Something was in the air at One World Observatory, the glass-walled perch atop One World Trade Center that has become one of New York City's top tourist destinations in the five years since it opened.
David Laven did not like it.
"It's sickly," said Laven, a history professor from Britain who was in Manhattan on an eight-day vacation. "I dislike it intensely."
But the something, a perfume smell, wasn't accidental. The place is supposed to smell that way.
Laven had picked up a custom-made scent being pumped out — "diffused," in the lingo of the perfumers who created it — through the air-conditioning vents.
The observatory commissioned it. In a place where the view makes the Empire State Building look short and the Colgate clock in Jersey City look almost microscopic, the executives in charge decided that visitors should take in more than the sights.
They should experience "the one thing that's truly not available" in a building where the windows do not open, said Keith Douglas, the managing director of the observatory: a distinctive smell.
The observatory has the other senses covered, one way or another. There is the babble of voices from the crowd and from guides with microphones. There are walls and video screens that visitors can touch. There is a food court-style space — and, like food courts everywhere, it smells like something.
"Pizza," Douglas said, when asked what it smelled like as he walked through one recent morning.
Since late last month, the scent of wood and citrus has permeated the 101st floor. A slightly less noticeable formulation of the same fragrance now drifts around the ticket booths downstairs, one level below the street, and through the exhibition of bedrock that was blasted away in the construction of the 541m-tall building.
The scent was made to resemble something that does not exist at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world: trees, all native to New York state, including beeches, mountain ashes and red maples. It has some citrusy notes, for freshness. And it has a name: "One World."
Douglas said he wanted the scent to be "a subtle complement to the experience" of visiting the observatory.
"We didn't want it to be something that was distracting or overwhelming," he said — not like walking into a department store and being hit by fragrances from the perfume counters and the sales people offering a spritz. "We wanted the exact polar opposite," he said.
He said he was not looking to dispel thoughts of the September 11 attacks, which destroyed the twin towers on the site where One World Trade Center opened more than a decade later. "It wasn't a part of the consideration," he said.
He wanted something that would "enhance the interior space as it is now" and evoke "a really positive thought about One World," as he calls the observatory, when out-of-town visitors go back home.
Which might be different from what people remember about a city where smells can assault the senses.
Quora, a question-and-answer website, has threads for "Does it always smell bad in New York City?" and "Why does New York City stink?"
Inevitably, Quora also has this: "Why does New York City's subway smell like an open sewer?"
Scent diffusion first caught on with hotels and casinos trying to mask cigarette smoke. "The quickest way to change mood or behavior is with smell," said Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, the neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. "You'll smell something you like and will immediately be in a happier mood state."
The opposite is also true, he said. If it's something an ex-spouse wore, "it may induce a more negative or hostile mood."
Research has shown, he said, that a mixed floral scent increases the speed of learning and baked goods can make people nostalgic for childhood. Other research on mood and behavior has indicated that scents can prompt people to spend more money, or at least to spend more time in a store — the "linger-longer factor," marketers call it.
Officials for the company that developed the observatory's scent, which also came up with a scent for the Samsung store in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, said scents can make customers spend 40% more time strolling down store aisles, looking at products.
Scents drift through airports, sports stadiums and, more recently, tourist attractions like museums. The New Museum, on the Bowery, sells two scents created to smell like the galleries. Each bottle, which contains little more than an ounce, sells for US$157.
Last month the Louvre Museum in Paris introduced eight scents at its gift shop, not in the galleries. They were inspired by works of art in the museum "to allow every visitor to take away with them a little piece of the Louvre," a spokeswoman for the Louvre, Jeanne Scanvic, said in an email. She added that the Louvre was "a palace built by ancient French kings, so you have a sort of 'natural' scent" from the wooden floors and thick, old walls.
As for the observatory, Leslie Vosshall, a professor at Rockefeller University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who oversaw one of the largest human smell studies, wondered if some visitors would have an emotional reaction about September 11. She said that she had not gone to the trade center site since the attacks on the twin towers.
"I think they're trying to make it less stressful," she said. "I think what they're trying to do is calm people down. When you smell something that everyone acknowledges is a really calming smell, everyone will feel better."
Douglas said that when he brought up the idea of developing a diffusible scent for the observatory at a staff meeting, "A lot of people were like, 'Really?'" But soon they were brainstorming words or terms to describe the feelings they wanted the scent to convey.
One that appealed to Douglas was "Middle C," which represents the center of the piano keyboard — a place he knows, as an amateur pianist who favors Broadway tunes. "It's grounding. It's centred. It's not extreme."
Other terms included "joyous," "optimistic" and "gin and tonic," to connote freshness or crispness.
They turned to IFF, the company that developed "Fierce," a cologne for Abercrombie & Fitch, as well as scents for, among others, the Baccarat Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where rooms go for US$895 a night and up.
Laurent Le Guernec, a senior perfumer with IFF, said he spent time at the observatory, looking out the windows and being mesmerised by the views. He said he remembered thinking, "How am I going to create something that is more 'wow?'"
He said he opted for a fragrance that was "modern" and "sleek," to go with the look of the building. Another company, Scent Marketing Inc., worked with IFF to develop the scent and install the diffusers.
The reviews from people sauntering through the observatory were mixed. "When it's subtle, I like it," said Paolo Righi, who teaches chemistry at the University of Bologna in Italy. "It's a background note in the back of your brain. You don't have to think. It's just there."
Lissette Helfer, who lives in TriBeCa and was showing relatives from Peru around Manhattan, said she noticed a smell. "I thought it was someone who had some nice, interesting lotion on," she said.
Still, she liked it. "Living in New York," she said, "I like all pleasant smells."
Laven, the British professor, complained that it did not smell like New York. "New York is falafel, it's dim sum, it's whiskey in an Irish bar," he said.
"This takes out the fact that it's a city with a very chequered past," and a good deal of shady characters and corruption, he said. "Now, whether or not you really could have the smell of blood and guts and graft and whiskey is another matter."
Written by: James Barron
Photographs by: Hilary Swift
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES