The dazzling Times Square Ball seen from up close on the private, hidden roof deck of One Times Square (photographs by Kathryn Yu unless otherwise indicated)
Last week, the New York Obscura Society was incredibly lucky to be presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have an up-close, intimate encounter with the iconic Times Square Ball, whose annual descent has been synonymous with the ringing in of the new year for over a century.
While every December 31 the dazzling crystal orb attracts the attention of an estimated one billion spectators worldwide, the remainder of the year the historic Times Square Ball quietly sits atop the hidden observation deck of One Times Square, marooned on the intersection of Seventh Avenue, Broadway, and 42nd Street. Countdown Entertainment President Jeff Straus, the man behind New York's yearly New Year's Eve festivities, graciously extended to us an invitation to spend the evening with him discussing the history of the city's celebrations and the evolution of the Times Square Ball. We toasted the occasion with Moët & Chandon champagne, the official sponsor of the NYE ball dropping ceremony, while enjoying Straus' sprawling top-floor office and incredible view of midtown Manhattan reaching all the way to Central Park.
An impressive view of the mad heart of Manhattan
A treasure kept on display within Jeff Straus' office: the miniature Waterford Crystal sphere used annually to trigger the Ball's midnight descent
Jeff shared with us the history of One Times Square, built in 1904 to house the headquarters of the New York Times, which influenced the growth of what is now one of New York Citys busiest and most iconic neighborhoods. The paper's owner, Adolph Ochs, took on the city's New Year's festivities for the building's opening year, moving the raucous celebration from its former downtown location at Trinity Church up to Times Square for a full day event that culminated with fireworks at midnight and attracted over 200,000 guests.
The fireworks display was banned within several years when the city realized that the hot ash raining down on the crowds was actually causing revelers to be burned, and Ochs turned to the paper's chief electrician Walter Palmer with the hope of creating a new spectacle to ceremoniously usher in the arrival of 1908. Inspired by a time ball dropped daily at noon from the Western Union Telegraph building's clock tower, the design for the Times Square Ball was born, constructed that first year of iron and steel and illuminated with 25-watt lightbulbs.
Jeff discussing the evolution of technology used for the creation of the Times Square Ball
A recent, but already outdated, version of the lighting and Waterford crystal triangles used in the construction of an earlier version of the Ball
Jeff led us through the various incarnations of the Times Square Ball over the decades, leading up to the the current design: a breathtaking 12-foot sphere weighing in at 11,875 pounds and composed of 2,688 individual Waterford Crystal triangles lit up with with an ever-changing rainbow of colors created by tens of thousands of Philips LEDs. Up close, you can actually make out the individual designs on the crystals; the theme changes yearly with 2013's "Let There Be Peace" triangles each engraved with an image of a dove, joining previous themes such as "Let There Be Love" and "Let There Be Courage."
2011's "Let There Be Love" design
While the history and design of the Ball are certainly fascinating, I don't think any of us were actually prepared for just how impressive the Times Square Ball is when seen from up close. We ascended to the roof deck to be met halfway up the stairs by an ominous, eerie glow. There the Ball perched — massive, glowing, and utterly mesmerizing.
The luminous orb awaits
The Times Square Ball has a surreal, hypnotic quality that left us all a bit in awe. It's a real rarity to be allowed such an intimate encounter with an international emblem that is representative of so much to so many people, and a reminder that even in the middle of the most heavily touristed part of your city there are fascinating tales and hidden treasures. We're extremely grateful to Jeff Straus and Countdown Entertainment for allowing us a truly unique and meaningful behind-the-scenes experience.
More photographs from our adventure atop One Times Square, by Allison Meier:
You can follow the world of the Times Square Ball on Twitter @TimesSquareBall.
The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!