Travel: A salute to the skyscraper

Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 28, 2007

A salute to the skyscraper
By Lori Hein
For The Inquirer

NEW YORK - "Skyscraper Museum? Sorry, no. Ask that guy over there. He might know where it is."

After hearing four variations on that theme, I approached a female construction worker in a neon-pink hard hat. "Sure," she said, "right there," and pointed around the corner, past a line of people waiting to board the Circle Line boat to the Statue of Liberty, to a building at Lower Manhattan's 39 Battery Place.

It seemed fitting that a person who builds for a living knew where to find this celebration of the city's architectural heritage and ever-evolving skyline.

The first new museum to open in Lower Manhattan since Sept. 11, its simple exhibits weave powerful stories of man's ability to create - and to rebuild. As one of the 15 members of the Museums of Lower Manhattan, the Skyscraper Museum "is involved in the efforts to reinvigorate downtown," founder and director Carol Willis said.

The museum was founded in 1996 and relocated several times before it opened six blocks south of ground zero in spring 2004 in the building designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It glistens with stainless steel floors, walls and ceilings; glass showcases rise like towers, and the space itself seems to soar. For the visitor, the mirrorlike environment intensifies the exhibits and reflects the dreams, risks, brawn and bravado that are as much a part of a great building as the bricks and beams holding it together.

At the top of a shiny entry ramp, visitors find a photographic timeline of towers that runs the length of a wall and chronicles the evolution of high-rises, from 284-foot Trinity Church, built in 1846, through 500-foot beauties of the early 1900s and monumental glass towers of the World Trade Center era, to recent colossi such as Taiwan's 1,671-foot Taipei 101.

The museum has two main parts, one showcasing mostly items from its growing permanent collection and one that hosts a large, themed exhibition, which changes every few months. "GIANTS: The Twin Towers and the Twentieth Century," runs through April 15.

While text describing the exhibit acknowledges that "September 11 defines our memory of the Twin Towers, and the profound proportions of that tragedy continue to reverberate in New York and beyond," the exhibit is about the towers' creation, not their destruction. It seeks to explain "the significance of this project in the evolution of skyscraper history," Willis said.

Before entering the "GIANTS" gallery, visitors are treated to a rich collection of material on early-20th-century towers that established New York as the world's preeminent skyscraper city and continue to define its unique spirit and culture. A montage of vintage postcards trumpets skyline stars such as the Woolworth and Flatiron Buildings and the Brooklyn Bridge.

A film shot during construction of the Empire State Building puts visitors high above Manhattan, face to face with workmen as they create the 112-story stone and steel symbol of New York. A typewritten daily log lists tasks that each group of tradesmen - "Stone Cutters; Derrickman; Excavators-Rockmen" - were to complete. "Stenciling E.S. on windows" was a job for the "Carpenter Helpers."

Structure and size differentiated the Twin Towers from earlier skyscrapers. Improvements in materials and mechanical systems allowed construction of buildings that were not just tall, but big, with interior volume measured in millions of square feet.

The "GIANTS" exhibit is a trove of photographs, aerial views, architectural models, interactive displays, and video and audio clips that bring the design, construction, operation and enjoyment of the megastructures to life.

In a mirrored room anchored by light columns that reflect endlessly in the silvery walls and ceiling, evoking the dramatic power of the Twin Towers' distinctive exterior box columns and window bays, a mother said to her young son, "Honey, I want you to hear this." She put headphones on the boy's head, then looked at the parade of light pillars while he listened to a 1982 South Tower public-address recording that prepared visitors for their elevator ride to the 107th-floor Observation Deck: "It takes approximately 58 seconds at a speed of 20 miles per hour to reach the deck," says the voice from 25 years ago.

There are also displays of the new towers that will rise above ground zero. Models and drawings show the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, now under construction, and three companion towers planned for the WTC site.

The Skyscraper Museum is a small place that celebrates big things and honors man's capacity to keep reaching for the sky. As you leave the museum and step onto the sidewalk, you can't help but look up.

Skyscraper Museum

The Skyscraper Museum's home at 39 Battery Place, Lower Manhattan, was designed pro bono by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in space donated by real-estate developer Millennium Partners. It is on the ground floor of the building that houses the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, across the street from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City.
Phone: 212-968-1961
Web site:
Hours: Noon-6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Admission: $5, adults; $2.50, students, seniors.
Group tours and family-friendly Saturday events available.
By subway: Line 1, R or W to Rector, Whitehall or South Ferry or Line 4 or 5 to Bowling Green.
Subway and bus maps at

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