New York: Rockefeller Center Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

New York’s “city within a city,” named for its founder and developer, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., eldest son and heir of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the billionaire founder of the Standard Oil Company. The fourteen-building complex was widely criticized during its construction but quickly became the working model for urban developments around the world. Today, it is one of New York City’s most-visited tourist attractions.

Site Office

Rockefeller Center Management Corporation

630 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY 10111

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Although it was completed in 1940, Rockefeller Center was really the culmination of the building boom that flourished in the heady pre-Depression days of the 1920’s. A monumental undertaking by any technological yardstick, the center’s gargantuan proportions, totalling fifteen million square feet of rentable space, were literally unheard of during its construction. Such amenities as a private police force, the world’s largest cinema, and a private street running through the complex fueled the comments of detractors and admirers alike, adding to the notoriety and allure that the center has held ever since. It is fair to say that the admirers have emerged victorious; the center has long since achieved the timeless stature its founder had desired.

The Roaring Twenties

In the period following World War I, the United States experienced an unprecedented industrial boom, almost overnight replacing Great Britain as the largest economy in the world and ushering in the period now fondly referred to as the Roaring Twenties.

This phenomenal increase in personal wealth in the ten years between the end of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression brought with it a gigantic building spree, the effects of which can still be seen today in older urban neighborhoods. Rockefeller Center was to become one of the final expressions of this era, even though a series of false starts did not allow the development to be built until well into the Depression.

John D. Rockefeller

Born in 1839, John D. Rockefeller built his first oil refinery at the age of twenty-four in order to capitalize on what he thought–correctly–would be a vast increase in the worldwide demand for petroleum products. By 1865, Rockefeller’s refinery was the largest in the Cleveland area, and by 1870 Rockefeller, in conjunction with a handful of partners, incorporated the Standard Oil Company, which remains in its various forms one of the world’s largest petroleum companies.

By 1872, Rockefeller had bought out most of the other refineries in the Cleveland area. Standard’s control over the oil business in Cleveland allowed him to negotiate too-favorable deals with suppliers and railroads, essentially by threatening to withhold business entirely if they did not meet his price. Because he had a near-monopoly on the oil business in the Cleveland region, suppliers played along. The railroads, in particular, became unwitting allies in Rockefeller’s drive to control the oil business in the United States.

Although there were no laws prohibiting monopolies at the time, public resentment of Standard’s predatory practices led Rockefeller to place the stock of Standard of Ohio and its affiliates in other states in the hands of a nine-member board of trustees, thereby creating the first major United States trust company, a pattern followed by monopolies ever since.

Standard Oil

By 1882, Standard controlled virtually all of the U.S. oil business, and industrialized states across the union began to pass antitrust laws prohibiting monopolies. In 1890, Congress responded with the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the Ohio Supreme Court declared the Standard Oil Trust illegal in 1892. Rockefeller then devolved the trust even further, spreading out the wealth to affiliated companies in other states and assembling an interlinked board of directors, leaving the same nine men in control of the entire operation. In 1899, Rockefeller reincorporated these companies into the Standard Oil Company, in New Jersey, but in 1911 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the “new” company a violation of the Sherman Act. At this time ownership was again rearranged.

Despite his business tactics, Rockefeller was a renowned philanthropist, bestowing more than half a billion dollars on various causes during his lifetime. He financed the founding of the University of Chicago in 1892, and, in conjunction with his eldest son, John Jr., created several philanthropic organizations that still bear his name, including Rockefeller University and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The wealth and power amassed by the elder Rockefeller provided the basis for everything the Rockefeller family has accomplished since. First among these benefactors was his son John Jr., who joined his father’s business for a time, but devoted most of his life to philanthropy and management of the family fortune. It was he who made the Rockefeller Center a reality.

Early History of the Center’s Land

The modern history of the land upon which Rockefeller Center now sits goes back to 1801, when New York City physician and educator David Hosack bought the land and created the Elgin Botanic Garden, an important educational and scientific development in its day. In 1811 Dr. Hosack sold the land to the State of New York, which in turn bequeathed the parcel to Columbia University in 1814. The university then leased the land to private developers.

By 1929, the land was home to 229 buildings, mostly dilapidated brownstones of questionable repute, housing speakeasies and brothels and collectively forming one of the most blighted areas of the city. Columbia University received income from the property, but could easily have commanded more from proper development.

Plans for a New Metropolitan Opera House

In 1926, during the height of the Roaring Twenties, a group of supporters of the Metropolitan Opera began a funding drive to build a new facility for their institution. In 1927, these trustees hired architect Benjamin Wistar Morris to select a site and create preliminary drawings for the new opera house. After two alternative sites proved unworkable, Morris began to prepare drawings for the Columbia property, with which the university was willing to part, for a price.

