Much of Midtown evokes the 1930s, a decade that, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, ‘was the best of times and the worst of times’ for New York. Though reeling from the Great Depression, the city was gripped by a building spree. A forest of new skyscrapers, mighty symbols of American enterprise, began to soar above Midtown.
The 14 Art Deco towers of the Rockefeller Center, between 48th and 51st streets off Fifth Avenue, constitute a city within the city. Walk down the Channel Gardens, a beautiful promenade that separates the French Building from the British Building, and raise your eyes along the 70-story height of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. You can’t help but feel as though you are gazing up at a great temple of commerce. Meanwhile, the spires of St Patrick’s Cathedral across Fifth Avenue seem to lift you from the pavement toward heavenly heights.
Over on Park Avenue are two monuments to another hope-filled age, the 1950s. Lever House, at 390 Park Avenue and the Seagram Building, across the street at 375 Park, are sleek steel-and-glass towers that rise from airy plazas. Together they secured a place for the functional glass office tower on the American landscape. They have inspired hundreds of imitators, none of which are as beautiful or as suggestive of corporate might as these two Park Avenue neighbors.
Art and Observation tours of the Rockefeller Center show off murals, statues, and architectural highlights, and end on the observation platform of Top of the Rock, an exhilarating open-air viewpoint 70 floors above the city (90 mins, www.nbcuniversalstore.com, Mon–Sat 10am–2pm)
A pair of beauties
The Empire State Building, at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, long ago ceded the world’s tallest title, but the beloved granite tower is still New York’s most popular skyscraper. A very close second place goes to the Chrysler Building with a shiny stainless-steel crown that evokes the wonders of the machine age and rises high above Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street. Their presence on the skyline is testimony to a longstanding rivalry. The Chrysler Building was the tallest structure in the world, the first ever to surpass 1,000ft, when it was completed in 1929 – the spire, which was secretly assembled within the upper floors then hoisted into position, jostled a newly completed tower at 40 Wall Street out of first-place position. Just two years later the Empire State Building surpassed its neighbor by 250ft. Though skyscrapers pierce the clouds above cities around the world, none can match the appeal of this pair of Art Deco beauties.
The 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building (daily 8am–2am) treats 3.5 million visitors a year to eagle’s-eye views; among the standouts is the nearby Chrysler Building, whose gargoyles fashioned in the shape of radiator caps and hood ornaments shine brightly on a sunny day.