“Lunch Atop A Skyscraper”: account of the iconic photograph of the 11 workers suspended on top of the skyscraper.

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Robert Maurer
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The “Lunch on top of a skyscraper” photograph was a publicity stunt promoting the construction of the new Rockefeller Center, but it quickly became a symbol of hope for a struggling nation.

The iconic "Lunch Atop A Skyscraper" photograph has become synonymous with 30s New York City. The photo shows 11 construction workers leisurely eating lunch as they dangle 260 meters above the Big Apple, but few know the amazing story behind the famous snapshot.




This is the largely unknown story of a photograph that has come to define an era in New York City.

The construction of Rockefeller Center

A steelworker balancing on a 15th floor beam - Getty Images

A common (and misconception) idea about the "Lunch on top of a skyscraper" photo is that it was taken on top of the Empire State Building. The image was actually captured on top of Rockefeller Center during its construction.

Rising 250 meters above the city streets, Rockefeller Center, now one of the city's most historic buildings, was a massive undertaking launched in the early XNUMXth century. The project was considered notable not only for its size, but also for the economic impact it had on the local economy.

According to Christine Roussel, Rockefeller Center archivist, the construction project involved some 250.000 workers during the time of the Great Depression.

But there was a problem: the workers had to work hundreds of meters above the ground and with few safety systems. John Rasenberger, author of "High Steel: The Daring Men Who Builds the World's Greatest Skyline," says:




“The pay was good. The fact is, you had to be willing to die."

This concept is best illustrated by photographs taken atop Rockefeller Center during its construction. The photos show the workers perched precariously on the skeleton of a skyscraper and their day job must have seemed more like a death-defying stunt than a normal 9/5 occupation.

But the most iconic of these photographs is undoubtedly that of several workers eating lunch on a construction beam suspended hundreds of meters in the air with no obvious signs of concern.

Who took the photo "Lunch on top of a skyscraper"

The photograph, titled "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper" or "New York Construction Workers Eating Lunch on a Truss," was taken 69 stories above the ground and was first published in the New York Herald-Tribune on March 2. October 1932.

Surrounded by spectacular views of Central Park, the photograph shows New York City's immigrant workers, mostly Irish and Spanish, taking a break from their dangerous job of building the city.

The photo immediately shocked the American public. It was a tremendous message of hope for desperate families as the nation struggled to recover from the Great Depression. It also illustrated how the nation's largest city, America's cultural center, was built by a collection of international citizens.

The 1932 photograph was part of a series of promotional activities to announce the construction of Rockefeller Center.



Masons relax on the rafters of a building in New York City - Getty Images

The ease with which the workers seem to converse and enjoy lunch together as they hang in the air is certainly what underlies the charm of the image, but in reality the workers were not used to eating lunch risking their lives. The photograph was deliberately constructed and was part of a campaign to promote real estate development in the city.


There are similar photographs, although not as well known as the lunch photo. One, for example, had some men posing as if asleep on top of the hanging beam:

Source: Getty Images

These daredevil poses were directed and photographed by photographers Charles Ebbets, Thomas Kelley, and William Leftwich on September 20, 1932.

Even today it is not known which of them took the iconic photograph, but the photo itself has been reimagined and replicated over the decades.

The mystery behind the photo revealed

Despite the infamy of the photograph, much of its history remained unknown for so long that rumors began to spread that it was actually a fake.

That false news was later debunked by filmmakers and brothers Seán and Eamonn Ó Cualáin in their documentary “Men At Lunch,” which premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.


The brothers were able to confirm the authenticity of the photograph by tracking down the original negative, which is now stored in a super-secure facility called Iron Mountain in Pennsylvania.


Night view of Rockefeller Center during construction. -Wikimedia Commons

While the photograph remains a mystery, its enduring meaning has taken on a life of its own, spawning countless reinterpretations, but it finally gives us a snapshot of an important moment in New York City's past as it was becoming the great metropolis What is it. This day.

“We mostly hear about famous architects and financiers, but this iconic photograph shows how Rockefeller Center was really built – the fulfillment of the promise of Manhattan,” said Mystelle Brabbee, director of the DOC NY film festival, where “Men At Lunch”.


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