Fred A. Bernstein

Drawing Closer to an Old Friend

Thoughts on the importance of the Empire State Building after September 11

Published in The New York Times, October 11, 2001

Drawing Closer to an Old Friend






Published: October 11, 2001

THE other night, standing outside a Broadway theater during intermission, I found myself looking up at the Empire State Building. The top of the building was shrouded in fog. I've seen it that way hundreds of times, but this time I panicked, imagining for a split second that the floors I couldn't see were missing.

After Sept. 11, how could I be sure they weren't? I waited until the fog cleared, relieved to see the building's red, white and blue crown intact.

The Empire State Building is once again the tallest building in New York. But its appeal goes deeper.

For New Yorkers who grew up before the World Trade Center was built, said Paul Washington, a lawyer for AOL Time Warner, ''The Empire State Building is a reflection of who we were.''

That may explain why city residents, traumatized by the collapse of the trade center and the horrific loss of life, seem increasingly attached to the Empire State. ''If anything happens to that building, I'm leaving town,'' said Laurie Lambrecht, a photographer who lives in the East 30's.

Ronnette Riley, an architect, works on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building. On Sept. 11, that became the highest office floor in New York City.

Like most New Yorkers, Ms. Riley, who grew up in California dreaming of working in the Empire State Building, won't denigrate the World Trade Center. But she regrets the effect of Sept. 11 on her building's stunning marble-clad lobby, now clotted with security devices.

To Manhattanites, the Empire State Building is an intimate, its top visible from every point on the compass, its base as approachable as the corner store. The trade center, set not only at the tip of the island but also in a barren plaza, was always distant (even from up close).

Vatche Simonian, an interior designer, chose his apartment in a very tall new building near Madison Square because it offered views in both directions. His focus has shifted to the north. ''Looking downtown is disconcerting,'' he said. ''It's like the city has reverted back to 1972.''

Ted Porter, an architect who spends time on eastern Long Island, said: ''Driving back from Sag Harbor the other day, I realized that the Empire State Building was the focal point again. Hierarchically, the skyline made more sense.''

For three decades, New York has been bipolar. To many people the opposing peaks were navigation aids, the Empire State Building signifying uptown, and the World Trade Center, downtown. Somehow, New York's North Star always shone brighter.

Last weekend, I was on the Brooklyn Bridge late at night, looking at the Empire State Building, glorious from even four miles away. Suddenly all 1,450 feet of it went dark. I panicked -- until I realized that it was midnight. The lights always go off at midnight.

Since then, I've been thinking of calling the building's owners and asking them to keep the lights on until dawn. Funny, I've never needed to sleep with a night light before.

[Three days after this article appeared, the owners announced that they would keep the building lit all night.]