This post is about a private tour of ROCKEFELLER CENTER – we’ve scheduled it for right after the tree has been taken down and the tourists have left (we hope!). The tour is both indoors and out so if the weather is inclement we can always duck inside for more information – and a respite from the cold. We will have as our guide one of the Center’s own, former, guides who has deep knowledge about the ins and outs of this famous landmark site. Join us to truly see Rockefeller Center as it is rarely appreciated while we often rush through it – as a defining place for a new era of hope. Tickets will be $45. per person.
We certainly need a guide because, as always, Rockefeller Center has always been almost too much to take in – too big, too meaningful, too new for its time, too useful. Built in the depth of the Depression, it became not only a symbol of a new and optimistic future for America it also provided the very real benefit of 40-60,000 jobs at a time when they were desperately needed. Rockefeller Center (and by extension John D Rockefeller himself) was, by far, the largest employer in America at that time.
Most New Yorkers have their own Rockefeller Center story. One of mine was as a new-to-New York Nerd Yorker in the mid-70’s I walked the entire complex to see how many small bronze plaques I could find embedded in the sidewalk proclaiming that the property was leased from Columbia University. It was true – John D Rockefeller leased the sizeable midtown hunk of real estate from Columbia University in 1928. Columbia (first known as King’s College but renamed in 1784 after the Revolution) was first on the grounds of Trinity Church but in 1857 moved uptown to 49th and Madison where it established several colleges. The university amassed a large tract of surrounding real estate but the rapid pace of NYC development and its exploding population eclipsed their plans in the late 1880’s and they didn’t develop it. Instead, in 1896, the university moved to its current location in Morningside Heights where they would have even more land with which to create an enlarged campus. Columbia didn’t sell the underlying property to Rockefeller Center until 1985 for $400MM.
In the period between Columbia’s move to Morningside Heights and Rockefeller’s lease of the property the area was mostly low-rise, residential buildings – many brownstones. For a time, it was thought that the Metropolitan Opera which was then located at 39th and Broadway would move to the location but they couldn’t afford to. (The Met didn’t move until 1961 when it was relocated to the City- and State- financed Lincoln Center – itself an urban development project.) Then JD Rockefeller entered the picture!
For a long time, John D Rockefeller was a man with a big dream of a “city within a city” in the middle of New York. Ultimately, even more than his philanthropy, this is what he became best known for. Work began in early 1930 at the dawn of the Great Depression and with great amounts of faith, money, vision and perseverance the largest private building project ever undertaken in modern times took shape. Rockefeller Center is often described in superlatives – 8MM square feet of interior space!, a 6000 seat theater!, 19 buildings!, 22 acres! – but just as significant was its monolithic, permanent, commitment to artists of that period, new industries and an international vision.
The emphasis on the uplifting and pedagogical use of artwork, many with progressive political themes, also made Rockefeller Center the country’s foremost private arts benefactor. Then, as now, the use of art is a centerpiece of the complex. Artists who are now household names – Diego Rivera, Noguchi, Jose Maria Sert, Rene Paul Chamberlain and others – all received major commissions which are still able to be seen. (Although, famously, Rivera’s mural – “Man at the Crossroads” – with its inclusion of Lenin was later destroyed. In the picture of the mural above you can see Lenin tucked under the right propeller blade!.) More than 100 murals, sculptures, mosaics by 39 different artists are incorporated into the design of Rockefeller Center.
But no one ever accused John D Rockefeller of being uninterested in business and profit. And the other aspect of this investment was to tie it to the increasing fortunes of burgeoning industries. Rockefeller saw New York as the world capital of communications and entertainment, which is why Radio City Music Hall was incorporated into the design and RCA (the Radio Corporation of America and the parent company of NBC) and Time-Life were initial tenants. Many print media businesses were also in the complex including an entire building for the Associated Press. Even today, NBC remains in the complex and is known now not only for the television series, “30 Rock”, – but also for their small studios originally scaled for radio (not television) production. It’s also why “Saturday Night Live” takes place on a single, small stage.
Internationalism and air travel were also parts of Rockefeller’s plan. Early on most of the major airlines – particularly ones with international routes – had street front offices in Rockefeller Center. And one of the Fifth Avenue buildings was deemed “The International Complex” built to house foreign-based (primarily European) tenants. Many of these had NY consulates in the complex where one would go for visas and travel information.
Not surprisingly, Raymond Hood, one of the country’s best known practitioners of Art Deco and transportation-influenced streamlining, was one of the lead architects of Rockefeller Center. Much notable architecture of the period belongs to Hood, such as the American Radiator Building, the Daily News Building and the McGraw Hill Building and they are still revered and enjoyed today, along with Rockefeller Center. Like Rockefeller Center itself, Hood managed to create new work which has stood the test of time.
Tourists often have another view of Rockefeller Center and focus on the Christmas tree, the skating rink, and the Today Show. And those are important parts of it – all part of Rockefeller’s plan to combine industry and entertainment to have the Center become a hub of activity. But now’s a good time to make the effort understand the remarkable intent of every aspect of Rockefeller Center and appreciate its unique place in New York and American history.