Lights on the Empire State Building

As mentioned in one of our first blog posts, the Empire State Building is one of the most famous landmarks of the city.  Aside from its observation deck, its place in the popular mind due to movies and television, and its handsome Indiana limestone exterior, the Empire State Building is also famous for its lights that announce the building across the city and beyond.  For many, the lights are a symbol of New York.  Often in the signature “empire white”, the tower lights are one of the most recognizable symbols of Manhattan.

The first time the Empire State Building was lit up was when a searchlight was turned on in 1932 to signal that New York State governor Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected as president.  In the 1950s, white beacon lights were turned on the tower and remained a nightly feature until the 1970s.  In 1976, colors were added to the lights when red, white, and blue were lit up to celebrate the American Bicentennial.  Tower lights are turned off at 2:00AM every night.  While the tower’s lighting patterns began to commemorate holidays or other momentous occasions, controversies arose over some of the occasions being honored, leading to patterns being vetted after 2006.

In 2012, the lighting system of the Empire State Building was renovated.  This new combination  replaced 400 lamps that could display nine colors to 1,200 lamps displaying 16 million colors.  While most color combinations are in three pieces, there can be multiple color combinations projected.  In recent years, the lights have been dimmed or turned off in spring or fall so that birds migrating through New York City do not hit the building and die due to the bright lights of the tower.  Learn enlightening facts about NYC on a Sights by Sam walking tour.

Hudson Yards

New York is indisputably the largest city in the United States.  As with most large cities, there are several centers for jobs.  Already, the city contains three of the largest business districts in the city (Lower Manhattan, Midtown Manhattan, and Downtown Brooklyn).  In addition to these commercial areas, there are several other developments classed as “cities within the city”.  Two of these districts immediately spring to the minds of many New Yorkers: Rockefeller Center and MetroTech Center in Brooklyn.  At the moment, a new 28-acre development, the largest of its type in the United States, is under construction.  When completed in the mid-2020s, Hudson Yards is expected to be a major new district and a “city within a city” in the densest part of New York City (Midtown).

The Hudson Yards development is being constructed over the rail yard for Penn Station.  This area had long been one of the last undeveloped areas of Manhattan, with the Javits Center being completed as the only part of various master plans to add civic, commercial, and residential space on the island.  In preparation for an attempt to host the 2012 Olympics (won by London),  the far west side of Manhattan was rezoned by the City Council.  This paved the way for development (first for an Olympic Stadium and then a stadium for the New York Jets NFL team).  After bureaucratic hurdles were cleared, construction began on 16 skyscrapers that will cover millions of square feet of commercial office, retail, and residential space.

When fully completed at some point in the 2020s, Hudson Yards will sport two large buildings over 1000 feet tall (30 and 35 Hudson Yards).  In addition to corporate headquarters, the development will also have shopping, an observation deck, and a large public plaza (with a distinctive public art structure in the middle of said plaza).  The Hudson Yards will also be easily accessible from the High Line linear park.  The development can be seen on an “Architecture: Building New York” walking tour through Sights by Sam, or by a personalized tour of the area.

601 Lexington Avenue

Known for its former name as the Citigroup Center, 601 Lexington Avenue, a 915’ tower, is most famous for its bright white color and angled roof. Initially meant for a solar panel, this feature makes the building distinct in the Midtown Manhattan skyline. The building was designed by Hugh Stubbins and Emery Roth and Sons and completed in 1977. The building is also more narrow at the base compared to its higher floors, requiring a mass damper in the angled roof. The skyscraper is also famous for another towering mishap that could have been.

The flaw of the building was literally in its nuts and bolts. After the tower was completed in 1977, a student and professor at Princeton University discovered that the building contained a massive design defect. When initially constructed, the joints in the angled top were welded instead of bolted in order to cut costs. The Princeton University team found that because of this, if a sheer wind hit the building in excess of 70 miles per hour, the building could literally rip apart. While a hurricane typically hits New York City every 50 to 60 years and was considered unlikely to occur, crews worked for months at night to weld the joints together. The building’s design defect was corrected and has been safe since 1978. What is even more astonishing is that this incident remained largely a secret until the mid 1990s.

In addition to being a notable feature of the skyline and having quite the story behind it, 601 Lexington Avenue was also built around a (redesigned) St. Peter’s Evangelical Church, which had been at this site since the early 1900s. The building also contains 1.3 million square feet of office space. This is the type of towering information that you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

One World Trade Center

Towering above Lower Manhattan (and the entire city), One World Trade Center symbolizes the resilience and rebuilding of New York after the September 11th attacks. Designed by the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, the building was constructed between 2006 and 2014. The structure has deep symbolism for the city and the country as a whole—rising to a patriotic 1776 feet tall and built with materials and components from all 50 states and many friendly countries.

