Rockefeller Center

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Rockefeller Center
GE Building by David Shankbone.JPG
View from the northeast of 30 Rockefeller Plaza at the heart of the complex
Rockefeller Center is located in Manhattan
Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center is located in New York City
Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center is located in New York
Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center is located in the US
Rockefeller Center
Location Midtown Manhattan, New York City, NY
Coordinates 40°45′31″N 73°58′45″W / 40.75861°N 73.97917°W / 40.75861; -73.97917Coordinates: 40°45′31″N 73°58′45″W / 40.75861°N 73.97917°W / 40.75861; -73.97917
Area 22 acres (8.9 ha)
Built 1930–1939
Architect Raymond Hood
Architectural style Modern, Art Deco
NRHP reference # 87002591
Significant dates
Added to NRHP December 23, 1987[1]
Designated NHL December 23, 1987[2]
Designated NYCL April 23, 1985

Rockefeller Center is a large complex consisting of 19 commercial buildings covering 22 acres (89,000 m2) between 48th and 51st Streets in New York City. Commissioned by the Rockefeller family, it is located in the center of Midtown Manhattan. The 14 original Art Deco buildings span the area between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue, while five International Style buildings, built later, are located on the west side of Sixth Avenue.

In 1928, the site's then-owner, Columbia University, leased the land to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was the main person behind the complex's construction. Originally envisioned as the site for a new Metropolitan Opera building, the current Rockefeller Center came about after the opera could not afford to move to the proposed new building. Construction started in 1931, and the first buildings opened in 1933. The core of the complex was completed by 1939.

Described as among one of the greatest projects of the Great Depression era, Rockefeller Center was declared a New York City landmark in 1985 and a National Historic Landmark in 1987. It is also famous for its annual Christmas tree lighting.


Early plans[edit]

Studio 1A, home of Today

The land bounded by 48th and 51st Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was originally a botanical garden[3] called Elgin Gardens, which was operated by physician David Hosack between 1804 and 1811.[4] On November 1, 1905, the land came under the ownership of Columbia University.[5] At the time, the plot itself was occupied by over 200 low-rise brownstone buildings due to height restrictions imposed by the university.[6]

In 1926, the Metropolitan Opera started looking for locations to build a new opera house to replace the "Old Met" at 39th Street and Broadway.[7] The new facility's architect, Benjamin Wistar Morris, perused several sites before deciding upon the Columbia grounds in Midtown.[4] However, the new building was too expensive for the opera to fund by itself, and it needed an endowment. On May 21, 1928, Morris presented the project during a dinner for potential investors, at which the Rockefeller family's public relations adviser Ivy Lee was a guest. Lee later informed his boss, John D. Rockefeller Jr., about the proposal, to which the latter showed interest.[8][9] Rockefeller wished to give the site serious consideration before he invested, and he did not want to fund the entire project on his own. As a result, in August of 1928, Rockefeller contacted several firms for advice.[10] Rockefeller ultimately hired Todd, Robertson and Todd as design consultants to determine the project's viability.[11][12] John R. Todd, one of the co-founders of Todd, Robertson and Todd, proposed that the site's three blocks be further subdivided into eight plots, with an "Opera Plaza" in the middle of the center block. The complex would contain the Metropolitan Opera facility as well as a retail area with two 25-story buildings; department stores; two apartment buildings; and two hotels, with one rising 37 stories and the other being 35 stories.[13] The opera would have been located on the center block between 49th and 50th Streets east of Sixth Avenue.[14][13] The retail center would be built around[15] or to the west[13] of the Opera Building, in a layout similar to that of the English town of Chester.[14]

In the summer of 1928, the Opera and Rockefeller were named as prospective buyers for the Columbia site[3] A lease agreement was made on October 1, 1928, and the lease was signed almost three months later, on December 31.[16] Columbia leased the plot to Rockefeller for 87 years at a cost of $3 million per year.[14] This consisted of a 27-year lease for the site from Columbia,[17] with the option for three 21-year renewals, such that the lease could theoretically last 87 years.[16][18] The lease did not include the 100-foot-wide (30 m) strip of land bordering Sixth Avenue on the west side of the plot, as well as another property on Fifth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, and so were excluded from the plans.[3][15]

Having obtained the lease, Rockefeller started asking for recommendations of architects in October 1928.[19] By the end of the year, Rockefeller hosted a "symposium" of architectural firms so he could solicit plans for the new complex.[20] John Russell Pope, Cass Gilbert, and Milton B. Medary were asked to judge the proposals of the seven firms invited to the symposium.[19] The plans were presented in May 1929.[20][21] Rockefeller ultimately selected Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray; Hood, Godley & Fouilhoux; and Reinard & Hofmeister, to design the buildings.[8][11] They worked under the umbrella of "Associated Architects" so none of the buildings could be attributed to any specific firm.[20] The principal builder and "managing agent" for the massive project was John R. Todd.[22] The principal architect was Raymond Hood of Hood, Godley & Fouilhoux, who would lead Associated Architects. Hood, along with Harvey Wiley Corbett of Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray, were retained as consultants.[23] The team included Wallace Harrison of Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray, later to become the family's principal architect and adviser to John Rockefeller Jr's son Nelson.[24][25]

