The New York Times previews One World Observatory

May 21, 2015

BY: The New York Times | David W. Dunlap

With a step-right-up showmanship that does credit to the memory of P. T. Barnum, Legends Hospitality lifted the curtain a bit higher this week on its three-level, $32-a-head observatory near the top of 1 World Trade Center.

Everything about the design of One World Observatory and the publicity campaign leading up to its May 29 opening is meant to whet the public’s anticipation of a trip that might otherwise be difficult — if not impossible — for some people to make, either because of the cost or because of the emotional trauma that clings to the site.

Trying to set the stage to best advantage, Legends gave tours this week to several news organizations, including The New York Times, on the condition that they would not publish their accounts until Wednesday.

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This reporter’s tour, led by David W. Checketts, the chairman and chief executive of Legends, occurred during heavy fog. So it is impossible to verify the observatory’s “See Forever” motto. At first, people were lucky to see much farther than Fulton Street.

However, it is possible to say that the windows in the new tower offer far wider panoramas (even of the fog) than those of the old trade center observatory, which were divided into deep, narrow bays between columns. And an interactive mobile tablet, rentable for $15, makes orientation easy no matter the weather, as the screen clearly depicts and annotates whatever part of the skyline one is facing.

It is also possible to caution acrophobes in advance about the 14-foot-diameter “sky portal,” which looks as if it is suspended over the streets below, like the Ledge at Willis Tower in Chicago. The portal’s glass floor is actually looking down on two dozen high-definition screens carrying a live feed from cameras mounted at the base of the building’s spire. But the illusion is unnervingly convincing.

And it does not seem far-fetched to predict that the bar seats facing the Hudson River on the 101st floor may soon be among the most coveted in New York, though Steve Cuozzo, the restaurant critic at The New York Post, has complained that one cannot dine or drink there without paying the admission fee, because the 60-seat steakhouse and the more casual 100-seat cafe and bar and grill are within the observatory.

(In the original World Trade Center, the Windows on the World restaurant was in the north tower. The observatory, which included an open-air rooftop deck, was in the south tower. There is no outdoor deck at One World Observatory.)

The fog compelled us to focus on the design of the observatory, which Legends, as the operator and developer, created with the architectural firm Montroy Andersen DeMarco and designers and producers at the Hettema Group and Blur Studio.

Legends will not disclose the cost of the project. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which selected Legends as the operator, expects to receive about $875 million over the 15-year contract term, Erica Dumas, a spokeswoman, said.

Mr. Checketts said he expected annual attendance to run from three million to four million visitors.

Last month, prosecutors asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for records that could shed light on whether politics played a role in the choice of Legends, given the friendship between Jerry Jones, one of the owners of the company, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, who controls the authority along with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat.

Ms. Dumas said, “Legends was selected following a highly competitive public procurement process with multiple bidders.”

And Mr. Checketts said, “It was an enormously competitive process, and we conducted ourselves in every way above reproach.”

“One of the reasons we won the bid was our plan to build this space beautifully,” he added.

Though its primary audience is tourists, Legends has evidently paid attention to ever-attentive and critical New Yorkers.

A video posted by The Times on April 19 showed the panorama of Lower Manhattan’s history that visitors will see on their 48-second elevator ride to the observatory. Readers noted that a gauge in the elevator incorrectly indicated that the Brooklyn Bridge was being constructed in the 1820s. The error has been fixed.

Aesthetically, the observatory is appropriately understated, given that the show is on the outside. The walls are of white-oak veneer and the floors are in black terrazzo, with enormous and helpful compass points inlaid at each corner. Calming music composed by Brian Yessian plays in the background.

The 102nd floor, by far the most restrained, is principally to serve as rented event space. The main public observation area is on the 100th floor. Visitors may stay as long as they wish, Mr. Checketts said. But of course, they cannot leave without passing through the gift shop. The most expensive souvenir is a $200 crystal model of 1 World Trade Center.

While waiting to board the five elevators, visitors will see and hear the voices and faces of those who built the skyscraper, including Steven Plate, the director of World Trade Center construction for the Port Authority.

“You look out, and on a clear day, you can actually see the curvature of the Earth,” Mr. Plate says, adding with a laugh, “So, other than that, there’s nothing to see.”

In truth, one has to be quite a bit higher than 1,268 feet to discern the curvature of the Earth. But One World Observatory is about showmanship, after all.