Volume 16 • Issue 49 | April 30 - May 6, 2004

Telling true tall tales at museum’s new home

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Carol Willis, The Skyscraper Museum’s founder, director and curator.

Designers and builders from around the world know them as man’s version of an ant hill, a cultural icon, or the only way to rise up in a city to breathe fresh air. They are tall, they are soaring and they were born in New York—skyscrapers. For almost a decade, their story has shifted around New York City, from one temporary location to the next, but now, their rich history has finally found a home.

Last month, The Skyscraper Museum, an eight-year-old institution created by architectural and urban historian Carol Willis, opened the doors to its first permanent space at 39 Battery Place in Battery Park City. About 1,000 students, tourists, construction workers and Downtown residents visited the museum in the first five days, pouring over old photographs, postcards, books, drawings and displays on the history of skyscrapers in New York, the United States and abroad.

“We love [the space],” said Willis, the museum’s founder, director, and curator. “There are two aspects to love. The architecture — it’s a delight to see people come in and be awestruck by the dazzling and disorienting quality of height and depth of the space. And just having a permanent address is a really important step for us.”

Since 1999, Willis has planned the move from the museum’s last donated location on Maiden La. Millennium Partners donated the space, and architects and designers from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill provided their design services for free. The inaugural exhibition, “Building a Collection,” introduces visitors to the history of skyscrapers.

“The materials here are a reprise of things from the five exhibits we’ve had over our nomadic existence,” Willis said. “This show has some wonderful, unique items.” One such item is the Empire State Building photo album, a book that contains over 500 photographs the building’s construction. The museum recently acquired the album from a descendent of Paul Starrett, one of the two brothers of the firm Starrett Brothers and Eken, the building’s general contractor.

When visitors enter the museum, they are immediately surrounded by soaring buildings — from the exhibits’ pictures and postcards of New York’s greats, to the museum’s design. Architect Roger Duffy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill used reflective steel to visually extend the museum’s display cases through the floor and ceiling into tall, skyscraper-like structures. “His concept was to turn the space into endlessly reflective vertical Versailles,” Willis said.

One exhibit, a blown up tenant list of the Woolworth Building in 1924, gives details on the businesses that filled the building’s 55 office floors. The Woolworth Company, visitors learn, occupied only two floors of the Downtown building, and smaller operations like the East European Trading Co., Dr. Reed Cushion Shoe Co., and the Transcontinental Freight Co., made up the remaining floors.

“I liked the list of all the tenants,” said Eliza Montgomery, 12, a seventh grade student from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, as she crouched in front of a display case last Sunday taking notes for a school project. “When I was six or seven, I visited the Empire State Building. I’m interested in it because it’s so tall.”

In a nearby display case, old postcards of New York skyscrapers form a colorful map of Lower Manhattan. In another case, visitors learn the story of Rockefeller Center and the building’s rooftop gardens, which when created were open to the public for a fee, but visible to all in the offices above. The museum also includes a wind tunnel model of the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, currently the tallest building in Asia, a case full of pictures and a job duty diary of the drillers, carpenters and bricklayers who helped to build the Empire State Building, and nine study models for the design of the World Trade Center Freedom Tower on loan from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Visitor William Allen, 16, said he enjoyed learning about the Freedom Tower, as he stood in front of a large black and white poster of Lower Manhattan and the Twin Towers. Allen found the museum on the Internet and traveled from Brooklyn to see the exhibits. “When I was in second grade, my mom brought home a pamphlet of the Empire State Building, and since then I’ve loved skyscrapers,” he said.

Museum exhibits deal with information on management, architecture, construction, and interesting facts for people who live and work in tall buildings. “The subject is very broadly interpreted,” Willis said. One of the museum’s main themes is to explore the meaning of skyscrapers, as noted in the exhibit’s introduction—“Skyscrapers are both symbols and facts. Emblems of identity or ego, they are also fundamentally economic equations.”

Pace University students Adnan Chaudhri, 23, and Alex Labidou, 21, who visited the museum for an art history course extra credit assignment, both said they enjoyed the museum, especially its design and the way exhibits offer a historical comparison of how buildings evolving over time.

“I’m pretty impressed,” Chaudhri said. “You want the structure of a museum to reflect what’s in it, and it does a great job. It gives a concise, yet detailed history of skyscrapers in New York City.”

The Skyscraper Museum is the only one of its kind in the world, Willis said. Several museums, such as Paris’ Center of Urbanism, focus on urban planning, but in the United States, no museum exists that focuses specifically on architecture.

“When I meet someone and I say what I do, people are surprised New York didn’t have one before. It seems obvious,” Willis said.

The museum’s permanent exhibit will not open until 2005, but Willis and her staff have planned several special exhibits for the coming months. In June, they will install a World Trade Center exhibition that will include Minoru Yamasaki’s original models of the World Trade Center towers, and on October 6, a special exhibit on Frank Lloyd Wright.

On May 16, the museum will participate in Downtown Manhattan’s History and Heritage day, an event in the Winter Garden for all 14 Downtown museums. The museum’s booth will feature an iron worker talking about rivening and a film about construction of the Empire State Building, Willis said.

The museum also sponsors a free, monthly book series held at the Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place. On May 25, James Traub, author of the Devil’s Playground will speak.

In the summer, Willis said she intends to hire an educator to begin group tours. To help cater to international visitors, she also hopes to soon add translations to a general gallery guide. The museum currently averages 100 visitors per day, a number that Willis hopes will increase in the summer months.

The Skyscraper Museum is located on the ground floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Battery Park City. Museum hours are noon-6 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday, and admission is $5, $2.50 students and seniors. 212-968-1961, www.skyscraper.org.


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