A big day in the Big Apple

FROM the people who fell in love there, to the thousands of tourists who trek up the tower, everyone recognises the Empire State Building as offering one of the most spectacular views on earth.

By Tracey Sparling

FROM the people who fell in love there, to the thousands of tourists who trek up the tower, everyone recognises the Empire State Building as offering one of the most spectacular views on earth. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING meets a former Ipswich woman who bounced back from being unemployed, to become New York's 'Vicar of Dibley,' making couples' dreams come true in the landmark building.

GILLIAN Field's office has a view to die for.

Perched 55 floors above the streets of Manhattan, in the Empire State Building, she can lift her eyes from her paperwork, wander to the window, and survey Central Park, Hudson River to the East side, and the Chrysler building to the north.

It is a view many brides and grooms are signing up for, as the ultimate backdrop to their wedding. Marriages are held in a room adjoining Gill's office. The venue is swathed in muslin, star studded with twinkling fairylights.

Gill has made a business of coordinating their day of glamour, glitter and romance by putting together the best of what New York has to offer.

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This former Copleston High School pupil who remains a single lady herself, she founded Ultimate USA Weddings in 2004, with a friend. They coordinate ceremonies in the Empire State Building, Central Park, at Brooklyn Bridge and other famous locations - and now bookings are doubling every year.

People book a ceremony through the website and fix their own travel and accommodation, or more often buy a package through an operator like Thomson.

“We coordinate more than 100 weddings a year, and 99 per cent of our couples are from the UK although the domestic US market is also growing,” said Gill, 46.

She enlists the photographer, florist, canapés, cakes and more - even witnesses and a helicopter ride if required. She is also qualified as a minister and officiates at the weddings coordinated by her colleagues, and laughed: “I'm like the vicar of Dibley, stateside!”

Nine of the bookings on her list, are for 2008 already, and the firm's website gets hits from all over the world - including daily enquiries from Kuwait and Palestine which Gill finds bizarre.

Prices start at $699 (about £340). Clients are encouraged to marry at dusk, as the sun sets and the city lights come on below - because in America there is no time restriction on ceremonies unlike in the UK when you have to wed between 9am and 4pm.

The only other way to get married in the Empire State Building, is to enter the annual competition run by the building's management company. They allow a limited number of couples to get married on the Observation Deck at the top on Valentine's Day - and you have to state your case to compete for a slot.

December is the peak time of year to get married in New York as the pre-Christmas shopping is great and it often snows; while the usual UK dates in July and August prove unbearable with temperatures of 95 degrees and 70 per cent humidity.

Last minute hitches are rare, but a common one is a bride's ill-fitting dress - a frequent casualty of the traditional quest to lose weight, so Gill keeps a supply of safety pins in her desk.

Once a bridegroom appeared with a glass of whisky in his hand - and it was only 9am. Gill said: “They had invited no relatives, so there was only the two of them and he said to me 'I don't think I can go through with it.'

“I thought 'What do I say to him?' There I was listening to, and counselling a virtual stranger about the most important decision of his life. He left and rang up later to ask if he could apply for a wedding license himself, but I later heard that they had got an early flight back to the UK. I never did find out what happened to them.

“Some people stay quite quiet whole others become your best friend overnight, in this business. I send everyone an email on their anniversary and they send me pictures of their babies. What I like more than anything is that I'm like the fairy godmother - I have a gallery of baby photos.”

When Gill grew up in Ipswich, she wanted to join Navy, but in the meantime her first holiday abroad, to Greece at the age of 19, inspired a desire to travel. Now, after living in the Big Apple for 12 years, Gill's occasional return home to Suffolk to visit her mum who lives in Barham, brings a new perspective.

As she walked through Ipswich, she exclaimed: “I can see the rooftops - that's weird! Everything is so much smaller here and the streets seem very narrow. It makes me feel as if I'm really huge.

“I love coming home but I love being in New York. It's so fast paced; we eat quickly, we sleep for only short periods, and we walk so quickly - my mum asks me why I'm rushing but I'm not! My apartment in Manhattan is near the United Nations building, and the city never stops. You hear the garbage collectors coming round at 3am, and you just get used to it.”

New Yorkers still take the threat of terrorism extremely seriously after 9/11. Working in one of the world's most iconic skyscrapers, Gill shares their wariness.

She said: “The flight path from the airport heads directly past the building so occasionally I see a plane coming from the corner of my eye and sometimes I have to look up. We seriously considered investing in parachutes but then the building's security guard told me you need to be on at least the 67th floor to have time for them to open. Then we looked at abseiling but the rope coils would have been too huge to store.

