Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (2024)

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (1)

The iconic photograph known as “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” captures a moment frozen in time, taken on September 20, 1932.

In this black-and-white image, eleven intrepid ironworkers find themselves seated upon a steel beam, soaring 850 feet (260 meters) above the bustling streets of Manhattan, New York City.

Their lofty perch is the sixty-ninth floor of what was then the RCA Building, now recognized as 30 Rockefeller Plaza, nestled within the grandeur of Rockefeller Center.

This captivating snapshot, a feat of both engineering and audacity, was arranged as a publicity stunt, part of a campaign promoting the skyscraper.

The image captures not only the grandeur of the city below but the camaraderie of these immigrant ironworkers who, despite the precipitous elevation, partake in their lunchtime ritual with an air of nonchalance.

Perched in a seemingly gravity-defying manner, these men, who often navigated the complex network of girders with casual familiarity, etched a unique chapter in the city’s history.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (2)

The RCA Building in December 1933 during the construction of Rockefeller Center.

The Identity of the Ironworkers

According to a New York Post survey, numerous claims have been made regarding the identities of the men in the image.

The 2012 documentary Men at Lunch investigated claims that two of the men were Irish immigrants, and the director reported in 2013 that he planned to follow up on other claims from Swedish relatives.

The film confirms the identities of two men: Joseph Eckner, third from the left, and Joe Curtis, third from the right, by cross-referencing with other pictures taken the same day, in which they were named at the time.

The first man from the right, holding a bottle, has been identified as Slovak worker Gustáv (Gusti) Popovič.

The photograph was found in his estate, with the note “Don’t you worry, my dear Mariška, as you can see I’m still with bottle” written on the back.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (3)

The third worker (from the left) has been identified as Joseph Eckner; Joe Curtis, third from the right. The last one (on the right) is Gustáv (Gusti) Popovič. The rest remain unknown.

The photograph has been referred to as the “most famous picture of a lunch break in New York history” by Ashley Cross, a correspondent of the New York Post. It has been used and imitated in many artworks.

Although critics have dismissed the photograph as a publicity stunt, Johnston called it “a piece of American history”.

Taken during the Great Depression, the photograph became an icon of New York City and has often been re-created by construction workers. Time included the image in its 2016 list of the 100 most influential images.

Discussing the significance of the image in 2012, Ken Johnston, manager of the historic collections of Corbis, said: There’s the incongruity between the action – lunch – and the place – 800 feet in the air – and that these guys are so casual about it.

It’s visceral: I’ve had people tell me they have trouble looking at it out of fear of heights. And these men – you feel you get a very strong sense of their characters through their expressions, clothes, and poses.

The “Lunch Atop A Skyscraper” Picture’s Photographer is Still a bit of a Mystery

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (4)

Charles Clyde Ebbets.

The identity of the photographer is unknown. It was often misattributed to Lewis Hine, a Works Progress Administration photographer, from the mistaken assumption that the structure is the Empire State Building.

In 1998, Tami Ebbets Hahn, a resident of Wilmington, North Carolina, noticed a poster of the image and speculated that it was one of her father’s (Charles C. Ebbets; 1905–1978) photographs. In 2003, she contacted Ken Johnston of Corbis.

Corbis, a company that provides archived images to professional photographers, hired Marksmen Inc., a private investigation firm, to find the photographer. An investigator discovered an article from The Washington Post, which credited the image to Hamilton Wright.

The Wright family, however, was not familiar with the photograph. It was common for Wright to receive credit for photographs taken by those working for him; Hahn’s father had worked for the Hamilton Wright Features syndicate.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (5)

Charles C. Ebbets with his trusty camera hanging out over New York City.

In 1932, Ebbets had been appointed the photographic director of Rockefeller Center, responsible for publicizing the new skyscraper.

Hahn found her father’s paycheck of $1.50 per hour (equivalent to $32 per hour in 2022), the ironworkers photograph, and an image of her father with a camera, which appeared to be of the same place and time.

Analyzing the evidence, Johnston said: “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the photographer.” Corbis later acknowledged Ebbets’s authorship.

It was later discovered that photographers Thomas Kelley, William Leftwich, and Ebbets were present there on that day. Due to the uncertain identity of the photographer, the image is again without credit.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (6)

Tee time. Photo by Charles Ebbets.

Ebbets was a daredevil himself, and his biography tells of his earlier stints working as a stuntman in Hollywood, as well as an actor in the mid-1920s, playing the role of an African hunter known as “Wally Renny” in several motion pictures. He also had many other jobs including pilot, “wing-walker”, auto racer, wrestler, and hunter.

Explore snapshots from Ebbets’ diverse journey through life on a website curated by his daughter.

With heartfelt dedication, she has carefully preserved and revived his extensive photo collection, allowing us to witness the many facets of his achievements.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (7)

Charles Ebbets at Rockefeller Center, 1932.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (8)

Portrait of Charles C. Ebbets atop a skyscraper in NYC.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (9)

Laurel and Hardy. Photo by Charles Ebbets.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress).