Rockefeller took the site's title outright in December 1928 for over $100 million.[3] In May 1929, the lease was bought by the Metropolitan Square Corporation, which in turn managed Rockefeller's assets.[5] In August 1929, Rockefeller also created a holding company to purchase the strip of land on Sixth Avenue that he did not already lease.[26] The company was called the Underel Holding Corporation because the land in question was located under the Sixth Avenue Elevated Line.[27][28] However, these plans were hampered by the Metropolitan Opera's dilatory position toward the development, with the opera choosing to hold out for a more favorable lease.[14] The opera felt that the cost of the new opera house would far exceed the potential profits. They wanted to sell their existing facility and move into the proposed new opera house by 1931, which meant that all existing leases would need to be resolved by May 1930. Otherwise, the facility could not be mortgaged, and Columbia would retake ownership of the land, which would be a disadvantage to both the opera and Rockefeller.[29] Rockefeller also stood to lose $100,000 per year if he leased the new opera house.[30] After the stock market crash of 1929, these concerns were invalidated by the fact that the Metropolitan Opera could not afford to move anymore.[31][11] On December 6, 1929, the plans for the new opera house were abandoned completely.[14][32]

New plans[edit]

30 Rockefeller Plaza as viewed from the ground
The RCA building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza

With the lease still running, Rockefeller had to devise new plans quickly so that the site could become profitable. Hood came up with the idea to negotiate with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and its subsidiaries, National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO), to build a mass media entertainment complex on the site.[33][34] Rockefeller later stated, "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."[35]

In January 1930, Todd released a new plan called G-3, which also subdivided the complex into eight blocks with a plaza in the middle of the center block. This plan contained a 50-story skyscraper on the western part of the center block, where the Opera was originally supposed to be located. The eastern part of the block would have two narrow, long buildings separated by a promenade, while the northern and southern blocks would contain six new buildings separated by private streets. A delivery lane would be located on the west side of the complex, facing the department stores to its east.[36] The 50-story tower was included because its larger floor area would provide large profits, and its central location was chosen because Todd believed that the center of the complex was too valuable to waste on low-rise buildings.[37] Plans for a new Metropolitan Opera building on the site were still being devised, including one proposal to place an office building over the opera facility. However, this was seen as increasingly unlikely due to the opera's reluctance to move to the complex.[38] A proposal to create roads that crossed the complex diagonally was briefly considered, but it was dropped because it involved deleting city streets, which in turn could only be done after lengthy discussions with city officials.[33]

Another plan called H-1 was revealed in March 1930, after the Underel Corporation had acquired the land near Sixth Avenue.[39] The leases for the newly acquired land contained specific stipulations on how it was to be used.[40] Under this new proposal, there would be facilities for "television, music, radio, talking pictures and plays".[41] RCA planned to build theaters on the north and south blocks near Sixth Avenue, with office buildings above the theaters' Sixth Avenue sides. The theater entrances would be built to the west along Sixth Avenue, and the auditoriums would be located to the east, since the city's building code prohibited the erection of structures over the auditoriums of theaters. The delivery lane was eliminated in this plan because it was seen as unnecessary, what with the road facing the blank walls of the theaters instead of the windows of department stores.[42] The complex would also contain three tall buildings in the center of each block, including a 60-story building in the center block for RCA (the current 30 Rockefeller Plaza).[43] At Fifth Avenue there would be a short oval-shaped retail building, whose top floors would be occupied by Chase National Bank offices. There would be a plaza between the oval building and RCA's building, and a restaurant atop the former.[44][43] A transcontinental bus terminal would be built underground to entice tenants who might otherwise rent near Penn Station or Grand Central.[45]

Plan H-1 was approved in June 1930.[45] In the middle of the month, Rockefeller announced the plans for the $350 million "Radio City" between 48th Street, 51st Street, Fifth Avenue, and Sixth Avenue. Additional details were released: for example, the $200 million cost projection for the three skyscrapers.[46] To provide space for the plaza, 49th and 50th Streets would be relocated to underground tunnels, and there would be parking structures both aboveground and underground, while the streets surrounding the plot would be widened to accommodate the heavy traffic loads.[43] Four theaters would also be built: two small theaters for television, comedy, and drama; a larger one for movies; and another theater, larger still, for vaudeville.[47][46] Under Rockefeller's plan, the demolition of the site's existing structures would start in the fall, and the complex would be complete by 1933.[43] In July 1930, Hood and Corbett briefly discussed the possibility of constructing the entire complex as a superblock with promenades leading from the RCA building, but this plan was not considered further because, as with the diagonal-streets plan, it would have involved decommissioning streets.[48]

In September 1930, Rockefeller and Todd started looking for funding to construct the buildings, and they secured a tentative funding agreement with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company by November. In March of 1930, this agreement was made official, with Metropolitan Life agreeing to buy $65 million of funds from the Rockefeller Center Development Corporation.[48] Rockefeller covered ongoing expenses through the sale of oil company stock.[18] Another estimate placed Radio City's cost at $120 million based on plan H-16, released in August 1930, or $116.3 million based on plan F-18, released in November 1930.[49]