The plans for a tower at the World Trade Center site were first conceived as early as 2002. Daniel Liebskind was selected as the architect, but the design was changed due to security concerns brought forward by the NYPD and due to concerns from other project stakeholders. Construction of the reinforced concrete base alone took two years. While the original name of the building was the Freedom Tower, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey changed the name to One World Trade Center in 2009. The building also has several pioneering safety features to ensure the survivability of the structure in the event of a catastrophic event, such as pressurized staircases and filtered air systems. The final price tag for the building was around $4 billion, then the most expensive structure ever built. It encompasses 2.6 million square feet—slightly more than the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the American Museum of Natural History.

Today, the building is most famous to visitors for its observation deck, allowing for panoramic views of New York City and beyond. Major tenants include the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the State of New York, and Conde Nast Publishing. One World Trade Center is one of the many highlights of the “Foundation of New York” tour by Sights by Sam, which covers Lower Manhattan.


When most people think of housing in New York, they think of gleaming apartment buildings or walk-up tenements populating some of the historic neighborhoods of Manhattan. One of the most famous and most popular styles of dwelling in New York is the brownstone. Functioning as one-family residences or apartment buildings, the brownstone is an instantly recognizable landmark of the city.

Brownstone refers to a type of sandstone that has a dark red to brownish hue. Quarried in New England or the Mid-Atlantic states, this stone was very popular in the late 1800s and very early 1900s. It is most associated with row houses built in Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn during this time period. The name of the stone soon became known as a type of row house that was clad in said material. In addition to their color, brownstones are often also famous for containing rooms intended to be libraries (as this was the main form of entertainment before radio and television), tall doors, and also raised stoops that allowed residents the ability to step off of the grime and dirt of the city streets.

Although supplanted today by newer apartment buildings and detached housing in some areas of the city, brownstones are still seen as desirable—with some costing into the millions of dollars. They are highly sought after by many New Yorkers as a place to live. Brownstones are visible on the Sights by Sam tours of Brooklyn and of Harlem (our “Borough of Brooklyn” and “Upper Manhattan” tours, respectively). This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour of New York.

70 Pine Street

Although never the tallest building in the city, the skyscraper at 70 Pine Street is one of the most striking on the Lower Manhattan skyline. For many years (between 1932 and 1972), it was the third tallest building in Manhattan and the tallest in Lower Manhattan.

Rising to a height of 952 feet tall, 70 Pine was completed in 1932 for the Cities Services Company, an oil company that later merged with Citgo. It was designed by the firms of Clinton & Russell and Holton & George. Perhaps in using two architectural firms, the building gained its unique gothic-art deco hybrid style—said by some to resemble a mountain. It was the last major skyscraper built in Lower Manhattan from the Great Depression until the World Trade Center was constructed in the 1970s. After Cities Services moved their headquarters, the building was the headquarters of AIG until the financial crisis in the mid-2000s.

Today, the building is being converted to high end residences. A hotel is also located within the building. Seventy Pine can be seen on the “Foundation of New York” tour of Lower Manhattan conducted by Sights by Sam. Additionally, this is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour of New York.

The Flatiron Building

Although it was never the tallest in the city, the Flatiron Building (built in 1902) is one of the most beloved skyscrapers in the city.  The building, with its triangular shape, has many admirers throughout the world.

The Flatiron Building is the only New York skyscraper designed by noted architect Daniel Burnham, who gained fame for designing several structures in Chicago.  The beaux-arts structure towers over the surrounding area at 22 stories, but was initially scorned by New Yorkers.  It did, however, prove popular with local men as the building caused wind patterns to change at the building’s address at the confluence of 5th Avenue, 23rd Street, and Broadway.  The phrase “23-skidoo” was coined as NYPD officers had to herd leering men and boys from gawking at the exposed legs of women, whose skirts would blow up from the wind as they walked near the building.  The Flatiron Building was originally built for the Fuller Company, an architectural firm.  It now has several tenants.

One of the most notable things about the Flatiron Building is not its height, nor its shape (it is far from being the only skyscraper on a triangular plot of land), but what it would lead to.  When it was built, the Flatiron Building was only one of a couple tall buildings north of Lower Manhattan.  Its construction would be the harbinger of massive commercial skyscrapers going up into the formerly residential Midtown neighborhood.  With the conversion of many formerly commercial buildings into residential or hotel uses (70 Pine and the Woolworth Building come to mind), the Flatiron Building soldiers on as an office building.