Morris envisioned a complex of buildings: the opera house at the core, fronted by a plaza and surrounded by the office buildings necessary to generate revenue for the opera company. This idea was not quite Rockefeller Center, but it was the first vision of a large, integrated, multiuse development at the site. The opera’s trustees interested John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in the project in the summer of 1928, and the Metropolitan Square Corporation was formed to undertake the planning and construction. Originally, Rockefeller was to have donated two million dollars for construction of the plaza (which was to bear his name) and the administrative expertise necessary to acquire the property; he was then to remove himself from the proceedings, leaving the plaza and the consolidated parcel in the hands of the Metropolitan Square Corporation.

As plans for the opera house progressed, Rockefeller became ever more involved in the enterprise. Eventually, he took over the entire project, hiring Todd, Robertson and Todd, and Todd and Brown as management and engineering companies to oversee the planning and construction. Both companies were controlled by the same man, John R. Todd.

Eventually a lease was negotiated and signed between the Metropolitan Square Corporation and Columbia University for an initial annual rental fee of three million dollars, approximately ten times the revenues generated by the 229 buildings already on the property. With options, the lease could be extended to the year 2015, at which time the property would revert to the university.

By the autumn of 1929, the trustees of the opera company, glad to have a financial backer of Rockefeller’s wealth but not entirely happy with his grandiose ideas, began to question their patron’s plans. The stock market crash of that year put their fears in an entirely new light, and by December, 1929, both the trustees and architect Benjamin Wistar Morris had withdrawn from the project.

In retrospect, the withdrawal of the opera was a pivotal moment. At the time, however, the outlook was bleak. Rockefeller was left holding the lease to the university, which entailed not only the annual rent of three million dollars but also property taxes of approximately one million dollars. To back out of his deal with the university would have been unthinkable, and to simply leave the property as it was would have meant an annual loss of millions of dollars. Rockefeller had no choice but to defy the Depression and develop the property to the best of his–or anybody’s–ability.

From Opera House to a Commercial Center

In conjunction with the Todd companies, Rockefeller dropped the idea of an opera house entirely and made the decision to go ahead with a strictly commercial development of office buildings and retail space. In the words of John R. Todd, “all planning for this Square would be based upon a commercial center as beautiful as possible consistent with the maximum income that could be developed” from it.

With losses from rent and taxes mounting at the rate of $7.61 per minute, Rockefeller and Todd had to guarantee some form of future income before they could even break ground. At the time, radio was the fastest-growing industry in the country, so deals were struck with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation (RKO) for a total rental income of three million dollars per year, enough to justify the commencement of construction, if only barely. (NBC and RKO were both owned by RCA, which wanted to put all its operations in the same place. This consortium was eventually broken up by the same antitrust laws that had dismantled Standard Oil a few decades earlier.)

In 1930, the enormous project of clearing and excavating the site began. The 229 buildings, comprising over 1.25 million tons of building material, were torn down and hauled away to make way for the center, the design of which had yet to be finalized.

Architectural Plans for the Center

The consortium of architects employed to design the center came together between September, 1928, and May, 1930. Initially, Benjamin Morris had been teamed with L. Andrew Reinhard and Henry Hofmeister. On October 28, 1929, Reinhard and Hofmeister were officially appointed architects for the center, while Morris was demoted to consultant status. They were then joined by consultants Harvey Wiley Corbett and Raymond M. Hood, both of whom had experience in designing skyscrapers and were partners in leading architectural firms brought into the project the next year. The team became collectively known as Associated Architects, and, although other architects participated in the project from time to time, it was this team that created the original fourteen buildings of Rockefeller Center.

The first overall design to be presented to the center’s board of directors was labeled G-3, dated January 8, 1930, and it was designed primarily by Reinhard and Hofmeister. This plan, which was temporarily shelved shortly after its introduction, featured four thirty-story buildings and several smaller buildings surrounding a central, seventy-story skyscraper that would become known as the RCA Building. A plaza and two private streets were also included in the plan, making G-3 the obvious progenitor of the eventual development. The directors returned to the abandoned G-3 concept after a design presented to the public in 1931 featuring an oval-shaped structure in place of the present-day Channel Passageway was greeted with overwhelmingly negative criticism.

