recent Fort Greene Park renovation, you’d think that for five million dollars they might have invested in another staircase too. In my opinion, the best thing that those 5 million bought was two years worth of scaffolding that enabled people to climb to the top. The Jefferson Market Courthouse on Sixth Avenue in the Village, owned by the New York Public Library, also has a terrace that could be easily opened to the community on a more regular basis (it’s occasionally accessible for the annual Open House New York event).

There are also privately-owned buildings with simple empty space just waiting to be used. 1 Times Square, where they drop the ball every New Years Eve, is almost completely empty, serving mainly as a huge billboard. While press is allowed up in anticipation of the ball drop, it would be much better–both for business and the general public–to let the hordes of tourists take a ride to the top and get a great view of Times Square year-round.

Another great option would be reopening the Chrysler Building. While the abandoned observation deck on the 71st floor is now occupied by a private firm, over half the tower is completely empty. Perhaps the biggest waste of space is on the 75th floor, a vacant shell not even housing any building equipment; it could serve as a magnificent observation deck.

Even more magnificent though, are the small terraces that house the iconic Eagles on the 61st floor. The floor has housed offices on-and-off, but I imagine the money that could be made from opening the floor as a public observation deck would be considerably greater than the rent they would get from whatever hedge fund manager or law firm rents the floor next.

But, there’s always a tradeoff. If it’s opened officially, they probably won’t let people do this:

The view from the Chrysler Building
The view from the Chrysler Building

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Moses Gates is an urban planner, licensed New York City tour guide, and visiting assistant professor of demographics at the Pratt Institute. His memoir, Hidden Cities, is in bookstores March 21st. Follow him @MosesNYC