The design of the complex was affected greatly by the 1916 Zoning Resolution, which restricted the height that the street-side exterior walls of New York City buildings could rise before they needed to incorporate setbacks that recessed the buildings' exterior walls away from the streets.[50][a] A subsequent change to the resolution in 1931, shortly after the Empire State Building opened, increased the maximum speed of New York City buildings' elevators from 700-foot-per-minute (210 m/min) to 1,200-foot-per-minute (370 m/min).[53] This allowed the Rockefeller Center's designers to reduce the number of elevators in the complex's buildings, especially the RCA building, since the skyscraper's proposed elevators would move faster.[54]

During early planning, the development was often referred to as "Radio City". Before the announcement that the development would include a mass media complex, there were also other appellations such as "Rockefeller City" and "Metropolitan Square" (after the Metropolitan Square Corporation).[55] Ivy Lee, the Rockefeller family's publicity adviser, suggested changing the name to "Rockefeller Center". John Rockefeller Jr. initially did not want the Rockefeller family name associated with the commercial project, but was persuaded on the grounds that the name would attract far more tenants.[56] The name was formally changed in December 1931.[55] Over time, the appellation of "Radio City" devolved from describing the entire complex to just the complex's western section, and by 1937, only the Radio City Music Hall contained the "Radio City" name.[57]

Plans finalized[edit]

The design of the complex became closer to the current one with the March 1931 announcement of Plan F-18.[49] The plan called for the International Music Hall (now Radio City Music Hall[58]) and its 31-story office building annex to occupy the northernmost of the three blocks, located between 50th and 51st Streets. The 66-story, 831-foot (253 m) RCA building would be located on the central block's western half between 49th and 50th Streets, housing RCA and NBC offices as well as broadcasting studios. The oval-shaped retail complex would occupy the block's eastern half, with a rooftop garden. A RKO-operated sound theater would be located in the southernmost block between 48th and 49th Streets.[59] In the center of Radio City, running between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, would be a new three-block-long private street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, with a concave plaza in the center of the block. The complex would also include space for a future Metropolitan Opera venue on the northernmost block.[59][60][61] For the first time, the plans included an underground pedestrian mall with shops, which would be located above the bus terminal.[49] The project was to cost $250 million,[18][62][63] and the complex would include 28,000 windows and more than 125,000 short tons (112,000 long tons) of structural steel, according to the builders.[59] The rendering of the complex was much criticized, with some pointing out the details or general dimensions of the as-yet-unconfirmed proposal, and others lambasting the location of the tall skyscrapers around the plaza.[64]

The International Building and two smaller internationally themed buildings replaced an oval-shaped retail building that was originally proposed for the site.[65]

The oval-shaped retail building on Fifth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets was criticized for not fitting in with the rest of Fifth Avenue's architecture, with critics referring to the proposed building as an "oilcan". It was scrapped in early 1931 after Chase National Bank could not win the exclusive rights to the building's banking location.[65][66] The updated plan F-19 proposed a tall, more-than-40-story "International Building" and two smaller 6-story internationally-themed buildings on the site of the oval building, which would not only provide the retail space but also fit in with Fifth Avenue's architecture.[65]

As a concession for the loss of the rooftop gardens planned for the oval building, Hood suggested that all of the complex's setbacks below the 16th floor be covered with gardens.[67][68] He thought this was the cheapest way to make the buildings look attractive, with a cost estimate of $250,000 to $500,000 that could pay for itself if the gardens were made into botanical gardens.[69] The updated proposal also included two ornately decorated bridges that would connect the complex's three blocks.[70][71] The central plaza would be recessed below ground level, and as proposed, would be oval-shaped with plantings surrounding a large central fountain. A wide planted esplanade between 50th and 51st Streets would lead pedestrians from Fifth Avenue in the east to the plaza and RCA Building on the west, with steps leading down to the plaza. The western side of the plaza would lead directly to the underground pedestrian mall.[72][67] A replica of Niagara Falls' Horseshoe Falls would also be built above a 100-by-20-foot (30.5 by 6.1 m) reflecting pool, while ivy would be planted on the outsides of some of the buildings.[67] The plaza plans were revised by early 1932, with the plaza now proposed as a rectangle and the fountain moved to the western side of the plaza.[73][74] The sculptor Paul Manship was then hired to create a sculpture on top of the fountain; his bronze Prometheus statue was installed on the site in 1934.[73][75]

An unfulfilled revision to the plan was submitted in May 1931, when Benjamin Wistar Morris, the architect of the original Opera proposal, advanced the extension of the complex's private passageway into a public "Metropolitan Avenue", which would run from 42nd to 59th Streets.[69] This avenue was planned so it would break up the 920-foot-long (280 m) distance between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the longest distance between two avenues in Manhattan.[76] This was not a new proposal, as Mayor William Jay Gaynor had posited a similar avenue from 34th to 59th Streets in 1910,[77] and Wistar himself had proposed the avenue in 1929.[69] However, as it would involve the demolition of hundreds of buildings, this proposal was never acted on.[78]

