Rockefeller Center Is Completed

The completion of Rockefeller Center, the first planned complex of city office buildings and public spaces in the United States, influenced urban planning and provided a symbolic focus for Depression-era New York City.

Summary of Event

On November 1, 1939, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., drove the last rivet on Rockefeller Center during a ceremony marking the official completion of the New York City commercial and entertainment complex. The building program, which for ten years had symbolized corporate optimism in the face of the Great Depression, consisted at the time of thirteen structures and a plaza that would become famous. Speaking at the completion ceremony were Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, which held the lucrative land lease on the property; David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which was the anchor tenant in the project’s main building; Thomas A. Murray, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, who extolled the project as a model of corporate and union cooperation; New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia; and Nelson A. Rockefeller, the president of Rockefeller Center, Incorporated, who served as the master of ceremonies. [kw]Rockefeller Center Is Completed (Nov. 1, 1939)
Urban planning;Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center
Architecture;Rockefeller Center
Skyscrapers;Rockefeller Center
[g]United States;Nov. 1, 1939: Rockefeller Center Is Completed[10090]
[c]Architecture;Nov. 1, 1939: Rockefeller Center Is Completed[10090]
[c]Urban planning;Nov. 1, 1939: Rockefeller Center Is Completed[10090]
Rockefeller, John D., Jr. (1874-1960)
Hood, Raymond
Rockefeller, Nelson A.
Sarnoff, David

Rockefeller Center held both short-term and long-term significance to the institutions and constituencies represented by the speakers. Columbia University saw its income from the land on which the complex was built increase more than tenfold, from $300,000 per year to $3.3 million. RCA received a corporate home of unsurpassed prestige, almost immediate and universal name recognition, and the most modern facilities in which to create and showcase its productions. The ten-year construction period had provided 75,000 jobs at union wages during the height of the Depression, and had created an estimated 150,000 jobs in support industries. New York City found in Rockefeller Center—in addition to the benefits of employment and tax revenue—a focal point and landmark that became synonymous with the city itself.

For John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the complex that bore his name would become the most famous and enduring monument and legacy of his career. The son of the oil industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Sr., he had focused his interests on real estate development and the philanthropic charities that his father had established. At the same time that he was building Rockefeller Center, he was also organizing and financing the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. His intentions for Rockefeller Center were impressively fulfilled. He wanted good design, profitable returns on investment, and international tenants who would help to stimulate foreign trade. The center also symbolized his optimism in the nation’s future and his belief in civic-minded corporatism.

The completion of Rockefeller Center was the final result of an idea that had originally been relatively traditional and modest. Ten years earlier, the Metropolitan Opera had been looking to build a new theater. Rockefeller became involved and collected rights to the leases on Columbia University’s land and neighboring properties in midtown Manhattan, and he helped to implement a plan that would include a new opera house supported by rents from surrounding commercial buildings. He set up the Metropolitan Square Corporation, headed by Arthur Woods, to oversee the property. Todd, Robertson, Todd Engineering was named first as developers and later as managers of the project. L. Andrew Reinhard Reinhard, L. Andrew and Henry Hofmeister Hofmeister, Henry were appointed as architects, with Benjamin Morris, Raymond Hood, and Harvey Corbett as consultants. Initially, Rockefeller’s involvement was to end with the development of the property and his donation of the public plaza. The stock market crash of October 29, 1929, forced the Metropolitan Opera to withdraw from the project, however, and Rockefeller assumed full financial responsibility.

The overall plan for the center evolved over the next several years. The architectural team of Reinhard and Hofmeister was expanded to include a consortium of firms, including Corbett, Harrison, and MacMurray and Hood, Godley, and Foulihoux, which called itself the Associated Architects. Of this group, Reinhard, Hofmeister, Harrison, and Hood were most active in the design. All the architects had in common a background in the Beaux-Arts tradition of architecture and an interest in and familiarity with modern styles and practices. Their approaches to design and construction might best be described as conservative modernism.

