Top of the Rock (Photo: Idleformat/Flickr CC)

Secrets of Top of the Rock

Find out what Ayn Rand has to do with the GE Building and see where one of the 20th century's most famous photos was snapped in our undercover guide

You may know it as 30 Rock, by its original name, the RCA Building, or as “the Slab,” a reference to its limestone base. At 850 feet and 70 stories, the skyscraper that’s been officially known as the GE Building since 1988 is the thirteenth tallest in New York, and it still serves as the headquarters for NBC, one of the original tenants. This centerpiece of Rockefeller Center was completed in 1933, and its sleek Art Deco form has been one of the gems of the city’s skyline ever since. As imposing as the building is to look at from the plaza below, what’s even more fabulous is the view from the top, where the tri-level Top of the Rock attraction offers a peerless 360-degree vista of New York. It’s not allpretty views, however, there’s a lot of history behind this famous building and more than a few secrets lurk about.

 

Rockefeller Center workers

Construction workers take a break while working on the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center on September 20, 1932. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)

The site of one of the 20th century’s most famous photos
You probably know the image: a group of construction workers nonchalantly eating lunch on a beam, feet dangling some 69 stories above the street. What you might not know is that the men showing off their nerves of steel were atop the RCA Building. The 1932 photograph has been credited to Charles C. Ebbets, then photographic director of Rockefeller Center, although researchers at Corbis Images, which now owns the glass negative, say its provenance is unknown. If you’d like to recreate the pose, the Top of the Rock has a beam of the same width that you can walk and sit on for a photo op — without risking the long drop to the ground.

 

Top of the Rock historical

Historic image of Top of the Rock (Courtesy: the Rock Center archives)

Its observation deck was modeled on an ocean liner
Raymond Hood, senior architect on the design team for Rockefeller Center, was one of the most celebrated skyscraper designers in the United States when he landed the job. Already in his portfolio were the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower in Chicago, the American Radiator Building on New York’s Bryant Park, and the New York Daily News Building on E. 42nd Street. He incorporated an observation deck into the design of 30 Rock, and when the original three-tiered one opened in 1933 it was said to resemble the deck of a glamorous ocean liner. It’s reported that Charles de Gaulle queried “Où est Coney Island?” during a 1944 visit. Stand up there today, and you can still imagine yourself sailing across the city.

 

Raymond Hood Buildings

Tribune Tower, Chicago; The American Radiator Building, NYC; New York Daily News Building, NYC (Photos: Ben Miller/Wikimedia CC, Jean-Christophe Benoist/Wikimedia CC, Wikimedia/CC)

Its architect may have inspired Ayn Rand
Some believe that senior architect Hood was the model for Ayn Rand’s character Peter Keating in The Fountainhead, a slippery fellow who serves as a negative counterpoint to the heroic Howard Roark, who was likely inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. Rand disliked Rockefeller Center, although she praised the McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, one of Hood’s last creations before his death in 1934 at the age of 53.

 

View Top of the Rock

The view from Top of the Rock

What’s the view like?
You don’t have to guess from street level about visibility from Top of the Rock. Ask staff or security guards at the front entrance, and they can give a zero to five visibility rating. Of course, things can change in a matter of minutes. No matter what the weather, there are three different levels to explore and a full 360-degree panorama of the city. Don’t forget to look down as well as out. The rooftops beneath you are fascinating, and you should be able to see the five secret rooftop gardens atop La Maison Francaise, the British Empire Building and the setbacks of other central buildings.

 

Joie, NWR

‘Joie,’ the crystal waterfall at Rockefeller Center NYC; WNBC Doppler Radar at the top of the GE Building (Photo: MHS Studios/Wikimedia CC, Pdstahl/Flickr CC)

Those crystals are more than just breathtaking
The waterfall of crystal in the soaring lobby area where tickets are purchased and guests await the elevator to the Top of the Rock is stunning enough to inspire wonder as to its form and craft. Commissioned by Swarovski, “Joie” was created by artist Michael Hammers and contains an astonishing 14,000 crystals in 450 individual strands. Look closely: Its cascading form, three stories high, is an inverted outline of the very building it’s in, 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The crystals were threaded and hung according to an elaborate plan, executed by two women in Hammers’ studio who tied the thousands of loops by hand.

