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The Builders of NYC

By Karen HudesMar 16 2017

Famously celebrating Irish heritage, New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is the oldest (since 1762) and largest in the world, and every year Rockefeller Center sits at the heart of it as marchers pass by on Fifth Avenue on their way uptown. Yet revelers could simply look up to see the impact the Irish have had on the city. They and other groups of immigrants (and their descendants) are responsible for the modern skyline of NYC, including Rock Center. And no image has symbolized that contribution better than one of the most recognizable photos of the 20th century, “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper.”

This portrait of 11 ironworkers casually eating lunch while sitting precariously on a steel beam 850 feet in the air captured the imagination of millions almost as soon as it was published in The New York Herald-Tribune on October 2, 1932—yet any information that once was known about the subjects and the photographer was soon lost over time. Until recently, even the location was debated: Some thought it was the Empire State Building, when it’s in fact a publicity shot taken during the construction of the 69th floor of Rock Center's RCA Building—now known as 30 Rock—but thanks to the detective work of two Irish filmmakers, this and other information about the photo has since come to light.

In 2010, Seán Ó Cualáín and his brother, Éamonn, happened upon a copy of it on the wall of a small pub in Shanaglish, Galway, Ireland. "Next to the photo was a note from a Pat Glynn, the son of a local emigrant, who claimed his father and uncle-in-law were on the beam," says Seán. "I knew very little of the picture other than growing up with the myth that all the men in it were Irish. So we were intrigued. By the time we left the pub, the owner had given us Pat’s number and we went from there." Their quest to unravel the mystery of the photo turned into the award-winning 2012 documentary, Men at Lunch.

Their search wasn’t easy. "The biggest surprise was that despite the photo’s worldwide appeal, no one had tried to find out who the men or photographer were until us," says Seán. "We were literally starting from scratch, and without the assistance and enthusiasm of Rockefeller's Center’s archivist, Christine Roussel, we would have been in big trouble." After poring through dozens of the archive's photographs taken during the construction of the Center, Roussel was able to identify two of the men: Joe Curtis, who sits third from the right, and Joseph Eckner, the man third from the left. (Unfortunately, due to scheduling and budget limits, the filmmakers weren’t able to learn much more about them other than their names.)

As for Pat Glynn, the filmmakers met up with him and his cousin, Patrick O'Shaughnessy, in Boston, where they compared family photos to the men on the beam. Both are convinced that the man at the right end holding a bottle is Pat’s father, Sonny Glynn, while the man at the other end is Patrick's dad, Matty O'Shaughnessy. "The physical likenesses are striking, but since no work records remain from the Rockefeller construction, it’s very difficult to state with 100 percent certainty that Sonny and Matty were on the beam," says Seán. Given that more than 40,000 people were hired to help build Rockefeller Center—an unparalleled economic opportunity for a population struggling through the Great Depression, many of whom were facing discrimination based on where they came from as well—it’s somewhat surprising that no records exist.

However, what is known is that these workers included not only Irish-Americans and Irish immigrants, but Italians, Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans, Germans and even Mohawk ironworkers from Canada. (For more than 100 years, Mohawk tribe members have helped build virtually every prominent skyscraper in New York City—Rockefeller Center, the Empire State and Chrysler buildings included.) As a result, people of all different backgrounds from around the world have claimed knowledge of the men in the photo.

So what's the filmmaker's take? "I do believe it's Matty and Sonny on that beam," says Seán. "Family records place both men in New York at the time of the photo. Plus, something that Patrick O’Shaughnessy said at the end of the film has always stayed with me: 'You don’t get to be the age that I am now without knowing who you are and who your father is.’”

Hopefully one day all the men will be positively identified. (Since the film’s release, Seán and his brother have received a lot of new material, and may continue the project at some point.) Until then, now you know you can celebrate the Irish on the ground at the parade, or from the Top of the Rock observation deck, close to where this iconic photo was shot 85 years ago (or even on the way to the rooftop elevator, where you can step into the photo yourself). Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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