A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, September 20, 2021

SMELL: The fragrance of One World Observatory

[Note: This post was written just before the pandemic lockdown of spring 2020. I imagine that any noteworthy scents in the observatory today might be stifled by masks or, for certain patrons, by lingering COVID-related anosmia, or loss of smell.]

Some might not even notice it at first: a floral scent that wafts through the lobby of One World Observatory. 

The scent, named "One World," was designed by a fragrance manufacturer to evoke trees native to New York: to aromatically root the city's tallest building to the earth, 1,700 feet below, from behind hermetically sealed panoramic glass windows. Earth and sky, the high and the low, connected through each visitor's nose.

Just before the pandemic, in spring 2020, I decided to get a perspective on this elusive scent from those who spend all day immersed in it. First I talked to Michael, a security guard posted at the entrance to the One World Observatory elevator bank. "I guess it’s supposed to evoke New York?" he said, wrinkling his nose. "No, I’m not a fan," he said after a pause. "It’s a little much, to tell you the truth."

The perfume's citrus notes intensify as you proceed down a screen-lined hallway and stifle any damp, mineral-y smell one might expect in a tunnel carved through the actual bedrock supporting the 104-story tower.

The One World Scent is surreptitiously diffused through air conditioning vents—tucked behind skyline silhouettes—which frame the observatory's windows.

At the top of the elevator, as you make your through a gaggle of tour guides hawking the "One World Explorer iPad" upgrade, there are hints of dental office: mint, rubber. 

Near the café, the smell mingles with that of coffee and reheated pizza. A food service worker fans a paper plate over a grill of spinning hot dogs, sending curls of meaty steam into the One World mist.

In the gift shop, where two women in sun hats fondle sweatshirt sleeves, the smell acquires a hint of hot, floral dryer lint. Three women pressed to the window debate ordering an Uber to their dinner reservation at Cipriani.

When I asked a security guard named Kareem if he'd noticed the signature scent, he reflected a moment, then told me, "I don’t want to call it a 'new car smell,' but to me I guess it does smell new, clean. It’s an office smell—like, to help with the experience?" 

A man with a selfie stick extended his arm like an archer poised for a shot as a couple of backpacked women rummaged through brochures. All were within inches of the scent diffusers, but did they notice in the lofty air an essence of roots, of bark, of history? Dani, a "tour ambassador" in a red vest, pressed her lips closed when I asked her about the scent. “We’re not allowed to talk about it.”