10 Fascinating Facts About Lunch Atop A Skyscraper

11 men eating lunch on a beam over Midtown

Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

The Great Depression inspired some of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century by perfectly capturing the heartache and suffering of a nation out of work. Images of breadlines, derelict housing, and desperate mothers informed the cultural consciousness by bringing the Depression to newsstands across the United States. But Lunch Atop a Skyscraper was different.

The sight of 11 Rockefeller Center construction workers casually eating lunch across a beam hanging 850 feet in the air was a hopeful look at life in the '30s. It showed the world that New York City—and America as a whole—was still building, still progressing, and, most importantly, still working.

It’s been over eight decades since the image was printed in the New York Herald-Tribune on October 2, 1932, and it's been one of the most well-recognized pieces of photography ever since. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Lunch Atop a Skyscraper.

1. THERE ARE STILL DOUBTS ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S IDENTITY.

The image of these workers, dangling high above Midtown, may be etched in our memories (and on apartment walls, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets) forever, but no one really knows who was responsible for taking the picture. One name that keeps coming up is Charles C. Ebbets, who actually received credit for it for a while. But other photographers were up there that day, too, including William Leftwich and Thomas Kelley, and so the Rockefeller archive and Corbis removed any official credit and attributed the photo to “unknown.”

According to Ken Johnston, who was the Historical Director of Photography at Corbis Images, until the 1950s it wasn’t out of the norm for photographers to not receive credit for their photos.

2. IT WAS PURELY FOR PUBLICITY.

Although the image was meant to give a casual look into what a worker’s life was like high above the city streets, it was purely for publicity purposes. No, 11 men eating lunch on a beam hanging 69 floors in the air was not an everyday sight, and the whole thing came together to publicize the construction of Rockefeller Center.

"The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center,” Johnston told the UK's Independent. “It seems pretty clear they were real workers, but the event was organised with a number of photographers."

Taking place during the Depression, when 15 million people were looking for work, the image of an expanding city and the workforce behind it was a rare bright spot for the public to hang on to.

3. THERE WERE MORE DEATH-DEFYING PHOTOS TAKEN THAT DAY.

There was more than just this single shot taken that day. In addition to photos featuring different poses for the 11 men on the beam, there’s also a rarely seen picture of four of the men stretched out across it, taking a well-deserved nap.

That photo was owned by the International News Photos archive, which was a competitor of Acme Newspictures archive, the original owner of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. The identity of the photographer for this lesser-known picture is unknown as well.

4. THE ORIGINAL NEGATIVE IS STORED IN A CAVE IN PENNSYLVANIA.

To keep the original glass plate negative of the photo secured, it was placed in a massive underground vault just outside of Pittsburgh in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Called Iron Mountain, the secure and confidential facility spans 1.8 million square feet, where priceless artwork, photos, film negatives, pieces of music, and government documents from all around the world are stored.

The entire mine is temperature controlled to help maintain the aging documents, as a team works to digitally and physically preserve the millions of pieces inside the vaults. Part of the climate controlling comes from an underground lake that is used to pump 50-degree water throughout the mine to maintain a steady temperature.

5. AND IT’S A LITTLE BEAT-UP.

That being said, the original Lunch Atop a Skyscraper negative has seen better days. At some point, probably after Corbis acquired it, the glass negative was dropped, leaving it cracked and shattered.

You don’t have to worry about the long-term future of the photo, though, as Johnston points out: “Prior to its being broken they had made a number of high-quality prints of the image from which copy negatives were made, to make printing it easier. So there were lots of good copies around to work with.”

6. A DOCUMENTARY HELPED ESTABLISH TWO OF THE MEN’S IDENTITIES.

Much like the man behind the lens, the 11 workers in front of the camera have been a mystery to historians as well. We know they were real construction workers, but records were spotty at the time and there was only anecdotal evidence of their identities. But when director Seán Ó Cualáin began digging into the subject for a documentary called Men at Lunch, he found some of the answers people had been looking for.

"We were literally starting from scratch, and without the assistance and enthusiasm of Rockefeller's Center’s archivist, Christine Roussel, we would have been in big trouble,” Ó Cualáin said in an interview with Rockefeller Center.

Through the use of dozens of archival photos in Rockefeller’s possession, Roussel and Ó Cualáin were able to positively identify two men: Joseph Eckner (the third from the left) and Joe Curtis (third from the right). The names of the other nine men, however, are still unknown.

7. MORE THAN 40,000 PEOPLE WORKED ON THE BUILDING, AND NO WORK RECORDS EXIST.

Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary got started because of a note from a man named Pat Glynn that he and his brother saw in a Shanaglish, Galway, Ireland pub. It was attached to a copy of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper and in it, Glynn claimed that his father and uncle-in-law, both from south Galway, were two of the men on the beam that day.

"The biggest surprise was that despite the photo’s worldwide appeal, no one had tried to find out who the men or photographer were until us," Ó Cualáin said. And a documentary was spawned.

Ó Cualáin tracked Glynn down, along with his cousin Patrick O'Shaughnessy, who claims his father is in the picture, to get more answers. Despite saying that "The physical likenesses are striking,” Ó Cualáin says that no official work records are left from the project, so positive identification is incredibly difficult.

