Is Rockefeller Center the true center of New York?
New York has several centers, but the one named for the Rockefellers might be the most enduring.
Rockefeller Center’s 22 acres and 19 buildings cannot be seen all at once. There is no single vantage point for the visitor to “get it.” There is no single, iconic angle that is instantly recognizable and reproduced on postcards—save for a dead-on shot of Paul Manship’s dazzling and gold “Prometheus” presiding over ice-skaters. One block away, even NBC’s “Today” show, with a dozen cameras that are often trained outside along the plaza, fails to capture everything. Rockefeller Center is simply too urban in its stature and too elusive in its image to be photographed. You must experience it.
After the stock market crashed in 1929, one of the legacies of the Great Depression was a massive effort in the public sector to create work. President Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies employed a lot of architects and artists and craftspeople, which designed and built more than 40,000 new structures—from tiny town post offices to regional museums to city zoos, and even Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
The Empire State and its cities like Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, and, yes, New York, certainly benefitted from Works Progress Administration projects. But, perhaps the most visible legacy was funded by the private sector in two massive building projects that would dominate the skyline of Manhattan. One was Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon’s Empire State Building, arguably the most famous skyscraper in the city. The other was Rockefeller Center, orchestrated by the architect Raymond Hood, a Rhode Island native who held degrees from both MIT and the École des Beaux-Arts, and who shot to fame (along with John Mead Howells) in 1922 as co-designer of the Chicago Tribute Building after a fierce (and well-publicized) competition.
When Columbia University vacated the site now occupied by Rockefeller Center and headed uptown, the school wisely retained ownership of the land, which the Rockefeller family rented until 1985, when Columbia sold its 11.7 acres to the Rockefeller Group for $400 million. In 1931, Hood led an assemblage of several prominent firms under the banner of Associated Architects, including Reinhard & Hoffmeister; Corbett, Harrison & Mac Murray; Carson & Lundin; and Harrison & Abramovitz. It is the latter firm that often, colloquially, gets credit for the entire complex of buildings at Rockefeller Center, given the firm’s decisive role in the project after Hood’s death in 1934. Nevertheless, it was a complicated arrangement of firms and individual contributors that rendered a remarkably consistent suite of multi-story buildings for a variety of tenants, broadcasters, and, of course, New Yorkers.
Hood, himself, partnered with J. André Fouilhoux (whom he’d employed on the design of the Hood & Howells American Radiator Building a decade earlier) to create the center’s tallest and most prominent beacon: the RCA Building, which is just a few hundred feet shorter than the Empire State Building. RCA has gone through a series of name changes befitting its corporate owners over the years, and while the official name is the Comcast Building today, we know it as 30 Rockefeller Plaza—or 30 Rock—which opened in 1933.
If there is a single expression of Rockefeller Center, then, it would be 30 Rock—glimpsed in total only from afar and only from one of the top floors of a nearby building. Once you ascend through the canyons of Midtown, you can see it in its entirety—the variegated colors and shadows created by warm Indiana limestone and bluish-gray glass, especially as the sun tracks overhead; the dynamic relief created by set-backs in the façades around the tower like stone stalagmites; and the vague sense that the entire building looks like a ship’s prow emerging from the shadows and sailing toward the East River.
In 1969, the AIA awarded its inaugural Twenty-five Year Award to Rockefeller Center, a "project so vital to the city and alive with its people that it remains as viable today as when it was built,” according to the jury. Nearly half a century after that declaration, Rockefeller Center is still vital and viable, as a Recession-era project for any era that symbolizes possibility and the promise of collaboration.