While the Empire State Building and many others are taller, the famous Flatiron Building still represents one of the most distinctive pieces of architecture in the city.  The building, with its terra cotta exterior, still captures the imagination of many visitors and natives alike.  The Flatiron Building and the surrounding area can be seen on several Sights by Sam tours.

Woolworth Building

With its green top peaking through the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, the 792 foot-tall Woolworth Building stands out.  Between 1913 and 1930, it was the tallest building in New York and in the world.  Originally designed to honor the F.W. Woolworth Company, the building is now being converted into apartments.

Completed in 1913, the Woolworth Building was built to house the headquarters of the eponymous F.W. Woolworth Company.  It is rumored that Woolworth paid $13 million in cash for the building.  Woolworth hired noted architect Cass Gilbert (who would later design the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington) to design the edifice.  Gilbert used a neo-gothic style of architecture.  On its opening night, President Woodrow Wilson lit the lights from a specially-configured switch in the White House.  The lobby contains terra-cotta sculptures, including Woolworth and Gilbert.  Because it is an office building, the ornate lobby can only be accessed by workers and those on special tours.  An observation deck at this building has been closed for decades.

When first built, the building elicited a number of responses.  A well-known reverend dubbed the building “a cathedral of commerce” as an insult to what he felt was its ostentatiousness.  As it was his company’s headquarters, Woolworth took it as a compliment.  This building today never fails to elicit reactions from native and visitor alike.  It also helped to ensure Cass Gilbert as one of the first “starchitects” in American history.  This building can be seen on a Sights by Sam tour of Lower Manhattan.

The Chrysler Building

Built to be the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation, the Chrysler Building is the world’s tallest brick building and the defining masterpiece of the Art Deco architecture style.  It has spawned numerous imitators—most notably One Liberty in Philadelphia.  Although it was the tallest in the world for less than one year, it is routinely voted among the favorites of New York natives and tourists.

The Chrysler Building stands at 1049 feet tall (coincidently the same as the New York Times Building).  The building, designed by architect William Van Alen, was commissioned at the behest of Walter P. Chrysler as his headquarters.  Notably, the tower was paid for in cash by Chrysler so his children, not his company, would own it (it has been sold numerous times since then).  Chrysler was obsessed with having the tallest building in the world.  When it was learned that 40 Wall Street was going to be taller (the old Bank of Manhattan headquarters, now owned by Donald Trump), Van Alen added a 125 foot spire that was secretly constructed inside the building and hoisted through the top.  In October of 1929, after a ninety minute procedure, the spire was secured in place. The building opened for business in 1930.  Although the building wears a metallic crown, the crown of the world’s tallest building title would travel a little further south to the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street to the Empire State Building in 1931.

Although not open to the public (the building did have an observation deck for a time), the Chrysler Building is known for its metallic crown and spire.  Decorating the building, there are several gargoyles on the outside of the structure that are designed to look like components of 1930s Chrysler and Plymouth autos.  The lobby of the building also has a rich mahogany wood Art Deco theme.  It is also rumored that a speakeasy operated at the top of the building for New York businessmen during Prohibition.

Although quickly displaced by the Empire State Building and losing the title of tallest in the world (and later its broadcasting aerials), the Chrysler Building holds a special, shiny place in the heart of many, and is seen on multiple Sights by Sam walking tours.

Guggenheim Museum

Officially named the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, this modern art museum’s building is just as controversial as the art contained inside.  The building has been likened to an alien spacecraft, a toilet, and many other things.

Solomon R. Guggenheim was a mining magnate from Pennsylvania who turned to collecting art.  Later in life, he started collecting abstract (“non-objective”) art.  He founded a foundation to further the appreciation of abstract art in 1937, but his collection had grown to the point where he needed a museum to house it.  Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design the museum on the tony Upper East Side (in the “Museum Mile” District).  The museum building was opened in 1959, however both Wright and Guggenheim did not live to see the final structure completed.

Special exhibits in the museum are often displayed in the circular gallery while the permanent collection is in an addition to the original building.  Although the intent was to have guests take an elevator up to the top and walk down, the limited elevator capacity makes this difficult.

The building is indeed as abstract as the work displayed within.  Every time I walk through the complex, it is as though I am in some past version of what people thought the future would look like.  The museum is a sight to behold—if only for the fact that it is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last buildings and one of his only commissions in New York City.

One of the reasons the museum was sited at its location was because of its proximity to Central Park.  Although the classically-designed park contrasts sharply with the modern architecture of the museum, it is an interesting contrast and a way to experience a small piece of Central Park.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.