Home » Blog » I’m Afraid of Heights. Could I Re-create the Famous New York Skyscraper Beam Photo?
Featured General News Global News New York News United States

I’m Afraid of Heights. Could I Re-create the Famous New York Skyscraper Beam Photo?

Looked at in a certain way, one of history’s most famous photographs is actually rather dull. It’s just a bunch of men, sitting in a line. Some of them are holding lunchboxes, one is lighting a cigarette, another is holding a glass bottle that looks like it might contain liquor. No one is planking, or giving someone bunny ears, or pulling a funny face.

But, as the photo’s name suggests, the remarkable thing about Lunch atop a Skyscraper, which has inspired a new ride above the Rockefeller Center, is that the men are sitting on a metal construction beam, and they’re about 850ft above the streets of New York City. Also, they don’t have any safety equipment.

It’s that death-defying aspect of the photo that the Rockefeller Center’s new ride-cum-photo opportunity, Top of the Rock: The Beam, which is perched almost at the top of 30 Rockefeller, is hoping to re-create.

Billed as the area’s “premier new attraction”, the Beam allows people to sit on a big metal beam and be raised into the air, so that it looks a bit like the scene in Lunch atop a Skyscraper. There’s a camera ready to take a very expensive photo, and the opportunity to, as one New York media outlet put it, “soar visitors 800ft above NYC”, is an alluring one.

The thing is though: there is no soaring 800ft above NYC. The Beam, located on the outdoor deck of 30 Rockefeller’s 69th floor, is raised by a hydraulic pump to 12ft above the deck itself. No one is dangling over the city’s streets, like the men in the 1930s photo. And you aren’t allowed to hold anything, so forget about lighting a cigarette or swigging from a bottle of hooch.

It doesn’t make for a particularly exhilarating ride, unless you’re afraid of heights. I am afraid of heights.

I wince when people jump around the top of buildings on YouTube. I don’t like standing near the edge of balconies. In 2007, I visited Cologne cathedral, which allows people to climb to the roof up a caged-in staircase. I had an acrophobia episode halfway up, and had to sort of crab down the stairs backwards on my hands and knees. The Cologne cathedral operates a one-way system to the roof, which meant I had to reverse past other people as I gingerly descended.

Looking at the Beam from the side, it doesn’t look like much. It just slowly rises up, above an actual solid surface. It doesn’t dangle you over the side of the Rockefeller building. You’re only ever 12ft above safety. If you weren’t strapped in with a heavy-duty seatbelt, you could jump off the beam and survive with only a sprained ankle.

If you don’t like heights, though, all that knowledge is irrelevant, and this relatively banal experience becomes scary. I knew the whole thing was a bad idea when I started to feel funny once we got about 6ft off the ground.

The workers depicted in Lunch atop a Skyscraper are just a tiny section of the 40,000 people hired to build the Rockefeller Center. Immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Germany – along with Mohawk ironworkers from Canada – were involved in the construction of the Rockefeller Center, which took just a year to build and opened in 1933.

It is probably safe to say that those workers, who labored, without safety equipment, hundreds of feet above New York, would be unimpressed by the Beam experience. They would likely also be unimpressed by how much it costs to sit on it: $25 (£20) for the 60-second experience, on top of the $40 (£32) it costs to go to the top of the building. You can spend the entire day at Six Flags, the US chain of theme parks, for $95. In the UK, an all-day pass at Alton Towers, if booked in advance, is only £35. Blackpool Pleasure Beach is £34.

There wasn’t much pleasure to be had during my Beam experience. As it lifts and rotates, only one side really comes close to the edge of the building.

Unfortunately, that was my side. My knuckles turned white as I gripped on to the girder, and I closed my eyes to try to stop feeling dizzy. At the pinnacle moment of the ride, when the Beam rotates towards a camera to re-create the famous photo, I am sitting alone, terrified, a couple of seats down from two women who appear to be having an altogether different experience.

The resulting photo – a digital copy is included in the $25 cost of riding the beam, a print costs substantially more – looks a little staged, a little wooden.

But here’s the thing: Lunch atop a Skyscraper, which originally had the rather more prosaic title Builders of the City Enjoy Luncheon, was also staged. It was part of a publicity shoot to promote the Rockefeller Center, and a bunch of other photos were taken the same day, including one showing four men apparently asleep on a beam. Another shows Charles Clyde Ebbets, a photographer, balancing on a beam, apparently in the process of taking a photo. He is wearing shirt, tie and what look like saddle shoes.

While Lunch atop a Skyscraper was staged, even pretending to eat your lunch really high in the sky is pretty impressive. It’s just a shame that so little is known about the workers. Two of the 11 were identified in 2012, in the Irish documentary Men at Lunch, as Joseph Eckner and Joe Curtis, while the documentarians behind the film are pretty sure two others – Sonny Glynn and Matty O’Shaughnessy, are Irishmen who emigrated from Shanaglish, a village in county Galway, in the 1920s.

No doubt people from an equally broad range of backgrounds, much like the tens of thousands who built the Rockefeller Center, will eventually ride on the Beam. But even for those scared of heights, the experience will always pale in comparison to the original.

As Jim Rasenberger, author of High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline, put it in the Men at Lunch film: “The pay was good. The thing was, you had to be willing to die.”

Source: The Guardian