Out of the four theaters planned, only two of the theaters were approved under plan H-1 of March 1930.[39] and thus, only these two theaters were constructed.[47] Samuel Roxy Rothafel, a successful theater operator who was renowned for his domination of the city's theater industry, joined the center's advisory board in 1930. He offered to build two theaters: the large 6,300-seat "International Music Hall" on the northernmost block, and the smaller 3,500-seat "RKO Roxy" movie theater on the southernmost block.[79] The idea for these theaters was inspired by Roxy's failed expansion of the 5,920-seat Roxy Theatre one and a half blocks away.[80][81][82] In September 1931, a group of NBC managers and architects went to tour Europe to find performers and look at theater designs; however, the group did not find any significant architectural details that they could use in the Radio City theaters.[83] Meanwhile, proposals for a Metropolitan Opera House on the site persisted. Official plans for a facility to the east of the RKO Roxy were filed in April 1932,[84] with the projected $250 million, 4,042-seat facility containing features such as a second-floor esplanade extending across 50th Street.[85]

With a paucity of American tenants willing to sign leases in the complex, officials started searching for foreign tenants, holding talks with prospective Czech, Italian, German, and Swedish lessees who could potentially occupy the internationally-themed buildings on Fifth Avenue.[84] The first themed building that was agreed on was the British Empire Building, the more southerly of the two buildings, which would host the governmental and commercial ventures of United Kingdom.[66][86] In February 1932, French tenants agreed to occupy the British Empire Building's twin to the north, La Maison Francaise.[87] A "final" layout change to the international buildings occurred in June, when two more identical buildings between 50th and 51st Streets were added to the plan, with the buildings proposed to serve Italian and possibly also German interests upon completion.[88][89]

Construction begins[edit]

For the project, 228 buildings on the site were razed and some 4,000 tenants relocated, with the aggregate worth of the properties exceeding $7 billion.[60][90] Rockefeller achieved this by buying expired or existing leases from the tenants.[90] All of the buildings' leases were bought by August 1931.[91]

Designs for the International Music Hall and RCA Building were submitted to the New York City Department of Buildings in August 1931, by which time the both buildings were to open in 1932.[92] The contracts for the music hall and 66-story skyscraper were awarded two months later.[60] The project progressed quickly: excavation of the Sixth Avenue side of the plot began in July 1931,[93] and in September 1931, construction began on the International Music Hall.[94] By October 1931, sixty percent of the digging was complete and the first contracts for the buildings had been let.[60] The foundations had been dug up to 50 feet (15 m) below ground, with each of the area's eighty-six piers descending up to 86 feet (26 m). Of the brownstones on site, 177 had been demolished by that October, with the majority of the remaining buildings located near the avenues.[60] Work on the Center Theatre, to the south of the RCA building, started that November.[82] The Center Theatre was located to the south of the RCA building, while the Music Hall was located to the north.[47]

Roof gardens atop Rockefeller Plaza buildings
Roof gardens atop buildings in the complex were proposed as part of H.B. Alexander's art program in 1931.

In November 1931, John Todd suggested the creation of a program for placing distinctive artworks within each of the buildings.[95][96] Hartley Burr Alexander, a noted mythology and symbology professor, was tasked with planning the complex's arts installations.[95][97] Alexander submitted his plan for the site's artwork in December 1932. As part of the proposal, the complex would have a variety of sculptures, statues, murals, friezes, decorative fountains, and mosaics.[97] In an expansion of Hood's setback-garden plan, Alexander's proposal also included rooftop gardens atop all the buildings,[97] which would create a "Babylonian garden" when viewed from above.[62][68] At first, Alexander suggested "Homo Fabor, Man the Builder" as the complex's overarching theme, representing satisfaction with one's occupation rather than with the wage.[98][99] However, that theme was not particularly well-received by the architects, so Alexander proposed another theme, the "New Frontiers"; this theme dealt with social and scientific innovations and represented the challenges that humanity faced "after the conquest of the physical world".[96] In theory, this was considered a fitting theme, but Alexander had been so specific about the details of the necessary artworks that it limited the creative license for any artists who would commission such works, so he was fired.[98] It took several tries to agree on the current theme, "The March of Civilization", at which point some of the art had already been commissioned, including those which Alexander had proposed.[99]

The architects wished for a uniform facade color for all of the 14 new buildings.[63] To fulfill that end, the architects awarded a contract in December 1931 for the Indiana Limestone that would make up the fourteen buildings' facades. At the time, it was the largest order of stone in history, with about 14,000,000 cubic feet (400,000 m3) of limestone being shipped.[100]

