Secrets of Rockefeller Center
What you don't know about one of New York's top tourist attractions may surprise you, from the humble beginnings of its first Christmas tree to the famous men who once gave tours
Although it’s hard to believe it now, Rockefeller Center was a grand experiment that many people thought would fail when John D. Rockefeller Jr. began it in 1930. Today, of course, Rockefeller Center is one of the most lively and popular destinations in New York City, whether for its famed Christmas tree and ice skating in the winter, its open airy plazas and outdoor dining in the warmer months, or, of course, its year-round shopping. The mostly Art Deco complex stretches from 48th to 51st streets and 5th to 6th avenues, the now encompasses 19 buildings, including Radio City Music Hall and the NBC Studios. Read on for the curious history behind its beginnings, its bumpy acceptance as a place of architectural significance in the city, the hidden gardens that can only be seen from above and more secrets of Rockefeller Center.
It almost wasn’t built
Rockefeller Center almost didn’t even get off the ground, as the original plan to build a new home for the Metropolitan Opera derailed with the 1929 stock market crash. Rockefeller switched gears for the site to commercial and assumed sole responsibility for the financing of what, at the time, was the largest private development project in the city. The 22-acre project, completed in 1939, was amazingly built over the course of the Depression and employed 75,000 people during its construction.
At first, critics didn’t rave
Lewis Mumford — historian, urban planner and architecture critic for The New Yorker while Rockefeller Center was being built — was one of the complex’s harshest critics. In 1931, he wrote in his “Sky Lines” column, “If Radio City, as now forecast, is the best that could be done, there is not the faintest reason for anyone to attempt to assemble a big site. Chaos does not have to be planned.” In 1933, when much had already been completed, he opined, “The ornamental features are no less painful than its more utilitarian efforts. … I cannot find a word of even faint praise for any of the sculptural or graphic decoration now visible on any of the buildings. … The whole effect of the Center is mediocrity — seen through a magnifying glass.” (He particularly detested the “idiotic figure of Atlas.”) But by 1940, he had softened his opinion a bit. “In spite of all these handicaps, Rockefeller Center has turned into an impressive collection of structures; they form a composition in what unity and coherence have to a considerable degree diminished the fault of overemphasis. In other words, they get by.”
In 1932 Nelson Rockefeller, son of John D., wanted a mural for the lobby of what was then the RCA Building (now the GE building) at the heart of the complex. He wasn’t able to get Matisse and Picasso so eventually the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was brought on to tackle the theme “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.” Rivera’s leftist political views were anything but secret at the time, so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when a newspaper report revealed that the near-finished 63-foot-long fresco included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Rockefeller was incensed, but Rivera refused to remove the offending Soviet leader, and the mural was never displayed or finished; instead it was covered over and finally destroyed in early 1934 by ax-wielding workers. It was replaced with an even larger mural, “American Progress” by Spanish artist Josep Maria Sert. It’s still on view and includes less inflammatory figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
From tin cans to $1.5 million topper
The space in front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza is best known for its role in hosting the famed Christmas tree, but its beginnings were humble. The first-ever Rock Center tree was hoisted in 1931 by Depression-weary workers looking for some extra hours and decorated thriftily with tin cans and scrap paper. Nowadays, the star on top is a 550-pound, $1.5 million Swarovski crystal number, and the branches twinkle with 30,000 LED lights. The tree itself is a Norway spruce measuring 65-plus feet, located each year by a helicopter crew that takes reconnaissance flights over New England. It’s not just a blank slate the rest of the year, though — the space has been home to some wild creations. In 2000, it hosted Jeff Koons’s 43-foot “Puppy,” made of 70,000 flowering plants, and in 2001 Louise Bourgeois’s decidedly more sinister “Maman,” a 30-foot-tall spider accompanied by two smaller arachnids, made an appearance.
Art hidden in plain sight
It worked in Rockefeller Center’s favor that John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller were great patrons of the arts, although they disagreed on aesthetics — he never cared for the modernist works that inspired her to found the Museum of Modern Art. Thanks to their influence, however, Rockefeller Center is filled with spectacular sculptures, bas-reliefs, murals and mosaics. The golden Prometheus overseeing the skating rink and Atlas shouldering his burden on Fifth Avenue are two of the plaza’s most famous, but there are several other highlights not to miss. Look above the entrance of 1250 6th Avenue to take in Barry Faulkner’s 79-foot-long glass tile mosaic, “Intelligence Awakening Mankind,” which depicts the triumph of knowledge over ignorance. Likewise, step inside the lobby of the International Building on Fifth Avenue to be dazzled by “Light and Movement,” a gilded abstraction commissioned in 1978 by Nelson Rockefeller. Another stunner is the swooping stainless steel bas-relief “News” by Isamu Noguchi, which adorns the Associated Press building at 50 Rockefeller Plaza and features antiquated tools of the trade such as the land-line telephone.
Ever wonder how the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall got its name? The troupe was originally the Roxyettes and was brought to Radio City by the showman and entrepreneur Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, the original operator of the venue. Rothafel made his name as a movie theater impresario in 1910s and 1920s, creating a magical experience for the patrons of luxe establishments such as the Capitol and the Roxy by incorporating orchestral music and dance into an evening at the movies. He was also one of the first recognizable stars of broadcast radio.
You won’t be able to see the secret gardens unless you go to the Top of the Rock or another lofty vantage point, but there are five rooftop gardens atop La Maison Francaise, the British Empire Building, and the setbacks of other central buildings. These meticulously planted and maintained oases were designed by the famed landscape architect Ralph Hancock and were opened to the public in 1935. According to the Hancock estate, 3,000 tons of earth, 500 tons of bricks, 20,000 bulbs, 100 tons of stone, 2,000 trees and shrubs made their way up 11 floors either via a service elevator or block and tackle to create the sanctuary. The estate reports that the first seven months the gardens were open, they attracted more than 87,000 visitors who paid $1. Despite their beauty, they closed in 1938, and their design has changed significantly over the years. These days, ordinary mortals are not generally allowed to stroll the verdant paths, so take an extra-long look from above as it’s likely the only one you’ll get.
Oh to go back in time and take a tour with actor Gregory Peck and the philosopher-monk Thomas Merton, who each served brief, improbable stints as guides at Rockefeller Center. You can still take a variety of tours today, focusing on Rockefeller Center, the NBC Studios or Radio City Music Hall. No guarantees on whether your guide will be a swoon-worthy future movie star or a great spiritual thinker, but you’ll definitely learn something new.
Not all the action at Rockefeller Center is in the skyscrapers or even at street level. There’s also a bustling world underground, accessible by heading downstairs at 30 Rock. You’ll find a great viewing area for the skating rink; a full array of food and services including a shoeshine and shoe repair shop; a full post office; and even a “private service bureau” that will help you with DMV renewals, passport and visa applications, and similar dreary bureaucratic chores (for a fee, of course). You’ll also find access to several subway lines underground, and if you’re persistent, you can proceed west all the way to 7th Avenue and the N, Q, R station there through a serene white hallway decorated with gently glowing panels of colored lights, avoiding the chaos above. It’s kind of like being on a spaceship.
Uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places with our Secrets of New York.