Thanks to the great globe lights at its front door, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in mid-Manhattan has won a surprising new role: headquarters of The New York Times.
The first choice of the production designer, Rick Carter, was the building at 229 West 43rd Street, off Times Square, that actually served The Times in 1971. It still has a 300-foot-long array of globe lights, a memorable streetfront souvenir of the days when The Times was edited and printed there.
“The globes are part of the iconography of the Times building,” Mr. Carter said.
But the building’s current owner, Columbia Property Trust, said it could not allow a location shoot under “prior agreement with some of our tenants.”
So Lauri Pitkus, a location manager who knows New York intimately, drew up a list of several other possibilities for Mr. Carter.
They first visited the General Society’s headquarters at 20 West 44th Street, which includes one of the great libraries of New York. This 126-year-old neo-Classical building, an official landmark, has a monumental arched entrance flanked by two magnificent globe lights.
The moment he saw those globes, Mr. Carter said, he knew he had a stand-in structure that possessed the gravitas — and the glow — of the real Times building.
“Emanating light,” he said in an interview last week. “That’s a perfect metaphor for what the news is supposed to be.”
Much to the distress of some Times alumni, Mr. Spielberg is telling the story of the Pentagon Papers through the lens of The Washington Post. The Post began publishing the Pentagon’s top-secret history of the Vietnam War only after the Nixon White House successfully halted The New York Times from continuing its exclusive series. The Post, too, was soon forced to halt publication.
The two newspapers — and the press generally — ultimately prevailed at the Supreme Court. Justice Potter Stewart said the government had not proved that “direct, immediate and irreparable damage to our nation or its people” would result from publication of the Pentagon documents.
Rarely since then has any administration sought to restrain the press in advance.
Of course, neither newspaper had the benefit of hindsight when they began publishing classified documents. For all they knew, the publishers, editors, reporters and researchers might have ended up in jail for violating the Espionage Law, as Attorney General John N. Mitchell contended they had.
This makes for great drama from either newspaper’s perspective. But there were no female executives at The Times in 1971 to compare with Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, who is to be played in “The Papers” by Meryl Streep.
Still, The New York Times factors prominently in the story, which is why it was so important for Mr. Carter to find a building that would represent The Times cinematically.
Some liberties had to be taken, all the same. This is Hollywood, after all, even if the soundstages are at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn. Five extra globe fixtures, slightly smaller than the real ones, were temporarily added to the facade on brackets suspended from a second-story sill.
And a plaque reading “The New York Times” was added above the main doors, temporarily obscuring the plaque of the General Society, a nonprofit educational, philanthropic and cultural organization that was founded in 1785 by and for the city’s craftsmen.
The result of the Hollywood treatment, for passers-by who remember the old Times building, is a startling mix of fantasy and pinpoint accuracy. (To give some sense of Mr. Carter’s eye for detail, he commissioned a specially silk-screened wallpaper for Abraham Lincoln’s office in “Lincoln.”)
Mr. Carter knew, for instance, that the “TIMES” on each globe would have been in plain block letters in 1971, not in the more elaborate Gothic typeface that was used before The Times moved out of the building in 2007.
He also knew he would not get away with such a seemingly trivial error as the wrong lettering style.
“New Yorkers care so much,” Mr. Carter said. “People here are committed to getting details right. It’s so important if it’s in something called ‘The Papers.’ Words matter and they matter in this movie and the imagery of the words matters.”
While a discerning architectural historian could easily spot the many differences between 229 West 43rd Street and 20 West 44th Street, Mr. Carter is more struck by their kinship: confident, dignified, sturdy, institutional beacons of knowledge.
“The illusion and reality are almost touching one another in a graceful way for a moment,” he said. “If there is a theme of the movie, it is that the globes are still glowing.”
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