Weather alert!
If you’ve ever listened to NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) in the New York metropolitan area, you should know that the signal you picked up was coming from the top of the GE Building. That’s where the transmitter KWO-35 is located, broadcasting at a frequency of 162.550 MHz. The big white ball you see atop the building is WNBC’s Doppler radar. NWR broadcasts 24 hours a day.

 

Prohibition John D Rockefeller Jr

Men disposing of alcohol during Prohibition; John D. Rockefeller Jr. (Photos: Wikimedia CC, Library of Congress)

Up with Rock Center, down with drinking
To create the 22-acre tabula rasa that served as the foundation of Rockefeller Center, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had to level a neighborhood known as the “speakeasy belt” for the drinking clubs that had proliferated since the 1920 passage of Prohibition. (One of these, the famed 21 Club, relocated to 52nd Street between 5th and 6th avenues where it remains to this day.) A teetotaler, Rockefeller had been a staunch supporter of the 18th Amendment until he became convinced that it was increasing drinking and crime. His public reversal was seen as a turning point for the “wet” movement. “Extra telegraphers had to be employed at Tarrytown, N. Y. last week to handle an avalanche of messages for John Davison Rockefeller Jr.,” Time magazine reported in June of 1932. “People all over the land were excited because he had regretfully abandoned the Cause which he and his father & mother had supported with speech, prayer and at least $434,000.” You can now order $14 house-crafted cocktails from the Rock Center Cafe without fear of reprisal.

 

30 Rockefeller

RCA Building in 1933 and present day, now known as the GE Building (Photos: Library of Congress, Julienmagne/Flickr CC)

One helluva roller coaster economic ride
It may be a much-coveted corporate address now, but Rockefeller Center has had some ups and downs along the way. The last of the original buildings was completed in 1939, and as the nation came out of the Depression during World War II, business was good. Rentals reached full occupancy in 1946, and remained solid through the 1950s, prompting the expansion to the west side of Sixth Avenue, where the first of four additional buildings (the Time-Life Building) opened in 1959. In 1967, the complex was proving so successful that it was “110 percent rented” (meaning the waitlist was equal to 10 percent of the total space). But only three years later, in 1970, Rock Center had a record amount of vacancies as the city’s economy tanked. Over the next 10 years, things got worse, and Radio City Music Hall nearly closed in 1978 before being bailed out by the city. The 1980s brought another boom, and the 1990s another bust, which led to Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1995 and 26 percent vacancy rates. Since then, the trajectory has been upward again, and the 2000s saw the buildings nearly 100 percent occupied once more.

 

Rainbow Room

Rainbow Room nightclub, Rockefeller Center in New York City, December 2004 (Photo: Bradford Schultze/Wikimedia CC)

Echoes of the Rainbow Room
From the moment it opened on October 3, 1934 on the heels of Prohibition, the Rainbow Room at 30 Rockefeller Center was synonymous with New York glamour.  Sixty-five floors above the streets of Manhattan, stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford floated over the multi-hued revolving dance floor, while bands led by the likes of Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong played the tunes. For generations, sipping Champagne at this swank supper club was part of the ultimate romantic night out in New York. Hard economic times, however, led to the demise of the Rainbow Room in 2009, and although it has been named a New York City landmark, it’s not clear when the band will strike up again. If you want a taste of the bygone glitz, however, you can find it in a very unlikely place: the custom-made Wurlitzer organ that was removed from this venue at 30 Rock in 1954 is now installed at the Rahway Senior Center in Rahway New Jersey, and a few times every year, you can hear it played by an organ virtuoso at concerts open to the public. The next concert is Aug. 1 at 6:30pm.

Uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places with our Secrets of New York