In consideration of the state of the nation’s economy, the architects were instructed to maximize the income potential of the land but still to design a complex that would be humane and modern. The central position previously allocated to the Metropolitan Opera House was replaced with a towering skyscraper, the RCA building. Massed around it in an abstract angular composition were other skyscrapers of varying heights that became the corporate centers of such major companies as the Time-Life Corporation, Eastern Airlines, the Associated Press, and the American Rubber Company. Lower buildings, serving as trade centers for foreign countries, flanked a promenade that funneled pedestrians from Fifth Avenue to the plaza at the center of the complex. By the time Rockefeller drove the last rivet, Rockefeller Center, symbol of the metropolis of the future, encompassed more than five million square feet of office space.

Although the shapes and proportions of the buildings were to a certain extent predetermined by zoning restrictions and tenants’ needs, architect Raymond Hood is credited with dominating the final style of the center. Hood had won the Chicago Tribune building design competition in 1922; since then, his skyscraper style had shown an evolving abstraction and simplification of the stepped-back gothic tower popular with architects in the 1920’s and 1930’s. For Hood and other architects of the period, the setbacks, originally imposed by zoning laws to permit light penetration to the streets, were not merely practical necessities; they were design elements that gave skyscrapers upward movement, energy, and visual variety. Hood’s incorporation of setbacks to relieve the monolithic nature of the RCA Building thus tied the design of the structure firmly to the more conservative, historically derived forces of early twentieth century architecture, in contrast to the more radical abstract modernism that had developed in Europe by the late 1920’s.

Rockefeller Center’s unity of design extended beyond related building styles and materials. The interior decoration of the structures was developed according to a theme, the progress of civilization, in order to give the complex spiritual content. Murals and sculptures were sought from the most prominent artists of the day. At times, as in the case of Pablo Picasso, the commissions were refused because artists were either unsympathetic to corporate interests or resistant to dictated content. On one occasion, the management received more than it expected. In 1934, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads caused a scandal when communist iconography was identified in it; Rivera’s mural was eventually removed and reconstituted in Mexico City. Throughout the complex, the dominant stylistic influence on the decorative program was Art Deco.

Even before its official completion, Rockefeller Center became a magnet for visitors. Its soaring edifices and open spaces seemed to represent the best that a city could be and encouraged hope in a future of prosperity during the dark years of the Depression.


Rockefeller Center marked a turning point in urban planning and development in the United States. It was the first time that a complex of stylistically related commercial buildings had been planned in the middle of a city. Its public plaza was unprecedented both for being privately built and supported and for being urban rather than rural or agrarian in design and ambience. The mixture of skyscrapers and low buildings, all visually unified but each one surrounded by light and air, became a benchmark for corporate urbanism and a model for subsequent developments in other cities after World War II. Prior to the construction of Rockefeller Center, the large-scale planning and design of large sections of city property had been the domain of city governments, especially through the “cities beautiful” movement at the turn of the century. Subsequently, the private sector would lead the way, although frequently with municipal aid and encouragement. Not all of these developments would be as successful as Rockefeller Center, and certain practices, such as the wholesale destruction of older buildings and homes to make way for redevelopment, would become controversial legacies of the Rockefeller program.

Part of Rockefeller Center’s success and influence stemmed from its designers’ attempts to incorporate features that would relieve the potential for urban congestion inherent in a project of its size. The center featured the first integral garage in an urban commercial building. Underground roadways permitted trucks to make deliveries, and at the completion ceremony, it was noted that eight hundred trucks serviced the center daily without disrupting traffic on neighboring streets. Underground walkways connected the buildings as well. Shops and restaurants helped to service the office workers’ practical needs.

Rockefeller Center’s RCA Building in 1933, six years before the entire complex was completed.

