December 31: the end
2012/12/31 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1907 a New Year’s Eve celebration, in which an illuminated time ball was lowered on a flag pole, took place for the first time in the triangular plaza once known as Longacre Square.
The roots of the event stretch to 1903, when the tenant of a new building at the head of the square decided to draw attention to their new headquarters (designed by Eidlitz & MacKenzie) by hosting a big fireworks extravaganza on its rooftop. That tenant, the New York Times, also convinced the city to rename the square in honor of the Gray Lady. Already using their building as a launchpad for the immediately popular festival, a few years later they changed things up by lowering a time ball on a flag pole. A “time ball” is, actually, a thing: historically (at least as far back as the early nineteenth century) they were used as navigational aids, usually wood or metal spheres lowered on a staff at a particular time of day within eyesight of ships in a harbor. (In the States they’re lowered at noon; in England and Europe at 1 PM, because 1 PM is, apparently, metric noon.) Radio made them obsolete in the 1920s, so they were still a part of life for folks deciding an interesting way to ring in the new year.
The time ball in question here (which drops on a 140′ staff–that’s about 280 hot dogs, according to New York measure) was built on a five-foot framework of iron and wood, glittering with 100 25-watt bulbs. Although it’s been replaced and tarted up through the years, and the Times has long since moved away, that glow ball been a consistent part of New York’s festivities ever since 1907, except for two years during World War II.
The Times Square time ball may be one of the last things of its particular kind that people still pay attention to, but its setting is certainly not unique in being a place where architecture plays an important role in the big communal event of turning the calendar. Around the world these events take place almost always within the framework of buildings. In part this just makes sense, because when lots of people get together they typically do so in a city which by its nature is going to have buildings. But buildings are not just a coincidence of gathering. Indeed some of the most spectacular celebrations depend on architecture: the buildings themselves as launchpads, plinths and focal points, as well as the big urban furniture that defines the spaces into which people gather by the dozens or hundreds or tens of thousands or gazillions. People identify the celebration with its setting, especially so in places with great architectural scenery: check out Sydney, London, Beijing, Aukland, Paris, Brussels, Rome, Dubai, Seattle, Hong Kong and Berlin, even Lithuania, and, significantly this year for seeing its first public New Year’s celebration–humbly so, but still–in Myanmar.
Enjoy your bubbly. Yank the end of one of those plastic confetti bottles. Blow a horn. Make noise with a noise maker. But don’t neglect looking at the place you’re in; it matters. It matters more than the way it’s important as the backdrop for your event (or your non-event, if you are just over these sorts of things). By its nature, architecture is a contract with the future; hopefully it’s an optimistic one; one made for you and people before you and people to come after you. It’s there for our future plans, our current events, and our memories. And that’s history.
Image: the ball in 1955 (from this source)