Also in December 1931, the Rockefeller Center Corporation put forth its expanded plans for the underground pedestrian mall. It would now include a series of people mover tunnels, similar to the U.S. Capital subway, which would link the complex to locations such as the Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station.[101] A smaller, scaled-down version of the plan was submitted to the New York City Board of Estimate in October 1933. They included two vehicular tunnels at 49th and 50th Streets as well as a subterranean pedestrian mall connecting the buildings in the complex (see § Underground concourse). The tunnels would comprise a system that stretched over 0.75 miles (1.21 km), all air-conditioned and lined with shops. Meanwhile, the pair of four-lane roadways would be located underneath the pedestrian mall, with delivery ramps leading to a 320-by-180-foot (98 by 55 m) central loading area 34 feet (10 m) below ground. The plans also included a 125-by-96-foot (38 by 29 m) sunken plaza that connected to the mall via a wide concourse under the RCA Building.[102]

Work on the steel structure of the RCA Building started in March 1932.[103] The cornerstone of the British building was laid in June, when Francis Hopwood, 1st Baron Southborough, placed the symbolic first stone in a ceremony.[104][105] By September 1932, both theaters were almost complete, as was the RCA building, whose structural steel was up to the 64th floor.[106] The British Building's structural steel started construction in October of that year.[107]

Opening and continued construction[edit]

Construction progress in December 1933

The RKO Building was the first structure to be completed, in September 1932.[108] The Music Hall was the second site to open, in December 1932,[109][110] although it had topped out in August.[111] Roxy originally intended to use the Music Hall as a vaudeville theater, but this effort was unsuccessful, and both theaters ended up being used for films and performing arts.[112][113] The failure of the vaudeville theater ended up ruining Roxy's enterprise, and he was forced to resign from the center's management in January 1934.[114][115]

The RCA building was open on around May 1, 1933,[116] as did the British Building.[117] Work on the rooftop gardens, reminiscent of the old Elgin Gardens, started in October 1933;[118] the French building opened the same month.[119] In December 1933, workers erected the complex's famed Christmas tree in the center of the plaza for the first time.[120] Since then, it has been a tradition to display a large Christmas tree at the plaza between November and January of each year.[121] Simultaneously, the city built the part of the canceled "Metropolitan Avenue" that ran through Rockefeller Center. The new street, called "Rockefeller Plaza", was projected to carry an estimated 7,000 vehicles per day upon opening. The first segment between 49th and 50th Streets opened in 1933, while a northern extension opened in 1934.[122] The new street measured over 60 feet (18 m) wide and ran 722 feet (220 m) through the complex, with four vehicular levels.[123]

In spring 1933, the managers opened a 70th-story observation deck atop the RCA Building, to great success: the 40-cents-per-head observation deck saw 1,300 daily visitors by late 1935.[124] Rockefeller and his partners were able to entice some prominent tenants to the center, such as Standard Oil[125] and the Rockefeller Foundation.[126] As the sunken plaza was mostly leased by luxury stores, the complex's managers opened an outdoor restaurant in the plaza in early 1934 to attract other customers.[127] The Independent Subway System (IND) opened a subway station at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street had opened in 1932, which drew workers from Queens. The managers, seeing the success of the business districts around Penn Station and Grand Central, proposed a large rail terminal for trains from Bergen County, New Jersey, so workers from northern New Jersey would be drawn to the complex. They decided upon a site along 50th Street, stretching from Sixth to Eighth Avenues; however, this plan did not work because the IND subway still did not have any stops at the complex itself. Then the consultants offered a subway shuttle under 50th Street that would connect to the IND subway station at Eighth Avenue, or a rail line connecting to Penn Station and Grand Central. This plan also did not work because the city was uninterested in building the new rail line.[128]

In February 1934, Man at the Crossroads, a fresco by Communist painter Diego Rivera that was located in the RCA building's lobby, was controversially demolished because it included a portrait of Russian leader Vladimir Lenin, among other things (see § Man at the Crossroads).[129] Despite the RCA building's artistic controversy and the Great Depression building bust at the time, the complex was popular with tenants, and by July 1934, the complex had leased 80% of the available space in the six buildings that were already opened.[130] The complex's underground delivery ramps were also installed in 1934,[131] as was the central plaza's large Prometheus statue.[75]

In May of that year, planners started work on the remaining two International-themed buildings, as well as a larger 38-story, 512-foot (156 m) "International Building" at 45 Rockefeller Center.[132] In April 1935, developers opened one of these small buildings – the Palazzo d'Italia, or Italian building, for Italian interests – as well as the large International Building.[133][134] The final small building would have been rented by Germany under the name "Deutsches Haus", but Rockefeller ruled this out in 1934 after being advised of Hitler's Nazi march toward World War II.[84] Russia had also entered into negotiations to lease the final building in 1934,[135] but by 1935, the building's occupancy was unclear as the Russians were no longer actively seeking a lease.[134] The empty office site thus became "International Building North".[136]

By May 1935, the underground pedestrian mall and ramp system had been completed, connecting the three blocks between 48th and 51st Streets.[137] The same month, three more buildings were ready for occupancy.[137] That year, plans were filed for a 16-story western extension of the RCA building, made of the same material but with extensive links to the pedestrian tunnel system and an elaborate entrance from the New York City Subway station planned for 47th–50th Streets.[138] The subway connection did not open until 1940.[11]