In designing the center, particularly the seventy-story RCA Building and the forty-one-story International Building, the architects were both constrained and influenced by a landmark 1916 New York City zoning ordinance requiring a stepped design on all tall buildings. The purpose of the law was to prevent the city from becoming a collection of dark canyons into which neither sunlight nor fresh air could penetrate. According to a complex set of criteria, buildings could rise straight up from the pavement for a certain number of feet, dependent upon the size of frontage of the lot and its place on the block, after which the structure had to be set back a certain number of feet so that the building’s profile fit within a given angle as measured from the center of the street. After these criteria had been met, a building could rise as high as its owners wished, as long as the footprint of the tower represented no more than 25 percent of the total area of the lot upon which it stood.

Unlike most zoning ordinances, the “setback law” was well-received by both architects and the general public. Setbacks not only accomplished their goal, but inspired architects to create interesting, aesthetically pleasing buildings that served their purposes well and relieved the monotony of rows of more-or-less symmetrical office buildings.

A Design Is Finalized

Choosing a pyramidal massing scheme to stay within the limits of the law, the architects began to finalize the design of Rockefeller Center. Many short-lived ideas were brought forward, including an elaborate series of skybridges, the likes of which featured prominently in science fiction films of the day, but which were dispensed with in favor of a functional development of modern design with classical elegance. By 1932, the final design of the center had been essentially agreed upon. Individual buildings varied in terms of height, width, and setback, but there could be no doubt that they were of the same collection.

Despite the dismal economy, Rockefeller was aided in his enterprise by two important factors: The Great Depression brought building costs to an all-time low, and the accelerated research and development brought about by World War I had resulted in significant advances in technology that had not existed only a few decades earlier.

Erection of the Center

Between 1932 and 1940, fourteen buildings were erected at the site, including the RCA Building and the International Building, the two tallest structures of the group. Other notable buildings include the bookends of the British Empire Building and La Maison Francaise, the Associated Press Building, the Palazzo D’Italia, the Time and Life Building, Holland House, and Radio City Music Hall (with six thousand seats, the world’s largest cinema). The name Radio City, incorrectly applied to all of Rockefeller Center because of its preponderance of broadcasting tenants, was adopted by the planners when the time came to christen their theater.

Rockefeller Center also included a six-level, 725-car underground parking garage, the first such facility of its kind in a New York City office building. Obviously, such a facility is grossly insufficient today, but in 1939 it was a model of the Associated Architects’ forward-thinking approach.

In addition to architecturally significant buildings, the center is also renowned for its attention to the open spaces between and around the buildings. Most famous of these is the lower plaza between Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Plaza, directly west of the British Empire and La Maison Francaise buildings. Initially conceived as a fashionable shopping center, the plaza was hastily converted to an ice skating rink in the winter of 1936 after it became apparent that potential shoppers simply did not want to descend eighteen feet below street level to do their shopping. This was another fortuitous circumstance, as skating on the rink attracts thousands of people each year from October through April. The rink has been so successful that the center has invested in a complex ice management system that cools or warms the ice in order to achieve the correct level of hardness for skating. It is in this plaza that Rockefeller Center’s famous ninety-foot Christmas tree is displayed.

Even the Fifth Avenue entrance to the plaza is enticing. Six shallow pools line a two hundred-foot-long passage that leads from the avenue to the plaza. Known as the Promenade, the pools and gardens that surround them are called the Channel Gardens due to their location between the British and French buildings. The space is planted, as are all of the Rockefeller Center’s open spaces, with a constantly rotating selection of seasonal plants.

Chief among the center’s landscaping triumphs are the seven rooftop gardens that crown the development. Featuring American, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, English, and Dutch arrangements, the gardens are complete with streams, pools, fences, and trees. The English garden even features a sundial from England’s Donnington Castle.

The Center’s Artwork

Specially commissioned artwork also figures prominently in the center. Perhaps the most famous, and most hotly debated, of these is Paul Manship’s eighteen-foot statue of Prometheus that adorns the lower plaza. Rising above spouting water jets, the statue is notable mostly for its pride of place, if not for its immediately apparent artistic merit. In the 1930’s detractors of the statue gave it the unflattering nickname of “Leaping Louie.”

In addition to the statuary that dots the foyers, lobbies, and grounds, murals cover many of the center’s walls, forming an outstanding collection of public art. Chief among these are the murals by Spanish painter José Maria Sert, located in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Representing humanity’s intellectual mastery over the universe, the murals portray such pivotal moments in human history as the abolition of slavery, the eradication of disease, and the invention and evolution of machinery.

