Futuristic 1931 miniatures depict NYC in 1980

These miniatures depicting the futuristic world of NYC in 1980 appeared in the January, 1931 ish of Modern Mechanix, as part of a feature on the burgeoning art of special effects miniatures for motion pictures:
This model took five months to complete and cost approximately $200,000. It was built in an old blimp hangar once used by the U. S. Army balloon corps and covers a ground area 75×225 feet, representing the most extravagant effort yet conceived by the American cinema industry.

Lofty office buildings 250 stories high, canals carried overhead on suspension cables, airplanes that land on a few square feet of flat space on the side of tall structures, streets with nine lanes and nine levels of traffic, are among the interesting features. Although the model city is futuristic, its construction violates no engineering practices. It is really engineering skill carried a bit farther than today.



  1. I’ve seen this model in film. It was used for a promotional film for the Worlds Fair that took place around that time. The film was in color. The cars on the freeway actually moved. No, this is not the set from Metropolis.

  2. So the 1980s, as seen from the 1930s, consisted of mega-highways and art deco skyscrapers.

    Meanwhile, these days, the most fantastic thing in the article is the fact that the U.S. Army once had a balloon corps. That sounds positively steampunk.

  3. #2, As the article points out, this is in fact from a Fox movie from 1930 called “Just Imagine.” It’s a musical, in fact, and a surprisingly dreary one; there are only a few shots of these sets, which are great, but the rest of the film is cheap and tacky-looking. (It also features the comedian El Brendel, the least funny man in human history.) It shows up every so often on Fox Movie Channel and is worth Tivo-ing.

    The World’s Fair model you’re thinking of was the Futurama at the NY fair eight years after this article.

  4. Army had a balloon corps? The Navy flew airships, with actual wooden old-tymie pirate ship wheels to steer with. Both crashed, I recall. But not too badly – airships rarely plummet.

  5. The Army had airships before the Navy did, starting with the SC-1 in 1908 (and balloons in the Civil War and Spanish-American War). They ceded the LTA role to the Navy in the ’30s. There was one disasterous crash – the Roma (purchased from Italy) – crashed and burned at Langley Field, Virginia, in 1922, killing 34. Read all about Army LTA over on Wikipedia.

  6. “Just Imagine” – ugh! One of the few early talkies I’ve seen that’s every bit as bad as their general reputation. And boy, Jeff, are you right – El Brendel makes Paulie Shore look like Zero Mostel (and I bet that’s the first time those three names have ever been used in a sentence!).

    The very few fun futuristic touches make it almost watchable, though, and I do have a sneaking fondness for the exotic Joyzelle – she’s not good, but she’s certainly vivid…

  7. @Jeff and Muscato – You are both right, what an unfunny film. Nothing like a “Musical sequence” that consists of nothing but a camera placed in front of the singer’s face for 5 unbearable minutes!

    Still, I’ve never seen anything close to a print in which these miniatures are visible. only the dull parts. I have seen stills though, and they look amazing! I wish this set were better documented…

  8. Badass balloon corps aside, this model cost upwards of $2M when you account for inflation. This wouldn’t cost $200,000 in today’s money. Was most of the money spent in the design phase, or what?

    It’s an excellent model and the scale is impressive, but I can see Xeni headlining someone’s $2000 recreation a year hence. All it would take is one nerd, an abandoned airstrip, $500 in balsa wood, and a sinful amount of free time.

  9. Balloons were the future. The Empire State Building’s spire was created as mooring mast for floating transportation.

  10. I love how their vision of the future consists of just magnifying their present, without regard for whether any of it makes sense.

    New Yorkers of the future will have giant skyscrapers, because real estate will be expensive! New Yorkers of the future will also be able to waste land on huge boulevards for driving on, because real estate will be cheap!

  11. Wow. If I had been in New York in 1980, I’m sure that it would’ve looked like this.

    If there is one thing that I’m sure of, it’s that we are really good at predicting the future.

  12. Images of this — and a great many other cool retro-futuristic reimaginings of the metropolis, dating from the 30s through 60s — are currently featured in the “Future City” exhibit at the Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan.

  13. FWIW, I reallly liked Just Imagine, enough that I spent a few years trying to track down a copy after seeing it at a film festival several years ago. It airs occasionally on Fox Movie Channel.

    1980: Flying cars and Prohibition still in effect.

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