There’s a new scent in the city, and no, I don’t mean the hot urine baking on the sidewalk outside your apartment. I am referring to “One World,” which is the name for the new, official fragrance of One World Observatory—the tourist-friendly observation deck near the very top of One World Trade Center, high above the September 11 memorial site. Yes, the tallest building in New York (and the entire Western Hemisphere) now has its own unique scent, diffused through the air vents for visitors’ enjoyment.

First chronicled in a recent New York Times story—which declared, "Not everyone is a fan"—the custom-made scent was designed to evoke trees and natural beauty. Which is not a smell that’s generally associated with Manhattan (unless you’re one of the goats who live in Riverside Park), but that’s largely the point. “I don’t think we were looking for anything that mimics steel or glass,” Keith Douglas, the managing director of the observatory, told me in a phone interview. “We wanted it to have a refreshing tone to it.”

Douglas is a veteran of the hotel industry (known for custom scent profiles), and he spends a lot of time thinking about how to enhance the sensory experience for visitors. As he tells it, the idea first emerged during the holiday season. “We had been attempting to have the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking while guests were visiting, or ginger bread, or something that was really reminiscent of the holidays,” Douglas said. “That just kind of morphed into adding a signature scent to One World, to add to the sensory experience for the visitors.”

That process required bringing in outside experts. “One World” was primarily developed by International Flavors & Fragrances, or IFF, which describes its purpose in pretty lofty terms as “redefining what a flavors and fragrances company can stand for by questioning everything [and] championing creators.”

“IFF are really the chemists that come up with what we envision the scent to be,” Douglas said. “And SMI [Scent Marketing Inc.] are the engineers that make it work.”

The creative process involved many different revisions of the scent and its tone. “We didn’t want anything that was too floral or too citrus-y,” Douglas said. “We wanted to focus on something that was very centered.” When he experienced the eventual fragrance for the first time, “it just felt right.”

The elevators. (Jake Dobkin / Gothamist)

I have a pretty sensitive nose—I’m usually the first to notice if the dog has rolled in something questionable or if the person next door is cooking onions—so when I learned about the new sky-high fragrance, I was eager to try it for myself. Since it’s not bottled anywhere (not even eBay!), I arranged to visit the observatory.

On the way downtown, I tried to keep my nostrils away from anything too pungent. “Maybe try a neti pot,” a Gothamist editor joked, and while I didn’t have time for such in-depth preparation, I did try to keep my olfactory palate nice and clear, ready to surrender itself to the new fragrance.

It felt a little strange to be traveling 1,250-feet up into the air just to smell something. But people travel long distances all the time to see something—the Grand Canyon, for instance, or the Mona Lisa. Nor is it uncommon to drive an hour or two to hear something (i.e, a concert). Why not travel for a unique scent? A dog wouldn’t find this strange. Dogs do this all the time.

A tourist snaps a photo from the One World Trade Center observation deck, on August 8, 2019. Photo by Zach Schonfeld

The journey began in the bowels of one World Trade Center, where guests venture down an escalator to line up for the security checkpoint. Much like at the airport, I placed my bag in a bin and surrendered my phone and wallet before passing through a metal detector. One guy had forgotten to remove his watch and had to pass through twice. “I wasn’t expecting airport security,” he grumbled. “Unfortunately, it is the World Trade Center,” the security staffer replied, reminding us that there is a reason why this particular attraction might have heavy security.

The Willy Wonka-esque elevator ride, which ascends upward at about 20 miles per hour, was particularly stunning. The walls of the elevator are outfitted with an extraordinary panoramic time-lapse visual that lets you watch the transformation of Lower Manhattan from the 1600s to today. It’s like seeing 400 years of urban development unfold in less than 60 seconds. (And it distracts you from the queasy ear-popping sensation of riding up 102 stories that fast.)

But I wasn’t there for the sights. I was there for the sniff. Curiously, I found the custom scent to be more noticeable on the ground level—within the cave-like hall leading to the elevators—than on the observatory deck. It was a pleasant smell, with a faint whiff of pine trees and forestry, perhaps some citrus and some wood. I suppose it smelled of nature, but not real nature—it evoked something more like the tightly controlled glimpses of nature one might experience at the zoo, or the Rainforest Cafe.

Up top, on the 100th floor, the perfume was being visibly diffused through small vents, but the scent was quite subtle. Or maybe I was distracted by the phenomenal views of the river and the Manhattan skyline, which resembled a diorama model from so high up. Most tourists seemed more fixated on the view than the smell, which is understandable.

“There are certainly guests that have a heightened sense of smell over others,” Douglas said. “[But] the majority of the guests just have a pleasant experience and aren’t quite conscious that there’s a smell that’s distinct in the air.” (Prior to my visit, the observatory’s PR team had asked me not to interview any guests while there—perhaps because the New York Times’ piece practically opened with a visitor denouncing the scent and describing it as “sickly.”)

At any rate, the smell had a sterile feel. It was nothing like the distinctive smells one would associate with the streets of New York—the Halal carts and Nuts 4 Nuts stands and hot garbage and taxicab smoke. That stuff doesn’t exist 100 flights up.

Douglas mentioned that One World Observatory actually has a second scent to be used in Aspire, the private event space on the 102nd floor. “That has a little more of a floral tone to it,” he said. “It actually smells more like lilacs.”

Does he plan to change up the main “One World” fragrance? “I think the holiday is probably the most obvious time to do a different scent,” he said. But there are no plans to change it, since 90 percent of the site’s visitation comes from first-time visitors. “We are the only observatory in the world that has added this layer to the visitor experience,” Douglas said proudly.

It’s hardly the smell of New York. But if, during these sweltering days of summer, you’re in the mood for a city attraction that doesn’t smell of piss and Penn Station, you can find it 1,250-feet above street level.