Clash of the titans

The reopening of Top of the Rock reignites a friendly skyscraper rivalry

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VIEW FINDER You'll see everything from Central Park to Coney Island at Top of the Rock.

People in New York are competitive about everything: sports teams, restaurants, cab routes. But that's nothing new. In his book Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, Daniel Okrent recounts one long-running city rivalry...on the subject of skyscrapers. In the 1930s, Peter McGuire was the head guard of the Empire State Building, and on his days off, he would go to the observation deck at Rockefeller Center, where he'd ask the guides to point out the Statue of Liberty. When they turned to do so, there was something in the way. A little something called the Empire State Building.

When the Top of the Rock reopens on Tuesday after 19 years, that old rivalry will be revived. But on a recent tour of the refurbished observation deck, it seemed like Rock Center's Peter Dillon, director of marketing, meant to have the last laugh. "There are a couple of things you can't see from the Empire State Building," he says. "You really can't see Central Park—and, most significantly, you can't see the Empire State Building. This is the New York City skyline, and this is the only place you can see it."

The ESB folk, for their part, are not worried. "We welcome them back to NYC," says Lydia Ruth, director of public relations and special events for the Empire State Building. She then gently points out the solidity of the ESB's fan base, which was strong even when the World Trade Center's deck was still around: "We peacefully coexisted with the Top of the World, and they averaged 2.5 million visitors per year; we approached 3.8 million."

Of course, in the old days, there was room in this town for a lot more than two public aeries. By the 1930s, there were 11, including the Woolworth and Chrysler Buildings. Now the only ones remaining are at the Empire State Building and 30 Rockefeller Center (which closed in 1986 after the expansion of the Rainbow Room blocked off its elevators).

The view has changed since then—most notably at the southern tip of Manhattan—and so has the price: Tickets are now $14, as opposed to $3.50 in '86. (The ESB is up to $16.) Then there's the indoor entertainment. While waiting for elevators to skyrocket them to the 67th floor, visitors can keep themselves occupied in the "virtual queueing area," where there's a multimedia exhibition about the history of Rockefeller Center.
Dillon doesn't expect that visitors will spend more than a few minutes here, though, thanks to the attraction's reserved-time ticketing service (walk-up and advance tickets will be available). When your reservation time arrives, elevators with glass ceilings shoot you up to the three-tiered observation deck, and you spend the ride revisiting decades past with images from the city's history projected onto the glass. About a minute later, you step out onto the 67th floor, into an indoor viewing area that serves as a decent place to view the city on a cold or wet day. An escalator up to the outdoor 69th floor leads you to a much more stunning vision: a terrace with high glass walls instead of fences. But neither of these floors compares to the open deck on the 70th.

The view up here is awesome—and sweeping. Whereas the panorama from the ESB is blocked by the building itself (the skyscraper towers another 16 floors above its observation area), there is no such hindrance at the Top of the Rock. You won't find any deck chairs, as there were in 1933 when the platform was designed to look like an ocean liner. But you won't find any unsightly fences slicing up the vista, either; there's nothing more than a chest-high, fleur-de-lis barrier here. And other than a weather station that takes up about a dozen feet, you can see nearly 340 degrees around without interruption. Unless you count the sight of the brightly looming Empire State Building. But we have to agree with McGuire: That's not such a bad thing.

For tickets, go to www.topoftherocknyc.com or call 212-698-2000.

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