“The locals are still a bit jumpy. If an aeroplane comes a bit too low, everyone looks up, or if they hear a bang in the street they duck their heads.”

Weblink: www.ultimateusaweddings.com


Are you planning an unusual wedding? Contact the Star Newsdesk on 01473 324789 or e-mail eveningstar.co.uk.

Gill's first job was as a nanny for two boys in Italy, where she learned to speak the language and sparked her thirst for travel.

She worked at the Wentworth Hotel in Aldeburgh, then in London for the Edwardian Hotel chain.

Then she became a holiday rep for Intasun for three summers and three ski seasons working all hours, until she felt 'burnt out' and returned to the UK to be Intasun's assistant personnel manager recruiting overseas staff. Overnight the company went into receivership and she said: “Suddenly there was nothing, no job for me or anybody else.”

She got a job with Kuoni and was posted in Egypt for 18 months. She said: “The Mogadishu/Somalia war was going on and half the US air force was stationed in Cairo- well what's a girl to do?!” Sure enough, Gill fell for a serviceman who hailed from Washington DC, but after her stint in Egypt ended she was assigned to Switzerland.

She begged her boss for a position in America, and was amazed to get a job in New York - which is not so far from Washington in relative terms. “The job was great but the relationship didn't pan out, he went one left and I went right,” she said.

She later worked for Kuoni in Mexico and the US, became operations manager, then quit when the workload became too intense. “I'm a worker,” said Gill, “I give my work 120per cent but they were asking for 220pc and I thought 'life is for living' and 'no thanks.'”

She began working with a friend who coordinated English tourists' visits to New York, looking after groups of 50 at a time. Holidaymakers travelling with the likes of Thomson and Travelscope are met at the airport by Gill and her colleagues, taking them on trips and tours around New York city.

When an old travel trade contact asked her to branch out into weddings to meet a growing demand for 'destination weddings', she was sceptical to say the least.

“I said okay I'll put a simple package together, but it was really only to shut him up about it!” she said.

“I thought we might get one or two bookings. But in the first year we did 25 weddings and I was amazed. The second year we were approached by Virgin who was having problems with its wedding provider, and wanted us to take over in 2006, then that contract was suddenly brought forward to 2005.”

TRACEY Smith, 45, and Brian Grieves , 48, married at the Empire State Building in January 2006.

The actual date was Friday 13, but thankfully the date failed to bring any bad luck and theirs was one of the first ever weddings in the room on the 55th floor.

Tracey, the owner of Hair Extreme in Woodbridge, said: “New York was one of the first places we'd visited together and we travel to the USA quite a lot. We love New York you can get married anywhere at any time. Deciding to have the wedding at the Empire State Building added to the excitement.

“We wanted something intimate, and the room was absolutely lovely, the views spectacular, and there were just the two of us with witnesses. It was so simple and easy to arrange -we arranged our wedding in five days and you can do it quicker. I chose the dress on the Sunday, suit and photographer on Monday, rings on Tuesday, flowers and music on the morning, and married in the afternoon.

“It was a whirlwind, and it reflected our personalities.”

The ceremony was followed by a trip to the Rockefeller Center where there was an ice rink, and dinner and dancing at The Rainbow Room. Tracey said: “It was completely romantic, with a party atmosphere and an orchestra playing.”

An Art Deco skyscraper on the intersection of 5th Ave and W 34th Street in New York.

Its name is derived from the nickname for the state of New York .

It stood as the world's tallest building from its completion in 1931 until the World Trade Center North Tower was built in 1972, and is now once again the tallest building in New York after the World Trade Center was destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks . It was the first building to have more than 100 floors.

The building has 85 storeys of commercial and office space and the remaining 16 storeys represent the spire, which is capped by a 102nd floor observatory.

It rises to 1,250 feet at the 102nd floor, and its full height including broadcast antenna) reaches 1,453 ft. It is topped by a mooring mast for dirigibles (airships) which were the latest trend in air travel in 1931. However only one blimp ever docked there in September 1931 before the idea was abandoned because it was too dangerous.

It houses 1,000 businesses, and has its own zip code. As of 2007, approximately 20,000 employees work in the building every day, making the Empire State Building the second largest single office complex in America after The Pentagon .

It has 73 elevators in all, including service elevators. It takes less than one minute, by elevator, to get to the 86th floor, where an observation deck is located.

It cost $40,948,900 to build.


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