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Old Posted Apr 23, 2009, 12:02 PM
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Panoramic model has monumental missing piece

BELL TOWER PARK, not seen from the air, but it sure looks like it.

By Kevin Deutsch
April 23, 2009 edition

Once your eyes adjust to the scale of the New York City Panorama, it's easy to spot Riverdale's most familiar sights in all their miniature glory. The Whitehall Building, Van Cortlandt Mansion, and the 242nd Street Station rise up from a shrunken Bronx in the form of petite replicas.

But look toward Bell Tower Park in search of Riverdale's best-known landmark and you'll find nothing but a small, lonely white patch. The traffic circle is there, as are the trees and homes and highway that surround it. Yet the Bell Tower itself, a 500-foot structure cherished by residents, sightseers and historians alike, doesn't exist in this alternate version of the city.

Urban planning czar Robert Moses and model-builder Raymond Lester may have taken painstaking care in creating the world's largest urban panorama for the 1964 World's Fair in Queens (now housed at the Queens Museum of Art), but when it came to Riverdale's 79-year-old tower and World War I veteran's memorial, also known as The Monument, the pair apparently didn't sweat the details.

There are about 895,000 individual structures replicated in the panorama, 25,000 of which are New York landmarks like skyscrapers, museums and major churches. They are custom built with striking detail.

Countless smaller structures are represented with generic blocks of wood and plastic. But The Monument didn't even get that. Does the museum plan to place a tiny tower on the barren spot?

"I'm not sure what went into the decision making in 1964, but we'd love to work with the folks in Riverdale to see if we can get it put on there," said the museum's director for external relations, David Strauss, adding that even though he's from Queens, he knows exactly where the real Bell Tower is in Riverdale. "The fact that I know the exact spot speaks to the idea that maybe it should be on there."

The Monument's Spanish bell was cast in 1762 for a Mexican monastery. When General Winfield Scott captured the bell during the Mexican War, soldiers brought it back to New York City, where it was housed at a fire lookout spot in Greenwich Village. It was later moved to a Riverdale firehouse and finally installed in its fieldstone and limestone tower in 1930.

Originally located about 700 feet to the north, both tower and bell were moved to West 239th Street and Henry Hudson Parkway in 1936.

One option for Bell Tower aficionados who want it added to the panorama would be to "buy" the monument as part of the museum's new adopt-abuilding program, which allows New Yorkers to "own" real estate on the panorama, be it a studio apartment, firehouse, or a historic landmark.

The rates under the adopta- building program are $50 for an apartment, $250 for a single- family home, and $10,000 for a landmark building or to fund a significant update to the model.

"Obviously, there was an oversight when it came to the tower. It would be nice if somebody stepped up and made the model more complete," said Bob Bender, chairman of Community Board 8's Parks and Recreation Committee.

How much would it cost a benevolent Riverdalian to buy a miniature version of the tower and ensure its addition to the panorama?

"We'd have to talk to some of our mini-builders and see what it would take," Mr. Strauss said.

The Monument isn't the only piece of New York City missing from the model. People tell the museum about missing local landmarks "all the time," Mr. Strauss said.

Sixty thousand structures were added as part of an update in 1992, but even then the Bell Tower didn't get its due.

As people pay to own their favorite New York buildings, the panorama will slowly evolve and, the museum hopes, more closely mirror the city in real time. In the meantime, the museum expects to keep hearing from New Yorkers who want their favorite spots added.

"People know their own neighborhood better than any mapmaker could," Mr. Strauss said.
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