Excavation for 1 Rockefeller Plaza (numbered 9 Rockefeller Plaza at the time), a new 36-story building located on Fifth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, started in June 1936, and the steelwork for that building was complete by November of that year.[139] The Rink at Rockefeller Center was also constructed that year[140] after Nelson Rockefeller found that a new system had been invented allowing artificial outdoor ice skating, enabling him to bring the pastime to Midtown Manhattan.[141] Gardens on the roofs of the two theaters were installed in 1937.[142]

Eleven buildings had been completed by 1937. They were the International Building; the four small International-themed buildings; the RKO Building; the Center Theatre; the Music Hall; the RCA Building and its western extension; and 1 Rockefeller Plaza. In July 1937, Rockefeller approved the construction of the last three buildings at a cost of $12 million. The total investment in the center up to that point had been $100 million.[143] All of the 14 buildings were completed and opened by 1939, with John Rockefeller installing the newest building's ceremonial final rivet on November 2 of that year.[144] The construction of the project employed over 40,000 people.[24] The complex was the largest private building project ever undertaken in contemporary times.[145] Carol Herselle Krinsky, in her 1978 book, describes the center as "the only large private permanent construction project planned and executed between the start of the Depression and the end of the Second World War".[146]

Later years[edit]

Rockefeller Center's landmark plaque

Nelson Rockefeller became president of the Rockefeller Center in 1938.[11] It subsequently became the primary location of the U.S. operations of British Intelligence, British Security Coordination (BSC) during the War, with Room 3603 becoming the principal operations center for Allied intelligence, organized by William Stephenson, as well as the office of the future head of what was later to become the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen Dulles.[147][148]

The small Center Theatre was deemed redundant to the Radio City Music Hall. In October 1953, it was announced that the theater would be demolished and replaced with office space.[149] During the demolition process, the U.S. Rubber Building was put on temporary stilts, with the offices above the former theater still being occupied during the demolition process.[150] In 1956, two years after the demolition of the Center Theatre, officials announced the construction of a new tower, the Time-Life Building, on the west side of Sixth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. The 500-foot (150 m), $7 million building would include connections to the existing passageway system and to Roxy's Theater directly to its west.[151]

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission awarded landmark status to the Music Hall in 1979,[152] and extended the status to the exteriors of all of the original complex's buildings in 1985.[153][154] In its 1985 approval of the complex's status, the commission wrote, "Rockefeller Center ranks among the grandest architectural projects ever undertaken in the United States".[155] The buildings became a National Historic Landmark two years later.[2][156][157] The United States Department of the Interior wrote in its report that the center was "one of the most successful urban planning projects in the history of American architecture".[158][6]

In 1985, Columbia University sold the land beneath Rockefeller Center to the Rockefeller Group for $400 million.[159] Mitsubishi Estate, a real estate company of the Mitsubishi Group, purchased the Rockefeller Group in 1989.[160] Seven years later, in July 1996, the entire complex was purchased by a consortium of owners that included Goldman Sachs (which had 50 percent ownership), Gianni Agnelli, Stavros Niarchos, and David Rockefeller, who organized the consortium.[161] Before the sale was even completed, the consortium sold 1,600,000 square feet (150,000 m2) of space in 30 Rockefeller Plaza to NBC, who had rented that space in the tower since the beginning.[162] Tishman Speyer, led by Jerry Speyer, a close friend of David Rockefeller, and the Lester Crown family of Chicago, bought the original 14 buildings and land in 2000 for $1.85 billion.[161][163]


The detail over the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza showing the biblical verse Isaiah 33:6

The current complex is a combination of two building complexes: the original 14 Art Deco office buildings from the 1930s, one building across 51st Street built in 1947, and a set of four International-style towers built along the west side of Avenue of the Americas during the 1960s and 1970s.[164]

The landmark buildings comprise over 8,000,000 square feet (743,000 m2) on 22 acres (89,000 m2) in Midtown, bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues, and from 48th Street to 51st Street. These are co-owned by Tishman-Speyer, and open to the public.

