Building Rockefeller Center — and a legacy
A soaring symbol of optimism in the dark days of the 1930s, Manhattan’s Rockefeller Centre — now Christie’s American headquarters — is a tribute to the vision of its founder, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Jonathan Glancey tells its story
The omens had been propitious. Throughout 1928, New York’s Metropolitan Opera was busy planning its move from Broadway to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s proposed Metropolitan Square development in Midtown, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It promised glamorous shopping, high-rolling commerce and forward-looking architecture underpinned with a heady cultural programme.
The wider economic landscape, meanwhile, was flooded with sunlight and promise. President Calvin Coolidge, surveying the state of the Union, declared that ‘No Congress of the United States ever assembled... has met with a more pleasing prospect than that which appears at the present time. In the domestic field there is tranquillity and contentment... and the highest record of years of prosperity.’
Then, on 24 October 1929, the New York stock market crashed — and crashed again in spectacular fashion over the course of the following week. On a single Tuesday the stock market lost $14 billion, a sum equivalent to the cost of more than 20 Empire State Buildings.
Rockefeller Center emerged from the cold economic climate of the Wall Street Crash, when the Metropolitan Opera shied away from the project and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., no fan of opera himself, dug deep into the family’s fortune, half of which is reputed to have been lost that fall, to shape what is perhaps the nest as well as the most ambitious of all 20th-century city-centre developments. As the US economy nosedived, a cluster of 14 impressive commercial buildings rose around the commanding new 70-storey RCA Building.
Rockefeller had leased the 22-acre site, bookended by West 48th and West 51st streets, from Columbia University. At the time, these blocks were made up of some 200 mid-19th-century brownstone houses occupied by shops, speakeasies, laundries, rooming houses and brothels.
The replacement of this ramshackle quarter with opulent new buildings and public plazas, at a time when money and jobs were evaporating like steam from Manhattan streets, might have seemed a foolhardy move. Yet, as Rockefeller recalled, ‘It was clear that there were only two courses open to me. One was to abandon the entire development. The other to go forward with it in the definite knowledge that I myself would have to build it and finance it alone.’ Alone, yet in the 40,000-strong company of architects, builders, engineers and craftworkers under the direction of Rockefeller’s energetic project manager John R. Todd, a Wisconsin-born lawyer who saw the original Art Deco, or ‘Streamline Moderne’, buildings completed before his death in May 1945.
The architecture of Rockefeller Center owes its restrained showmanship and coolly calculated magnificence to Todd and a committee of designers. Dubbed Associated Architects, they comprised the talented American firms of Reinhard & Hofmeister, Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray and Hood, Godley & Fouilhoux. Raymond Hood was the $250-million project’s lead designer, his refined aesthetic balancing the elegantly theatrical on the one hand with commonsense practicality on the other.
The towers and lower blocks of Rockefeller Center are crisp, ordered and well mannered. With their restrained use of rich materials — principally Indiana limestone and cast aluminium — and their crafted, polished and beautifully lit interiors, they are warm, inviting and, despite their sheer scale, friendly. On display are many memorable artworks, among them murals by José María Sert and sculpture by Paul Manship, Gaston Lachaise and Isamu Noguchi.
But not everyone was happy with Rockefeller’s outlandish gamble in Midtown Manhattan. When the designs were first unveiled, the influential critic and historian Lewis Mumford said that the building followed ‘the canons of Cloud-cuckoo-land’ and, in its details, was ‘bad with an almost juvenile badness’. Letters to the press were mostly negative. And yet, as the project neared completion and as it became popular with the public, Ira Gershwin penned these lyrics to his brother George’s catchy song for Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance (1937): ‘They all laughed at Rockefeller Center, now they’re fighting to get in... Ha, ha, ha! Who’s got the last laugh now?’
Its famous ice rink, watched over by Paul Manship’s gilded bronze Prometheus, opened to the public in 1936. The sculpture appeared to glide across the sunken plaza against a red granite backdrop, and was accompanied by a chorus of water jets. Christmas at Rockefeller Center was celebrated each year with a Norway spruce, a record 100ft high in 1948. Since 2009 the tree has been crowned with a nine-and-a-half-foot star by the German artist Michael Hammers, its 25,000 crystals sparkling from a million facets.
The 6,000-seat Art Deco Radio City Music Hall opened in December 1932, and has been home ever since to song, dance, cinema and spectaculars. When, in 1978, Rockefeller Center announced the closure and demolition of the venue, preservationists, including New York City itself, ensured its interior was saved for posterity, a decision leading to the listing in 1987 of the entire pre-war development as a National Historic Landmark.
Although Rockefeller Center is a commercial hub, heavily subscribed and profitable since the late 1940s, from the beginning the public has been invited up its towers and down into its polished recesses. Those excursions culminate in stirring views from the Top of the Rock, the 70th-floor open-air observation deck of the RCA Building (known since 2015, and a painstaking $170-million renovation, as the Comcast Building).
Ice-skating, carol singing and view-admiring aside, Rockefeller Center is packed with shops — many in its polished, cinematically lit underground concourse — along with cafés, bars, restaurants and Christie’s New York saleroom. A city within a city, it remains a model of modern urban planning, a munificent civic adventure paid for entirely by private enterprise.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. saw Rockefeller Center as a focus for international trade and, through trade, peace. So, along with skyscraper headquarters for Standard Oil, RCA and Associated Press, it embraced a number of nationally themed edifices: the British Empire Building, La Maison Française and Holland House. The Palazzo d’Italia was a reflection of the prevailing time and regime: its main entrance was crowned with a Pyrex panel by the artist Attilio Piccirilli depicting a muscled farmer tilling the soil, accompanied by the Italian Fascist legend Sempre Avanti, Eterna Giovinezza (‘Ever Forward, Eternal Youth’). The Palazzo was to have been twinned with a strong and joyful Deutsche Haus. Negotiations between New York and Berlin continued into 1934, by which time the Nazis had come to power and begun to reshape German cultural life — including its architecture — in their own image. The Rockefellers recoiled from Hitler, and the Deutsche Haus was abandoned.
Extended in 1947, and again in the 1960s and 1970s with severe new office towers designed principally by Wallace Harrison, Rockefeller Center has changed hands several times. When it was sold, in December 2000, to the billionaire property magnate Jerry Speyer and the Lester Crown family of Chicago, it finally lost its connection to the Rockefeller dynasty.
Despite the vagaries of trade cycles, American and global capitalism did more than survive — it thrived, although it took until 1954 for the stock market to make a full recovery. Rockefeller Center, an unscarred architectural mountain range set among the cavernous ravines and gullies of Midtown’s streets and avenues, remains one of the world’s most valuable pieces of real estate. Imperious, and yet with a popular touch, Rockefeller Center is still very much at the heart of New York.