The Sert murals were commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, one of John Jr.’s five sons. (Nelson became the forty-first vice president of the United States in 1974, after serving four terms as governor of New York, from 1959 to 1973.) Nelson Rockefeller had begun to take over day-to-day management of the center by the early 1930’s, after the first tenants had moved in. He had long been an expert in Latin American art and had established a friendship with the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera. At first, Rockefeller chose Rivera to paint the murals, but the painter, whose Marxist tendencies were well known, created what amounted to a strong attack on capitalism, complete with an idealized portrait of V. I. Lenin prominently displayed in the piece. Displeased with his friend’s thematic choice, especially in a building created by and devoted to capitalism, Rockefeller ordered Rivera to alter the mural. Although Rivera agreed to make the necessary changes, he did not do so.

At this point, Nelson Rockefeller ordered the mural removed, causing an immediate uproar in artistic and left-wing political circles. The painting was ingloriously chipped from the wall, priceless or not, and replaced by Sert’s mural, which, for good measure, featured Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison, but no Lenin.

By the mid-1930’s, Rockefeller Center was operating at an annual loss of approximately $4 million, and the buildings were mortgaged for $44.3 million, at the time the largest mortgage in the world. To alleviate the problem, the center’s board of directors employed questionable tactics (not unlike the elder Rockefeller) to entice tenants, including offering rents below the market rate and even offering to pay off the current leases of potential tenants if they would move into the center immediately. In 1934 the owner of a competing office building, August Heckscher, sued the board, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his sons Nelson and John III, but the case was dropped before it was heard in court. The center finally broke even on an operating basis in 1940 and became profitable in 1947. By the early 1950’s, the center was fully occupied, at an average rate of $4.50 per square foot, and had a list of approximately fifteen hundred potential tenants waiting for the opportunity to move in. Despite the odds, the center had become an undeniable success.

Center Statistics

Rockefeller Center officials have always been justifiably proud of the center’s statistics, which are as impressive today as they were when it was built. For example, in the course of delivering 400,000 passengers per day, the center’s 388 elevators travel nearly two million miles. The center’s cleaning staff employs 817 people whose job is equivalent to cleaning some 10,900 six-room houses. The tallest building, renamed the G.E. Building when General Electric bought NBC, rises 850 feet into the air, while the McGraw-Hill Building’s foundations descend 81 feet below the earth. The center boasts thirty-six restaurants, thirty-six travel and information bureaus, twenty-two airline offices, and nine consulates of foreign nations. The center’s average daily population is approximately 240,000, a figure exceeded by only sixty cities in the United States. Tenants and visitors use 476 million gallons of water, 269 million kilowatt hours of electricity, and 1.021 billion pounds of steam for heating every year. Within the center’s buildings can be found 97,500 locks and 48,758 office windows. Most revealingly, the building’s owners pay more than sixty-two million dollars per year in property taxes.

In 1985, Rockefeller Center Incorporated purchased the original 11.7 acres of land owned by Columbia University for four hundred million dollars, creating Rockefeller Center Properties Incorporated (RCPI), a new corporation that allowed public investment in the center. A public offering carried out by the company’s management shortly after the company’s creation netted $1.3 billion for RCPI, which maintained the option to convert the loan into a 71.5 percent ownership of the property in the year 2000. In 1989, the Mitsubishi Estate Company purchased a majority interest in the Rockefeller Group, a privately held company. The move was widely criticized in the press, in both the United States and Japan, as Americans voiced their disappointment over “losing control” of one of their best-known landmarks. The Japanese press, ever mindful of Japan’s growing economic power abroad, also criticized the move, noting that while buying factories abroad may make perfect economic sense, buying significant foreign landmarks was another matter altogether, and not one that was bound to be very popular in the host country. In fact, Mitsubishi does not own the center, but merely holds a controlling interest in an affiliated company.

In 1969 the center was honored with the Twenty-five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects in recognition of its timeless design. The center was finally designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988, and a New York City Landmark in 1989. The plaque installed in the Channel Gardens by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee fetes the Center as “one of the foremost architectural projects undertaken in America in terms of scope, urban planning and integration of architecture, art and landscaping.”

For Further Information
  • Jordy, William H. American Buildings and Their Architects: The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Detailed and technical, but one-fourth of the book is devoted to the Rockefeller Center and is an excellent source of information regarding its architectural development.
  • Morris, Joe Alex. Those Rockefeller Brothers. New York: Harper, 1953. A surprisingly detailed but colloquial history of the five sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The chapter on the development of the Rockefeller Center concerns primarily Rockefeller and his son Nelson.
  • The WPA Guide to New York City. New York: Guilds Committee for Federal Writers, 1939. Reprint. New York: New Press, 1992. Originally published as A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis–Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond. A somewhat dated but intriguing description of Rockefeller Center while it was still under construction.
Categories: History