  • 1 Rockefeller Plaza – The original Time–Life Building; an original tenant was General Dynamics, for whom the building was briefly named.
  • 10 Rockefeller Plaza – Originally the Holland House, then the Eastern Air Lines Building. Currently home of Today Show studios[165] and the Nintendo New York store.
  • 30 Rockefeller Plaza ("30 Rock") – Originally the RCA Building, in 1988 it was renamed the GE Building, and in 2015 became the Comcast Building. Headquarters of NBC, the Rainbow Room restaurant is located on the 65th floor.
  • 50 Rockefeller Plaza – Formerly the Associated Press Building and home to many news agencies. Isamu Noguchi's large, nine-ton stainless steel panel, News, holds the place of honor above the building's entrance. Noguchi's design depicts the various forms of communications used by journalists in the 1930s. The only building in the Center built to the outer limits of its lot line, 50 Rock took its shape from the main tenant's need for a single, undivided, loft-like newsroom as large as the lot could accommodate. At one point, four million feet of transmission wire were embedded in conduits on the building's fourth floor.
  • 1230 Avenue of the Americas – Formerly U.S. Rubber/Uniroyal Building, now the Simon & Schuster Building
  • 1250 Avenue of the Americas – Formerly RCA Building West, now known by its address. Serves as an annex building to 30 Rock.
  • 1260 Avenue of the Americas – Radio City Music Hall
  • 1270 Avenue of the Americas – Originally the RKO Pictures Building, later the American Metal Climax (AMAX) Building
  • 600 Fifth Avenue – Formerly the Sinclair Oil Building
  • 610 Fifth Avenue – La Maison Francaise
  • 620 Fifth Avenue – The British Empire Building
  • 626 Fifth Avenue – Palazzo d'Italia
  • 45 Rockefeller Plaza – The International Building, also bears the address 630 Fifth Ave.
  • 636 Fifth Avenue – The International Building North
  • 1236 Avenue of the Americas – The site of the Center Theatre, the only structure in the original Rockefeller Center to be demolished. Used as an NBC television studio at the time of its 1954 demolition, it was replaced by an extension of 1230 Avenue of the Americas.
75 Rockefeller Plaza

The buildings subsequently added are separately owned by multiple owners.

30 Rockefeller Plaza[edit]

30 Rockefeller Center as viewed from 5th Avenue and 46th Street
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a large Christmas tree placed annually in Rockefeller Center

The centerpiece of Rockefeller Center is the 70-floor, 872 ft (266 m)-tall building at 30 Rockefeller Center, centered behind the sunken plaza. The building is the setting for the famous Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper photograph, taken by Charles C. Ebbets in 1932 of construction workers sitting on a steel beam without safety harnesses eating lunch above an 840-foot (260 m) drop to the ground.

The RCA Building was renamed in 1988, two years after General Electric (GE) re-acquired RCA, which it helped found in 1919, and then it was renamed the Comcast Building in 2015 after Comcast purchased General Electric's entertainment assets in 2013. The famous Rainbow Room restaurant is located on the 65th floor; the Rockefeller family office occupies the 54th through 56th floors. The skyscraper is the headquarters of NBC and houses most of the network's New York TV studios, including 6A, former home of Late Night with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and The Dr. Oz Show; 6B, home of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and now home of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; 8G, home of Late Night with Seth Meyers; 8H, former radio home of the NBC Symphony (conducted by Arturo Toscanini), and since 1975 home of Saturday Night Live; plus the operations of NBC News, MSNBC and network flagship station WNBC-TV. NBC currently owns the space it occupies in the building as a condominium arrangement. Rockefeller Center's legacy as "Radio City" has its roots at 30 Rock. Until 1988, the building also housed the studio and operations of the company's flagship radio station WNBC, which ceased broadcasting that year when its frequency was sold by NBC.[170]

Unlike most other Art Deco towers built during the 1930s, the Comcast Building was constructed as a slab with a flat roof and since 1933 has been home of the Center's observation deck, the Top of the Rock. The Center's owner, Tishman Speyer Properties, carried out a $75 million makeover of the observation area between 1985 and 2005. It spans from the 67th–70th floors and includes a multimedia exhibition exploring the history of the Center. On the 70th floor, accessible by both stairs and elevator, there is a 20-foot (6.1 m) wide viewing area, allowing visitors a unique 360-degree panoramic view of New York City.[171][172]

At the front of 30 Rock is the Lower Plaza, in the very center of the complex, which is reached from 5th Avenue through the Channel Gardens and Promenade. The acclaimed sculptor Paul Manship was commissioned in 1933 to create a masterwork (see below) to adorn the central axis, below the famed annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, but all the other original plans to fill the space were abandoned over time.[citation needed] The plaza's rink, a relatively late addition built in 1936,[141] has since become one of the most famous skating rinks in the world.[173]

Radio City Music Hall[edit]

Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall, at 50th Street and Sixth Avenue, was planned by the same three architectural firms who designed the entire complex, who employed Edward Durell Stone to design the exterior. Through the direction of Abby Rockefeller, the interior design was given to Donald Deskey, an exponent of the European Modernist style and innovator of a new American design aesthetic. Deskey believed the space would be best served by sculptures and wall paintings and commissioned various artists for the large elaborate works in the theater. The Music Hall seats 6,000 people and after an initial slow start became the single biggest tourist destination in the city. Its interior was declared a New York City landmark in 1978. Painstakingly restored in 1999, the Music Hall interiors are one of the world's greatest examples of Art Deco design.

In 1979, after decades as a premiere showcase for motion pictures and elaborate stage shows, the theater converted to presenting touring performers and special events. Each holiday season features the annual musical stage show, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a tradition for more than 70 years. The enormous stage, with its elevators and turntables, has also offered Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, the Grammy and Tony Awards, and countless other events. One of New York's most popular tourist attractions, the Music Hall has been attended by more than 300 million people.

