The Rockefeller Centre, a city within New York

It was in the dark days of the depression when John D. Rockefeller set about building his ‘city within a city” in the centre of mid-town Manhattan. The New York Stock Market had crashed, the US economy was crumbling, credit was tight and investors were nervous. Rockefeller had two choices; either he abandoned the project altogether, or he built it himself. He took the latter path. With his own funds and with a line of credit from the Metropolitan Life Assurance Company, he began work on May 17, 1930, on land which he had leased from Columbia University. It was the largest and most ambitious construction project ever undertaken by an individual.

The courtyard of the Rockefeller Centre
The courtyard of the Rockefeller Centre

The project was underpinned, not only by Rockefeller’s fortune, but also by his profound philanthropic convictions. He believed in the supreme worth of individual and in their “Constitution-given” right, among others, to the pursuit of happiness. By the time Rockefeller drove home the final ceremonial silver rivet on November 1, 1939, his project had sustained over 40,000 people – architects, engineers, tradesmen, labourers, sculptors and artists – through the dark depression years. He had also created a centre point, a community in mid-town Manhattan and begun traditions which survive in New York even today. Rockefeller also believed that public art was a matter of good citizenship. In the Rockefeller Centre he created one of the most significant pieces of architecture and one of the best and most important collections of public art in America.

Stretching across 22 acres, between 5th and 7th Avenue and 47th and 51st Streets, the centre’s 19 buildings are interwoven with gardens, paths, and plazas and studded with wonderful art and sculpture. The centre piece of the complex is the GE tower, originally the RCA building, which was completed in 1933. Stories of death-defying feats during the construction of the 70 story tower are legion. Breathtaking photographs show workers standing, eating lunch and even taking a nap, un-harnessed and without safety helmets, on girders in mid-air. At the top of the tower on the 70th floor is the famous Top of the Rock observation deck. Since it opened, millions of visitors have scaled the rock to drink in its spectacular vistas or to witness historic moments. In 1945, a crowd of 8,000 people watched the American fleet sail home. These days, visitors enjoy a brilliant multimedia exhibition on the history of “the Rock” before soaring skyward in high-speed elevators to enjoy the view. The GE tower has long been the home of broadcasting. The first Today show was recorded her in the 1950s. Today it is the headquarters of NBC. Most of the network’s New York studios, including the legendary Studio 8H, home of Saturday Night Live are located here. On the 65th floor, is the famous Rainbow Room restaurant which opened in 1934 with Noel Coward as one of its first patrons. Fittingly, the top floors, between the 65th and the 70th house the Rockefeller family offices.

The other great star in Rockefeller Centre constellation is Radio City Music Hall. This was the brainchild of S.L.Rothafel, known as Roxy. Commissioned to create a concert hall for the centre he said “Don’t give the people what they want, give them something better” He did – the great neon extravaganza on the corner of Avenue of the Americas and 51st Street, promoted at the time as the largest and most opulent theatre in the world and declared a New York landmark in 1978. All the greats of show business have played Radio City. Its shows and spectacles have delighted generations of New Yorkers and visitors alike

The Rockefeller Centre traditions began early. The first Christmas tree was raised in 1931. In the same year skaters took to the ice in Rockefeller Plaza. The first Autumn Festival took place in 1941. By the end of the decade the Centre had become a Manhattan social hub. The decorations on the Christmas tree have become more amazing with each passing era. Today, the Rockefeller Christmas tree is one of the world’s most famous. The opening of the ice-rink in the Rockefeller Plaza and the autumn festival are both big on the New York calendar and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is a highlight.

The Rockefeller Centre was one of the first buildings in the United States to incorporate a program of public art. The works throughout its buildings and plazas are some of the country’s most impressive and memorable. Contributing artists were both local and international. Sculptor Lee Lawrie was responsible for the friezes above the RCA building and the magnificent Atlas on 5th Avenue. Paul Manship created Prometheus in the Rockefeller Plaza. In 1932 Diego Rivera was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to paint a color fresco in the lobby of the RCA building. Tragically, his work, Man at the Crossroads which contained the figure of Lenin, was considered unsuitable and when Rivera refused to change it, he was paid off and the fresco destroyed. He was replaced by the Catalan artist Jose Maria Sert. His large mural, entitled American Progress, wraps around the west wall of the Grand Lobby. It depicts men constructing modern America and contains the figures of Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

John D Rockefeller’s “city within a city” is a place of great beauty and wonder. It is both a vibrant and restful place. It hums with life, yet, at the same time offers shelter from the busy, exposed streets and avenues which surround it. Garden beds and flower boxes brighten its walkways and plazas. Sculptures, frescos, friezes and murals soften its walls. The colourful flags of the United Nations fly overhead. What a great gift, not just to New York, but to the world.

Now wouldn’t it be wonderful, if out of the rubble of these uncertain times, some philanthropic entrepreneur would emerge to employ thousands of jobless to create his great vision and architecture and art?