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Unlocking the Secrets of New York City's Most Famous Model

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At left, a woman hand-paints a building ahead of placement in the panorama, 1962. Gift of Lester & Associates. At right, the panorama today. All panorama photos by Max Touhey.

To put it into perspective, the Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum covers nearly 10,000 square feet; that means it is very nearly the same size as the $100 million penthouse of One 57, give or take a closet or two. The thing is massive and it is, quite literally, awesome. Not because it is flashy or showy—it was built in the years before the 1964 World's Fair, but more on that later—but because it gives its visitors, from New York and the world over, an omniscient view of a city that is so readily segmented, defined by its boroughs and neighborhoods. New York City covers 469 square miles. At a scale of one inch to 100 feet, the panorama's Empire State Building stands a mighty 15 inches tall; the Statue of Liberty, less than two.

The Panorama of the City of New York was commissioned by contentious New York City public figure Robert Moses in the years leading up the the 1964 World's Fair. It was meant to display the public works of the city and their functions, and not least Moses' many improvements to city infrastructure like the Triborough Bridge.

Moses tapped architectural model makers Lester & Associates to bring the miniature city to life. According to Queens Museum Registrar and Archives Manager Louise Weinberg, it took 100 people over three years to create the city's topography and hand-craft and paint its 895,000 buildings using information gleaned from scouring Sandborn Fire Insurance maps. Being the exacting individual Moses was, he held the firm to a millimeter standard; ahead of the panorama's completion, Moses made clear that if the buildings strayed even the slightest bit from their true scale, he was willing to reject the entire panorama for show.

The finished product was and is a testament to its time: some 35,000 buildings were crafted individually out of wood and painted by hand. In Manhattan, the windows of skyscrapers were touched with phosphorescent paint so that they cast a glow in the panorama's twilight hours. Structures in the outer boroughs didn't receive as much individual attention and small apartment buildings, churches, and things of the like were stored in giant plastic tubs in the Lester & Associates offices awaiting painting before their positioning on the panorama's 256 ten-by-four-foot panels. Although updates to the panorama have been sparring in the past 50 years, new buildings are no longer made by hand. They're made of laser-etched plastics or plexiglass, and while also aesthetically pleasing, they are a visual hiccup in the expanse of wood and brass and model shrubbery.

Notably on the panorama, the Twin Towers still stand tall at the tip of Manhattan and are, as they were once the city's, its tallest buildings. When asked about whether the museum will account for the city's changing skyline in the panorama, Ms. Weinberg explained that the hesitation is twofold. "It's a philosophical question," she said, "I want it to be frozen in time. The real question is, is this an artifact? It's already been altered, but when's the cutoff point?" Of course the city's composition has radically changed since 1964, and even since it was last significantly updated in 1992. Battery Park City and Brooklyn Bridge Park have arrived, as have Newtown Creek's digester eggs. Through a program similar to the museum's Adopt-a-Building initiative, entities can pay to have their buildings erected on the panorama. The Yankees paid to have their new stadium added, likewise the Mets with Citi Field. Other than that, things have largely remained the same in the past 50 years. Upkeep of the panorama is not endowed, and Ms. Weinberg explained that it's actually quite pricey to add new buildings. At one time, a single new building could cost up to $3,000.

Ms. Weinberg says she and the rest of the Queens Museum staff haven't yet come to a decision about how to treat the panorama; whether it should be an artifact, a memorial, a breathing and reflexive sculpture. "It would be great if a Donald Trump figure could reach into his pocket and say, 'Here's $100,000 a year for upkeep,'" she said, although her tone was riddled with doubt. Ms. Weinberg isn't convinced that radically altering the panorama in the ways it would require to be up-to-date is the best course of action.

Meanwhile, loaded school buses continue to roll up to the museum "every day of the week" and entertain and educate wide-eyed kids. "Museums are repositories of artifacts and dreams and aspirations," Ms. Weinberg said, before stealing away to her desk. That they are. Whatever its fate, the panorama is in good hands.

Poll results

· Panorama of the City of New York [official]
· All Micro Week 2015 coverage [Curbed]