(Library of Congress)

Although the primary function of Rockefeller Center was commercial, public use was not only permitted but also encouraged. The famous skating rink in the plaza was added specifically to increase pedestrian traffic in the complex’s central area. Visitors were allowed access to terrace and rooftop gardens. Shops and exhibitions invited strolling and browsing. Extravagant displays of flags and seasonal decorations evoked a festive mood. The emphasis on the center as an integrated focal point of the urban fabric of the city, a self-contained community tied to the larger metropolis, reflected the designers’ attempt to adapt contemporary European theories of social urban planning to an emphatically capitalistic, profit-motivated enterprise. This integrated approach was to add a new dimension to corporate building in the following decades.

The center’s influence was felt not only in the area of corporate urbanism but also in the development of New York City itself. Through its location between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Rockefeller Center anchored and stabilized the shopping district on the first street and helped to revitalize the second. It inaugurated a midtown business district that expanded after World War II as other office towers clustered in its vicinity, borrowing its prestige and, at times, even its designs. Radio City Music Hall became a center of popular entertainment and a main tourist attraction for the area, and the plaza, with its seasonal decorations and skating rink frequently featured in television programs and motion pictures, became one of the most recognized urban sites in the country. Urban planning;Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center
Architecture;Rockefeller Center
Skyscrapers;Rockefeller Center

Further Reading

  • Balfour, Alan. Rockefeller Center: Architecture as Theater. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978. Descriptive, condensed history of the project presents detailed analysis of the buildings themselves, the architects, and the theoretical and historical influences on the designs. Features more than two hundred photographs, including views of the property before construction and of the subsequent development in the area. Includes notes, brief annotated bibliography, and index.
  • Jordy, William. “Rockefeller Center and Corporate Urbanism.” In The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century. Vol. 5 in American Buildings and Their Architects. 1972. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Informative, considered analysis of the successes and failures of Rockefeller Center’s architecture and public spaces. Places the plan within the historical context of urban design and planning, thus explaining its conservative and innovative features. Includes photographs and footnotes.
  • Kilham, Walter H., Jr. Raymond Hood, Architect: Form Through Function in the American Skyscraper. 1974. Reprint. New York: Architectural Book Publishing, 1999. Subjective, first-person account by a member of Hood’s architectural firm provides a behind-the-scenes view of architectural practices, Hood’s personality and attitudes, and the problems attendant on various commissions, including Rockefeller Center. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Krinsky, Carol H. Rockefeller Center. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Comprehensive, scholarly contextual history of the project, including later developments through the 1970’s. Examines the center’s impacts and influences as well as its art and decorative program. Includes photographs, illustrations, extensive bibliography, and index.
  • Loth, David. The City Within a City. New York: William Morrow, 1966. Anecdotal, accessible account of Rockefeller Center’s history and development. Provides background on the principal participants and recounts colorful episodes.
  • Okrent, Daniel. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. New York: Viking Press, 2003. Entertaining account by a journalist traces the events surrounding the creation of the center and places the accomplishment in the context of its times. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Reynolds, Donald Martin. The Architecture of New York City: Histories and Views of Important Structures, Sites, and Symbols. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Interesting and informative chronological survey of New York City architecture from the seventeenth century to the end of the twentieth century. Provides details about a wide range of significant buildings and structures. Chapter 13 is devoted to Rockefeller Center. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • Rockefeller Center, Incorporated. The Last Rivet: The Story of Rockefeller Center, a City Within a City, as Told at the Ceremony in Which John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Drove the Last Rivet of the Last Building, November 1, 1939. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940. Essentially a transcript of the ceremony that marked the official completion of Rockefeller Center. Includes texts of speeches describing the history of the property and project. Notably absent are any references to the designers or architects. Especially interesting for comparative reasons, as researchers have found certain details of the history recollected in the speeches of some major participants to be erroneous. Includes photographs of the property before, during, and after construction.
  • Roth, Leland M. American Architecture: A History. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003. Discussion of the history of architecture in the United States examines the many different forces that have influenced styles and trends. Places the design of the urban skyscraper within the larger national context. Includes many illustrations, chronology, glossary, and index.

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