Updated on:August 15, 2023

Any factual error or typo?Let us know.

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Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: Revealing the Backstory of an Iconic Photograph - Rare Historical Photos (2024)

FAQs

Is Lunch Atop a Skyscraper photo fake? ›

It was arranged as a publicity stunt, part of a campaign promoting the skyscraper. The photographic negative is in the Bettmann Archive, owned by the Visual China Group. The image is often misattributed to Lewis Hine, but the identity of the actual photographer remains unclear.

Is the New York lunch 1932 picture real? ›

It was really all a publicity stunt by the Rockefeller Center to advertise their new RCA building, which was almost finished. The men did really sit on the beam and chow down, but it wasn't their idea, and certainly not a regular occurrence.

Why is Lunch Atop a Skyscraper historically significant or important? ›

Depicting 11 construction workers casually enjoying their lunch break on a steel beam 850 feet above the streets of New York, the image has become a symbol of the city's resilience and determination. However, many people are unaware that this seemingly candid moment was, in fact, staged for publicity purposes.

What is the famous picture lunch skyscraper? ›

Called Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, the iconic image captured just some of the more than 40,000 men—many of them immigrants—hired to build Rockefeller Center during the Great Depression. Now, a new attraction allows visitors to recreate the 91-year-old photo themselves.

Is the Chicago Iron Workers picture real? ›

(formerly known as the RCA building) construction. photo was prearranged to promote Rockefeller Center, the men were genuine ironworkers on the project. throwback.

Is lunch atop a skyscraper copyright? ›

This work is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1929 and 1963, and although there may or may not have been a copyright notice, the copyright was not renewed.

Did iron workers ever fall? ›

In 1996, a 43-year-old welder for an iron erection company died when his suspended metal cage fell 19 stories from the side of a new building. The victim and a co-worker had been arc welding on the west face of a new high-rise building, each supported separately in a metal cage suspended by a ½ inch steel cable.

Did the Irish build the Empire State Building? ›

With an average construction rate of four and a half floors per week it only took thirteen and a half months to complete. Many of the workers were Irish and Italian immigrants, with a sizable minority of Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal.

Is the Rockefeller beam photo real? ›

The Beam is Tishman Speyer's latest effort to make Rockefeller Center cool, and there's a certain kind of historical symmetry in the stunt of it all: The original photo itself was totally staged, a promotional image for the then–newly built Rockefeller Center.

Who owns Rockefeller Center? ›

Owned by: Rockefeller Center Properties Inc. Trust, whose shareholders are the Crown family of Chicago and Tishman-Speyer Properties of New York, the operating partner. This group owns all of the properties in the original center; Tishman-Speyer manages all of them. Managed by: Tishman-Speyer Properties, Inc.

What is the Lunch Atop a Skyscraper attraction? ›

The exhilarating ride recreates an iconic moment and photograph first published in the New York-Herald-Tribune on Oct. 2, 1932. "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper" shows 11 ironworkers casually eating while sitting precariously on a steel beam more than 800 feet above the ground.

What is the beam at the top of the rock? ›

The Beam, a new experience at Top of the Rock, invites visitors to recreate “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper”, the iconic 1932 photo depicting 11 ironworkers lunching precariously on a steel beam, during the construction of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Was Lunch Atop a Skyscraper staged? ›

Labor Day: “Lunch atop a Skyscraper,” was a staged photo of New York iron workers during the Depression - The Washington Post.

How much does the beam at Rockefeller Center cost? ›

The new experience will cost $25 and be an add-on to the regular Top of the Rock ticket. It will include both the experience itself and a digital photo. A general admission ticket costs between $40 and $55 for adults, according to the company.

What building's framework is seen in the famous photo Lunch Atop a Skyscraper? ›

Despite the fact that the photo became a symbol of resistance, it should be mentioned that, it was not simply taken at random by the expertise of a photographer who had the unique opportunity to “immortalize” the lunchtime of 11 unperturbed builders on a steel beam atop the 70-story RCA building.

Did skyscraper workers ever fall? ›

The construction of the original World Trade Center in New York City, completed in 1973, resulted in the deaths of 60 workers. Several workers were killed during the construction of the towers, including a man who fell 55 stories to his death.

What is the famous picture of the New York builders? ›

Lunch atop a Skyscraper (1932). Photo: Getty Images. Visitors to New York's Rockefeller Center will now get the chance to recreate the iconic 1932 photograph Lunch atop a Skyscraper, which captured construction workers grabbing a bite to eat while sitting on a metal beam 840 feet up in the air.

Are they building a new skyscraper in NYC? ›

A 62-story office building is planned to be built at 350 Park Ave. The project is expected to be completed by 2032, according to the mayor's office.

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