Curator, the Queens Museum, 1985–1991
By any standard, the biggest attraction at the Queens Museum is the Panorama of the City of New York, a giant three-dimensional model showing every building in the city at a scale of 1 inch to 100 feet. Originally constructed for the 1964–65 New York World's Fair, the Panorama takes up more than 9,000 square feet at the heart of the museum, and is on the curriculum of nearly every public school in the city.
The Panorama pre-dated the founding of the Queens Museum in the same building, and its dominating presence was a challenge for an institution that saw itself as a sanctuary of high art. For me, it is a totally fascinating object, capable of inspiring all sorts of exhibitions and activities. Almost by default, it became one of my responsibilities when I was curator at the museum in the late '80s.
My major contribution to the Panorama was suggesting that the museum transfer its authorship from model-maker Raymond Lester to his boss, the legendary urban planner Robert Moses. The switch instantly gave the Panorama the cachet of a famous auteur, transforming it from a curiosity into a remarkable relic of one of the most important figures in the city's development.
Although it was originally built as a fair attraction, Moses also considered the Panorama to be a tool for urban planning. He did not intend it to remain stuck in 1964, but wanted it to be continually updated—an easy task for New York City's biggest builder, but an impossible challenge for a small museum with a limited budget. By the mid-'80s, the Panorama was twenty years out of date. Janet Schneider, the museum's director, was seeking to fund an update, and I was asked to come up with exhibitions that would bring attention to the model.
My first attempt was the exhibition The Making of the Panorama of the City of New York: An Exhibition Documenting the History of the World's Largest Scale Model, which described the several sources on which Lester Associates based their models: Sanborn Map Company's specialized block-by-block city maps (initially created for tax and insurance purposes), the Aero Service Corporation's aerial photographs, and the US Geological Survey's topographic maps. The exhibition's main attraction was a previously missing piece of the Panorama, which we discovered in one of the museum's back rooms. It showed a slice of Far Rockaway, and had never been installed because of an obstructing building column. The discovery made for a catchy press release, which was picked up by Gail Collins, then writing for the New York Daily News. Collins's cleverly written article started an avalanche of publicity.
More ambitious was the 1987 exhibition New New York, a survey of New York buildings constructed since the Panorama's last update, as seen through the finely crafted architectural models that architects and developers created to show city review boards and potential tenants. Architect and author Robert A.M. Stern signed on as the project's advisor, and provided access to the blue-chip firms leading the current wave of new construction as the city recovered from the '70s financial crisis. The incredibly elaborate and expensive new models made for a stunning show. The model of Philip Johnson's AT&T building was nearly six feet tall. The developer Olympia & York contributed a 4' x 8' x 9' model of Cesar Pelli's World Financial Center. Before the exhibition opened, Queens Borough President Claire Schulman announced the allocation of funds for a complete update to the Panorama. The opening became the perfect occasion to celebrate this good news.
The allocation of funds and signing of contracts for the full update to the Panorama took several years. In the meantime, we continued to add new buildings piecemeal, as opportunities arose. For the Panorama's twenty-fifth anniversary, in 1990, the museum made a concerted effort to solicit new models from developers, architects, and model-makers. The response exceeded all expectations. In total, more than 125 new models from 47 contributors were added to the Panorama. The anniversary celebration, on June 20, was attended by hundreds of architects from the city's biggest firms.
Among the donated models were such previously conspicuously absent features as the Jacob K. Javitz Center and Battery Park City with all its buildings. Contributors had a vested interest in their buildings' representation, and the new models (all at 1-inch-to-100-foot scale) were much more finely crafted than their neighbors on the Panorama. When Lester Associates finally embarked on the complete update in 1992, they retained these models, which can still be spotted as the most detailed on the Panorama today.
It was in conjunction with this twenty-fifth birthday celebration that I put together a catalogue tracing the Panorama's history. My research explored the tradition of models at world's fairs, as well as their use by architects, developers, and urban planners. My visits to the archives at Lester's studio in West Nyack and at Moses's offices at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority on Randall's Island unearthed a wealth of pictorial material for the catalogue. The catalogue is still in print, and for sale at the Queens Museum's bookstore, although the Panorama has changed greatly since its initial publication.
Working on this project instilled in me an attachment to maps. After leaving the museum, I set up a company, Ephemera Press, to publish a series of pictorial maps exploring New York City culture.