Rockefeller Center with its sunken garden in summer and world famous ice skating rink in winter, an annual Christmas tree widely recognized as New York’s official tree, shopping and restaurants, broadcasting studios, prestigious offices and unmatched public art collection—is a gathering place for thousands of New Yorkers and visitors to Manhattan. Built between 1932 and 1940, Rockefeller Center was the first large-scale business complex in the United States to provide a mixed-use commercial, retail and entertainment environment.
The original 13 buildings had a consistent architectural look with gray Indiana limestone, simple geometric forms and bold facades with decoration limited to vertical lines emphasizing each structure’s height. The complex is considered to be one of the best examples of urban architecture built in the 20th century.
“Great cities have places that encapsulate their very essence…In New York the authentic heart of the metropolis is undoubtedly Rockefeller Center. Turning in from Fifth Avenue to the Channel Gardens, one moves away from the roar of traffic and enters something very rare in American cities, a precinct of planned space, with sunlight and the splash of water. In its subtle combination of luxury and business, of commerce and art, Rockefeller Center achieves—effortlessly, it seems—what most of Gotham 78 yearns for.” An expansion west across Sixth Avenue in the 1960s with characteristic late modern architecture incorporating somewhat bland tall buildings in open plazas was less successful. Underground corridors, officially the Underground Concourse but commonly known as the Catacombs, connect the complex’s 14 main buildings and provide access to subway lines and numerous restaurants and stores for those who work at Rockefeller Center.
The focal point of this “city within a city” is the RCA (GE) Building. It was the first of the complex’s buildings to be built and has an impressive marble lobby. The main information desk has a walking tour brochure highlighting the center’s art and architecture. The Rainbow Room on the 65th floor is undoubtedly the most famous restaurant of the many you will find at Rockefeller Center.
Top of the Rock is three floors—67th, 69th and 70th (no 68th as 67 is two stories tall)—that you reach in a glass topped elevator. 360° magnificent views include Central Park and nearby highrises including the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Several bus tour combinations include tickets to the observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center.
Rockefeller Center is one of the many stops on the classic double-decker, hop-on, hop-off bus tour.
The lower plaza in front of the GE Building, formerly the RCA Building,was a boring entrance to underground shops that nearly all failed. While on a visit to his home town of Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller learned of a local inventor who had perfected a system for making artificial ice for outdoor rinks. Since its first use there on Christmas Day in 1936, M. C. Carpenter’s invention has resulted in the ice rink at Rockefeller Center becoming one of its most memorable features.
The opening of the ice rink, together with the spectacular annual lighting ceremony of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree signal the start of the Christmas Season in New York City.
Millions of New Yorkers and visitors come to see the tree and skate on the rink every year. If you want to practice your triple axles and toe loops at the skating rink I recommend that you check for times and prices and try to do your skating midweek during the day to avoid the biggest crowds.
Paul Manship‘s Statue of Promethus in the sunken plaza is probably the most recognized of the approximately 200 individual works by Deco era artists ranging from the dramatic mural by Jose Maria Sert in the lobby of the RCA Building to the Bronze dolphins by Rene Chambellans in the Channel Gardens fountain.
Sert’s mural replaced another mural — titled Man at the Crossroads commissioned from Mexican artist Diego Rivera — which was halted in progress and quickly destroyed because of its controversial content including a central figure of Lenin. This event inspired the PWAP artists of the Coit Tower Murals in San Francisco to include references in their paintings. Rivera later produced a smaller version of the mural which is on display at the Palacio de Bellas Arts in Mexico City. The largest of the original artworks installed at Rockefeller Center, Lee Lawrie‘s two ton Art Deco Atlas was also controversial because it was said to resemble Italy’s fascist dictator, Mussolini, sparking protests at its unveiling.
Radio City Music Hall was nearly demolished but has now received historic landmark status and had a $70 million renovation completed in 1999. When Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932 it had the largest indoor theater in the world with nearly 6,000 seats. An annual Christmas Spectacular staring the Rockettes is hosted at Radio City Music Hall.
NBC Studio is headquartered in the GE Building. Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O’Brien originate here too. The Today Show studio is behind a sidewalk-level showcase window at 10 Rockefeller Plaza open for public viewing. You might even be featured on the Today Show peering through the window. Weekday morning from 7–9am is the time to show up for your chance at 15 seconds of fame.
A great deal of the public notoriety and success of Rockefeller Center comes from a design that emphasizes pedestrian friendly thoroughfares flanked by appropriately scaled and harmonious structures. In addition a feature that was originally a failure was turned into the center’s clearly defined focal point.
The landscaped space between La Maison Francaise and the British Empire buildings has been dubbed the Channel Gardens and it’s a favorite place for office workers to catch a little sun and watch the passing throngs of tourists. A fortuitous series of events and circumstances in Manhattan history made a development of this size both possible and successful. Twelve acres of undeveloped property in midtown Manhattan would never have been available without the unsuspecting efforts of Dr. David Hosack.
A former professor of natural history at Columbia College, Dr. Hosack was deeply interested in botany and an early owner of what was to become the Vanderbilt Mansion grounds at Hyde Park. Dr. Hosack was also a personal friend of Alexander Hamilton and accompanied him to the duel that ended his life.
Considered one of New York’s first citizens, Dr. Hosack founded the Elgin Botanic Garden. After spending a considerable amount of his own money he ended up selling it to the State of New York in 1810. The State of New York gave Columbia College the 14-acre garden in 1814.
The property then known as Columbia Upper Estate went through some boom and bust phases as Manhattan was settled further and further north. When the Metropolitan Opera was looking for a location to relocate to in the mid 1920’s they hired architect Benjamin Wistar Morris and designer Joseph Urban to develop plans. When the first location fell through Colombia College’s real estate advisor, John Tonnele proposed they consider the Upper Estate.
John D. Rockefeller initially became interested in joining a large syndicate to manage the property and hold leases though by the summer of 1928 he had agreed to buy or lease all of the Upper Estate planning to have others responsible for construction and development of the site.
Although plans had progressed on the development with the Opera as its anchor tenant, the stock market crash on October 29,1929 resulted in many changes including the Opera pulling out of the project and Rockefeller taking on building and financing the project.
Columbia’s Upper Estate officially became Rockefeller Center on April 17, 1932.