There are currently five skyscraper viewing platforms in New York City, each one promising the best views for your selfies. But a new experience from the Rockefeller Center’s Top of the Rock is usurping the competition, with a photo op inspired by one of the most famous images ever taken of New York.
The Beam experience, which launched in November, is an homage to the photograph known as Lunch atop a Skyscraper. You know the one: 11 construction workers are pictured enjoying their lunch break on a narrow steel beam, suspended hundreds of feet above the streets of Midtown Manhattan.
I have been up to the Top of the Rock many times before, so I only gave the epic 360-degree views around the Observation Deck a cursory glance before heading straight for The Beam.
I settled into the centre seat while the staff checked I was secure. Because, despite how the photos appear, there are safety mechanisms in place. An unobtrusive backrest provides support and there’s a safety strap around your waist – both inconspicuous enough to be barely visible on camera.
Once the operator gave the go-ahead, The Beam glided gently upwards about 12ft before rotating 180 degrees to reveal a never-gets-old view that matches the backdrop of Lunch atop a Skyscraper. I was given a moment to take in the muted, early-winter colours of Central Park and the orderly blocks of Upper Manhattan before The Beam swivelled back again. And then, facing away from the scene, we paused to recreate the iconic shot.
And iconic it truly is. The casual nonchalance of the workers, who seemed unfazed by the vertiginous scene, has captivated viewers ever since it was first published in the New York Herald Tribune on October 2 1932. But despite the photograph’s enduring popularity, the names of the 11 men, and the photographer behind the image, are mostly mysterious.
What we do know for sure is that the picture wasn’t from the Empire State Building, as many internet sleuths believe. It was a publicity shot, taken during the construction of the 69th floor of Rockefeller Center’s RCA Building (now referred to as 30 Rock) and printed without attribution.
The 2012 documentary Men at Lunch attempted to uncover the identities of the men on both sides of the camera lens, with varying degrees of success. After ruling out the rumoured photographer Lewis Hine, who was professionally connected to the Empire State Building, the filmmakers narrowed down the potential options to three photographers who were all present that day: Charles Ebbets, William Leftwich and Thomas Kelley.
Using archival records and additional images from the Rockefeller Center, they were also able to identify two of the ironworkers: Joseph Eckner, who is sitting third from left, and Joe Curtis, third from right. A promising lead took them to Ireland, where relatives of Sonny Glynn and Matty O’Shaughnessy are convinced it’s their kin in the photo, but the rumour was impossible to confirm. Given that both men had emigrated to New York during that time, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
More than 40,000 people were hired to construct the Rockefeller Center, a large proportion of them immigrants willing to risk their lives doing dangerous work for a decent paycheck during the Great Depression. But whether the ironworkers were truly risking their lives in this specific photo is also up for debate. Experts and archivists now believe the finished floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza was right beneath them, just out of shot.
Just as I was getting comfortable, it was all over. The Beam descended to the ground and the next person in the queue, chilly on this winter morning, stepped up.
Despite the overcast sky, which shrouded the city in grey, the photo turned out well. There I am, casually posing, with Manhattan stretching out behind me all the way to New Jersey and Queens. But I can’t help feeling that the experience itself was a little underwhelming. Perhaps I was anticipating a thrill like the one the original photo transmits, but The Beam is slow, doesn’t go particularly high (the photography framing is clever) and is necessarily safety conscious. I suppose, if nothing else, it was a fleeting moment of calm in a city not known for its tranquillity.
How to do it
The Beam (rockefellercenter.com) costs $25 (£20) in addition to the $40 (£32) adult entry fee to Top of the Rock, and the price includes a digital photograph of your Lunch Atop a Skyscraper experience.