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Empire State Building finds its selfie-worth with help from new on-site museum

Tom Hennes, principal and founder of Thinc Design, on Saturday described changes at the Empire State Building that make it easier for visitors to take selfies. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes)

Tourists hate long lines but love selfies.

Visitors to the Empire State Building’s observatory have long dreaded the queues — sometimes as long as an hour — before ascending to the 360-degree views of New York City and beyond.

“People would rate the experience of having seen the top as 10 out of 10. But all the hardship was getting there,” said Flatiron-based designer Michael Beneville, who is involved in overhauling the 88-year-old tourist attraction. “They would complain — as anyone has the right to complain — standing in a line and bored.”

But, starting Monday, July 29, a $165 million upgrade, including a 10,000-square-foot gallery, aims to free visitors from the lines and the long wait and to channel them into a new exhibition, the yearslong work of a team of designers, architects and engineers.

The plan capitalizes on the selfie-taking craze and sublimates it into a time-biding diversion.

A bonus, according to another designer on the project, Callum Cooper: Selfies from this 102-story building will end up on social media, boomerang across the globe, and encourage even more visitors.

“Integral to the design of anything like this is to create great moments for great selfies and great moments for sharing on social media. We light it so that you can see yourself. We light it so you can see our friends here,” said the project’s Tom Hennes of the Financial District-based design firm Thinc, seated next to a life-size bronze statue of a snacking construction worker, modeled after one of the 3,500 or so who helped build the Empire State Building in 13 months total.

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

“Basically, there are no more queues,” said Jean-Yves Ghazi, president of the observatory at Empire State Realty Trust, owner and manager of the Art Deco skyscraper, which is undergoing a multiyear rebuilding.

The gallery, for which there is no additional charge, takes visitors through the building’s history, construction, current tenants, elevators and lore — with floor-to-ceiling screens, an original elevator model and a panoramic film screen displaying movies, TV shows and comics in which the Empire State Building has played a starring role.

There are about 15 spots designed especially for selfie-taking integrated into the gallery, including vibrating hands and a digitally depicted head of King Kong, surveyor’s scopes that show videos portraying 1930s street life, and bronze statues honoring some of the construction workers. Selfie opportunities are one part of the new experience.

The floor had to be reinforced to support those selfie-friendly statues, which weigh about 400 pounds each, said Sergio K. Londono, vice president of the engineering company Thornton Tomasetti.

The popularity of selfies challenged decades-old mathematical models that predict the speed at which crowds move through a space. For example, while it should take about a minute to climb a new grand staircase toward ticketing and up to the gallery, crowds are lingering longer to snap photos with a replica model of the Empire State Building, according to Cooper, creative director at the design firm Squint/Opera in Chinatown, which is on the team redoing the building.

“People will wait there for five minutes” — or even longer — “to get the perfect photo,” he said.

To avoid traffic jams, gallery designers have stationed the 15 or so selfie attractions away from the main paths so as not to disrupt through traffic.

“We’ve tried to put selfie areas — photo-opportunity areas — in eddys,” he said.

Three years ago, the project brought a sociologist aboard who specializes in crowds to study how many of the observatory-bound tourists might stop and linger if offered a compelling diversion, Hennes, the designer, said.

The result, he said: At least one-third of the crowd stayed behind to check out the diversion.

Said Beneville: “It’s a massive people-moving operation — it’s 4 million people who need to get from the bottom to the top.”

The building expects visitors to spend about 15 minutes in the gallery on light days, and up to an hour at peak, before riding an elevator to the wraparound observatory, he said.

The creative team researched thousands of selfies posted not only on Western social-media like Instagram but also the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, Cooper said. Weibo is used by nearly 445 million people a month, its parent company says. 

Among the research questions: Which cameras are most popular? (It's the iPhone, among Americans.) Which angles and from how far away do users tend to snap selfies? Which tourist attractions are competing with the Empire State Building?

This research also helped optimize lighting choices to allow for the most flattering selfies, Hennes said.

In the weeks before Monday’s opening, Hennes said, designers have been in the gallery snapping test selfies — using different cellphone models, angles and distances.

Ghazi, showing off the $165 million project the weekend before opening day, admitted: “I’m not a selfie person.”

“Neither am I,” said Hennes, his iPhone 6 screen cracked. “We’ve been shooting more selfies in the last week than any of us shoot in a year.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story didn't make clear that Ghazi is president of the observatory. 

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