Rockefeller Center’s website reports that more than 40,000 people were hired for the building’s construction, and says that “it’s somewhat surprising that no records exist.” With no work records, and with only scant evidence to go on, a majority of the men may remain a mystery.

8. ONE OF THE WORKERS MIGHT BE OF MOHAWK DESCENT.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Rockefeller Center was built on the backs of immigrants, including men from Ireland, Italy, and Germany. But one of the unsung groups to lend their talents to the job was Mohawk Indians, who were located in northern New York and southern Canada following their support of the British during the Revolutionary War.

The Mohawks honed their ironworking skills on Canadian constriction projects, and they later traveled to New York where work on the Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, and Rockefeller Center opened up. Though many Mohawks eventually settled in the city, most notably in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, according to Rockefeller, “To work these jobs, the majority of men would leave their families in Canada and drive 12 hours down to the city on Sunday, and then journey back at the end of the week.”

Though none of this is confirmed, it’s believed that one of the men in the picture—near the center, with the cap on and cigarette in his mouth—is Peter Rice, an ironworker of Mohawk descent. Other Mohawk names have come up as possibilities for the other men, but nothing conclusive.

9. SOME HISTORIANS DOUBT JUST HOW DANGEROUS THE PHOTO WAS.

If you really want to demystify the photo, you can buy into one New York Times writer's belief that the picture was more than just a posed publicity stunt—it was also not nearly as risky as it looked. One article poses the theory that below the men, just out of view from the camera, was a perfectly safe, finished floor for the men to lower themselves onto (or, you know, land on, in case of any horrific accident). But like so many things about the image, the truth has been lost to history.

10. IT WAS CORBIS’S BEST-SELLING IMAGE.

Corbis owned the rights to the glass negative to Lunch Atop a Skyscraper from 1995 to 2016, until the company sold its images archive to Visual China Group, which has a distribution deal with Getty. In that time, it was the best-selling historical image in Corbis’s portfolio, averaging around 100 purchases a month for 10 years. And for a company that owned images of 20th century icons like Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr., that’s an impressive feat.

Kids Can Join Children's Book Author Mo Willems for Daily "Lunch Doodles" on YouTube

Screenshot via YouTube
Screenshot via YouTube

For children interested in taking drawing lessons, there are few better teachers than Mo Willems. The bestselling author and illustrator has been charming young readers for years with his Pigeon picture book series. Now, from the Kennedy Center, where he's currently the artist-in-residence, Willems is hosting daily "Lunch Doodles" videos that viewers can take part in wherever they are. New lessons are posted to the Kennedy Center's YouTube channel each weekday at 1:00 p.m. EST.

With the novel coronavirus outbreak closing schools across the country, many kids are now expected to continue their education from home. For the next several weeks, Willems will be sharing his time and talents with bored kids (and their overworked parents) in the form of "Lunch Doodles" episodes that last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. In the videos, Willems demonstrates drawing techniques, shares insights into his process, and encourages kids to come up with stories to go along with their creations.

"With millions of learners attempting to grow and educate themselves in new circumstances, I have decided to invite everyone into my studio once a day for the next few weeks," Willems writes for the center's blog. "Grab some paper and pencils, pens, or crayons. We are going to doodle together and explore ways of writing and making."

If kids don't want to doodle during lunch, the videos will remain on YouTube for them to tune in at any time. The Kennedy Center is also publishing downloadable activity pages to go with each episode on its website [PDF]. For more ways to entertain children in quarantine or isolation, check out these livestreams from zoos, cultural institutions, and celebrities.

Dreaming of Your Favorite City? This Website Will Create a Personalized Haiku Poem About It for You

OpenStreetMap Haiku will capture the colorful character of your hometown in a few (possibly silly) phrases.
OpenStreetMap Haiku will capture the colorful character of your hometown in a few (possibly silly) phrases.
vladystock/iStock via Getty Images

You no longer need to spend all your free time struggling to capture the vibe of your favorite city in a few carefully chosen syllables—OpenStreetMap Haiku will do it for you.

The site, developed by Satellite Studio, uses the information from crowdsourced global map OpenStreetMap to create a haiku that describes any location in the world. According to Travel + Leisure, the poems are based on data points like supermarkets, shops, local air quality, weather, time of day, and more.

“Looking at every aspect of the surroundings of a point, we can generate a poem about any place in the world,” the developers wrote in a blog post. “The result is sometimes fun, often weird, most of the time pretty terrible. Also probably horrifying for haiku purists (sorry).”

The results are also often waggishly accurate. For example, here’s a haiku describing Washington, D.C.:

“The same pot of coffee
Fresh coffee from Starbucks
The desk clerk.”

In other words, it seems like the city runs on compulsive coffee refills and paperwork. And if you thought life in Brooklyn, New York, was a combination of alcohol-fueled outings to basement bars and traffic-filled trips into the city, this poem probably confirms your suspicions:

“Getting drunk at The Nest
Today in New York
Green. Red. Green. Red.”

The website’s creators were inspired by Naho Matsuda’s Every Thing Every Time, a 2018 art installation outside Theatre Royal in Newcastle, England, that used data points to generate an ever-changing poem about the city.

Wondering what OpenStreetMap Haiku has to say about your hometown? Explore the map here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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