For more than 40 years, the Empire State Building‘s observatory reigned as the loftiest manmade place on Earth. Though no longer the pinnacle of New York, the Art Deco masterpiece’s Olympian mass still cuts an uncontested figure in the popular imagination as a symbol of the city and is an enduring emblem of human might and ingenuity. Today, as the supertall enters its tenth decade, it welcomes visitors with a fresh new face, the product of a four-year, $165 million renovation to improve the experience for the 10,000-odd guests that stream through its doors each day.
YIMBY got a look at the latest aspects of the observatories prior to the debut of the fourth and final phase of the Midtown landmark’s renovation in late November, including the chance to scope views of the rising skyline from the refreshed 102nd floor observatory.
One of the main aims of the renovation was to reduce perceived wait times for the increasing number of visitors. Rather than simply queueing for elevators to the top, guests now progress through a series of exhibits on the building and the city.
After entering through a new lobby off 34th Street, visitors make their way up a staircase and through the second-floor museum that educates them on the building’s history. From there, they take an elevator not to the main 86th floor observatory, but to the 80th floor, which features interactive experiences for guests to pass through, further improving crowd control.
The first things visitors encounter on the 80th floor (besides views from windows from roughly 1,000 feet up) is a collection of kiosks that provide tourists with an itinerary of activities to do in New York. Powered by data from NYC & Company, they serve up suggestions based on visitors’ length of stay in the city and their interests.
Guests then progress to a circle of viewfinders, much like the ones located on the outdoor observatory deck of the 86th floor. Inside of each is a 360-degree video shot in a different location throughout the city, including Grand Central Terminal, Central Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Using accelerometers and spatial audio, visitors can pan through immersive representations of city landmarks that are visible from the building.
After that, guests finally ascend to the main observatory level. From there, guests who have purchased the additional ticket for the upper observation take a separate elevator to the top of the crown.
The 102nd floor observatory opened in October after ten months of renovations. The biggest improvement to the interior is its openness. Previously, the deck featured much smaller windows that only covered the upper two thirds of the wall. These have been replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass with minimal vertical framework, resulting in spectacularly unimpeded views. Other nonessential components were also removed, enabling sightlines from one side of the platform to the other.
At a height of 1,224 feet, the view of New York is second only in eminence to One World Observatory in One World Trade Center, which is just 44 feet higher. However, with its central location on the island and the ease with which one can circle around the perimeter windows, it is arguably the best public place to behold the city’s rising skyline.
To the north, visitors can see some of the most prominent products of last decade’s construction boom, including the Central Park Tower, 111 West 57th Street, and 432 Park Avenue on Billionaires’ Row, as well as One Vanderbilt. All of these projects easily surpass the height of the Empire State Building’s crown.
Toward the east, one can look down at Long Island City, which over the past five years has metamorphosed from an underdeveloped corridor into a bona fide cityscape worthy of a major metropolis, with skyscrapers like the Skyline Tower leading the way.
To the immediate south are the sprouting towers of NoMad including Madison House and Madison Square Park Tower; further downtown loom the skyscrapers of the Financial District and the supertalls of the World Trade Center complex; beyond and to the east is Downtown Brooklyn, which, with towers like City Point and the forthcoming 9 DeKalb Avenue, is vying with Long Island City for the most impressive skyline in the outer boroughs.
Finally, to the west, visitors can watch as nascent supertalls 50 Hudson Yards and 66 Hudson Boulevard round out the first phase of Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in U.S. history.
Though it will likely remain unchallenged in its draw as a tourist destination, the Empire State Building is nonetheless facing increased competition in the observatory market, with Edge at 30 Hudson Yards set to open in March and One Vanderbilt’s observation deck to follow in 2021. With this latest set of renovations, the landmark has further cemented its status as the go-to choice for sky-high sightseeing for years to come.