Empire State Building’s 102nd floor observatory reopens with fuller panoramic view

Visitors to the Empire State Building will get an even fuller 360-degree view of the city on its 102nd floor observatory that underwent a major renovation. (Photo by Shaye Weaver)

BY SHAYE WEAVER | At 1,250 feet in the air, the Empire State Building’s observatory on the 102nd floor may just be “the best place for a New Yorker.”

Closed since January this year, the 360-degree space — 16 floors above the famous open-air observatory — underwent a massive renovation that replaced its old windows with floor-to-ceiling glass that can withstand 98-mph winds, its well-worn floor with shiny marble tiles illustrating a compass rose, and its original 1931 elevator with a state-of-the-art see-through car.

The work took about four months to complete thanks to the use of a “cocoon,” a scaffolding that that fully enclosed the space, allowing the 86th-floor observatory to remain open to the public.

During a sneak peek of the newly renovated floor, which opens to the public on Oct. 12, Tom Hennes of the Financial District-based design firm Thinc, explained that the undertaking was done to make the space more like a “crow’s nest” that shows the “authentic bones” of the building, including its transmission lines that run through to the top of its broadcast tower.

“It’s as elemental as we can make it,” he told this reporter.

The new interior of the 102nd floor observatory is “elemental,” showing off the transmission lines and other structural elements. (Courtesy Empire State Realty Trust Inc.)

By stripping down the old walls and fencing inside the observatory, even more of the 360-degree view is visible. But those in fear of heights need not worry — there are multiple layers of glass windows that have been tested to insure stability and safety. Unlike at some tall buildings, the team of designers and engineers did not want to lean the windows out.

“It’s not in character — it’s a spectacular view, not a thrill ride,” Hennes added.
The renovation is part of a $165 million project to reimagine the observatory experience. In July, a 10,000-square-foot gallery, aiming to free visitors from the lines and the long wait by channeling them into a new exhibition, opened.

The Empire State Building, which attracts about 4 million tourists a year to its observatory and charges $38 for the basic adult ticket, is following some other museums around the world that have begun openly encouraging selfie-taking as a way to boost popularity.

The ability to take selfies on the 102nd floor observatory has also improved now that the once-clunky metal windows are gone.

The old, smaller windows (pictured) are gone. Now, floor-to-ceiling windows offer a wider view of the city. (Courtesy Empire State Realty Trust Inc.)

For Hennes, who has been a New York City resident since he was 7 years old, helping design part of one of the world’s most recognizable buildings has been “enormously gratifying.”

“I think this is the best place for New Yorkers to come,” he said. “Although we think about this as a tourist destination, look around you — I come up here and I feel so much enormous pride of being a New Yorker and I feel at home. I hope New Yorkers will find new reasons to come here because there are a lot of us in this building and a lot of us in the exhibit.”