Underground concourse[edit]

Shopping in the concourse

A series of shop- and restaurant-filled, underground pedestrian passages stretch from 47th to 51st Streets, and from Fifth Avenue to Seventh Avenue. Access is via lobby stairways in the six landmark buildings, through restaurants surrounding the concourse-level skating rink, and via elevators to the north and south of the rink. There is also connection to the New York City Subway's 47th–50th Streets–Rockefeller Center station, serving the B, ​D, ​F, and ​M trains.[11]

Pre-existing buildings[edit]

Two small buildings abut the north and south corners of 1250 Avenue of the Americas. These buildings exist as a result of two tenants, one a leaseholder, the other the property owner, who refused to sell their rights to Rockefeller during construction. In 1892, a trio of Irishmen leased the property at 1240 Sixth Avenue, and opened Hurley's, a popular pub that operated through prohibition as a speakeasy. Rockefeller bought the building, but their lease trumped his property rights. They offered to sell their rights to him for $250 million (roughly the cost of the entire complex), which he refused. Meanwhile, at 1258 Sixth Avenue on the other corner, owner John F. Maxwell simply refused to sell. In the end, Rockefeller was forced to construct the center around the existing buildings.[174]

Sculptures, artwork, and features[edit]


The Flags on Memorial Day weekend

Some 200 flagpoles line the plaza at street level. Flagpoles around the plaza display flags of United Nations member countries, the U.S. states and territories, or decorative and seasonal motifs. During national and state holidays, every pole carries the flag of the United States.[175]

Center art[edit]

Statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue
News by Isamu Noguchi.
American Progress (back wall) and Time (ceiling), murals in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center, by Josep Maria Sert

The art within Rockefeller Center was part of Professor Alexander's arts program that started in 1931.[95][97] It it is among the last major building projects in the United States to incorporate a program of integrated public art. Sculptor Lee Lawrie contributed the largest number of individual pieces – twelve, including the statue of Atlas facing Fifth Avenue and the conspicuous friezes above the main entrance to the Comcast Building. Artist Léon-Victor Solon designed the color scheme for Rockefeller Center and served as the colorist for Lee Lawrie's pieces.[176] Isamu Noguchi's gleaming stainless steel bas-relief, News, over the main entrance to 50 Rockefeller Plaza (the Associated Press Building) was, at the time of commissioning, the largest metal bas-relief in the world. Other artists included Carl Milles, Hildreth Meiere, Margaret Bourke-White, Dean Cornwell, and Leo Friedlander.


Lower Plaza of Rockefeller Center, with the ice skating rink and the statue of Prometheus, in March 2006

Paul Manship's highly recognizable bronze gilded statue of the Greek legend of the Titan Prometheus recumbent, bringing fire to mankind, features prominently in the sunken plaza at the front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Located along the plaza's west wall, it stands 18 feet (5.5 m) high and weighs 8 short tons (7.1 long tons).[75] The model for Prometheus was Leonardo (Leon) Nole, and the inscription, a paraphrase from Aeschylus, on the granite wall behind, reads: "Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends."

Man at the Crossroads[edit]

In 1932, the Mexican socialist artist Diego Rivera (whose sponsor was the Museum of Modern Art and whose patron at the time was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.), was commissioned by their son Nelson Rockefeller to create a color fresco for the 1,071-square-foot (99 m2) wall in the lobby of the then-RCA Building. This was after Nelson had been unable to secure the commissioning of either Matisse or Picasso. Previously Rivera had painted a controversial fresco in Detroit titled Detroit Industry, commissioned by Abby and John's friend, Edsel Ford, who later became a MoMA trustee.

As expected, his Man at the Crossroads became controversial, as it contained Moscow May Day scenes and a clear portrait of Lenin, not apparent in initial sketches. After Nelson issued a written warning to Rivera to replace the offending figure with an anonymous face, Rivera refused (after offering to counterbalance Lenin with a portrait of Lincoln), and so he was paid for his commission and the mural papered over at the instigation of Nelson, who was to become the Center's flamboyant president.[129]

Nine months later, after all attempts to save the fresco were explored – including relocating it to Abby's Museum of Modern Art – it was destroyed as a last option.[129][177][178] (Rivera re-created the work later in Mexico City in modified form, from photographs taken by an assistant, Lucienne Bloch.)

Rivera's fresco in the Center was replaced with a larger mural by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert, titled American Progress, depicting a vast allegorical scene of men constructing modern America. Containing figures of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, it wraps around the west wall of the Grand Lobby of the Comcast Building.[179]

Rockefeller plaque[edit]

In 1962, the center management placed a plaque at the plaza with a list of principles in which John D. Rockefeller, Jr. believed, and first expressed in 1941. It reads:[180]

I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.
I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.
I believe in the Dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.
I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man's word should be as good as his bond; that character not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.
I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.
I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individuals highest fulfilment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His Will.
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.


View of New York City from the rooftop of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ As per the 1916 Zoning Act, the wall of any given tower that faces a street could only rise to a certain height, proportionate to the street's width, at which point the building had to be set back by a given proportion. This system of setbacks would continue until the tower reaches a floor level in which that level's floor area was 25% that of the ground level's area. After that 25% threshold was reached, the building could rise without restriction.[51] This law was modified in 1961.[52]


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