The Panorama

by Louise Weinberg

© Louise Weinberg 2012

The Panorama of the City of New York is the star attraction in the collection of the Queens Museum of Art and a locus of memory for visitors from all over the globe. Planned by Robert Moses for the 1964/65 World’s Fair in part as a celebration of the City’s municipal infrastructure, (and destined for an eventual home in the new “civic center,” an idea which was abandoned after the city’s financial crisis of the late sixties), the Panorama was built by a team of 100 people working for the great architectural model makers, Lester Associates, in the three years before the opening of the fair. Raymond Lester was familiar with building larger than life model environments, having worked with Norman Bel Geddes as an artist, designer and fabricator for the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair, and later on other large scale models of civic projects for Moses. In planning the geodetic contoured map/model, model makers referred to aerial photographs, insurance maps, and a range of other City materials; the Panorama had to be accurate, indeed the initial contract demanded less than one percent margin of error between reality and the “world’s largest scale model” which comprised an area of 9,335 square feet. This is a metropolis in miniature, built to a scale of 1 inch to 100 feet, in which each of the city’s 830,000 buildings constructed prior to 1964 and every street, park and over 100 bridges are represented and assembled from 273 individual sections. In this miraculously scaled cityscape, the borough of Manhattan measures a seemingly vast 70 feet x 15 feet and the Empire State Building is a towering 15 inches tall while the Statue of Liberty is only 1 7/8” in height.

In addition, the original automated programmed console animated with light 2, 200 municipal buildings such as police precincts, firehouses, schools, hospitals, courthouses, libraries, water, gas and electric facilities, and public housing projects. Other special effects in the Panorama include moving airplanes that land at LaGuardia Airport every few minutes, ships and tankers in the waterways, and a lighting sequence changing from dawn to dusk to night. Buildings all over the city are illuminated in the night sequence by windows which have been daubed with glowing phosphorescent paint; parks and open green areas have been treated in a similar manner.

The original, low-tech materials used to construct the Panorama itself were urethane foam mounted on Formica flake board, while the buildings were made of wood, plastic and hand painted paper, and the bridges of brass. More recent technically sophisticated building additions are made by architectural model makers of laser cut/etched acrylic plastic from computer-aided designs.

The Panorama was one of the most successful attractions at the 1964/65 Fair, with a daily average of 1,400 people taking advantage of its 9 minute simulated helicopter ride around the City providing a “god’s eye” point of view of the complex topography of the five boroughs, narrated by Lowell Thomas. The original design layout allowed visitors to view the model at sea level and from a simulated 20,000 foot elevation. The ride was a bargain at 10 cents per person while the design and construction of the entire Panorama cost the city $672, 662.69.

After the Fair, the Panorama remained open to the public as it’s originally planned use as an urban planning tool was seemingly forgotten, though the popular ride stayed in use for three or four years. Designed to stay current with the endlessly changing city, completely accurate updates took place in 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1974 by Lester’s team. From 1974 to 1992, very little changes were made when again Lester Associates changed over 60,000 structures to bring it up-to-date.