By now the tale of how the Mitsubishi Estate Company forced Rockefeller Center to file for bankruptcy has been more than twice told. But this is by no means Rockefeller Center's first reversal of fortune. Indeed, the story of the center's inception and construction is high dramaa saga of financial boom and bust, critical derision, and splendid perseverance.
Great cities have places that encapsulate their very essence. One thinks immediately of the Mall in London, the Admiralty Arch behind one and, in the distance, Aston Webb's Buckingham Palace, in the Louis XVI style as interpreted by 1912 England. Or the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the whole square symbolizing France's perpetual attempt to rationalize language, life, and design. In New York the authentic heart of the metropolis is undoubtedly Rockefeller Center. Turning in from Fifth Avenue to the Channel Gardens, one moves away from the roar of traffic and enters something very rare in American cities, a precinct of planned space, with sunlight and the plash of water. In its subtle combination of luxury and business, of commerce and art, Rockefeller Center achieveseffortlessly, it seemswhat most of Gotham 78 yearns for.
In fact, when, on March 5,1931, a tentative model for the project was unveiled, it was greeted by almost universal hisses. "Radio City is ugly. Its exterior is revoltingly dull and dreary," the Herald Tribune proclaimed. The New York Times was equally dismissive, calling the maquette a composition of " architectural aberrations." Many alterations would be made in those original plans, but their reception is worth remembering: it signifies how formidable the task was that preceded the acclaimed urban masterpiece now occupying the land stretching from Fifth to Sixth avenues and from 48th to 51st streets.
To begin with, it was something of a miracle that 12 acres of underdeveloped property with a single ownership existed in midtown Manhattan in the twentieth century. The tale behind this phenomenon stretches back to the infancy of the nation. Dr. David Hosack, a native New Yorker, combined brilliance and irresistible charm with a fine medical education received in America and the British Isles. His diagnostic insight during New York's terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1797, when he was among the first to recognize that fever as a distinct disease, led to his being taken into partnership by the dean of the city's doctors, Samuel Bard. Hosack was to prove to be a pioneer in American medicine, a severe critic of the almost universal practice of bleeding patients, an early advocate of vaccination, and one of the first physicians in this country to use a stethoscope. Alas, his impressive medical skills could not save the life of his friend Alexander Hamilton, whom he accompanied to the fatal duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804.
Hosack was also a firm believer in the curative power of plants and was professor at Columbia College of both botany and materia medica, the study of the composition of medical remedies. His dream was to establish a botanical garden in New York that would rival the great ones of Europe, such as the Jardin des Plantes in Paris or Kew Gardens in London. When his efforts to have either Columbia or the State of New York underwrite his project failed, Hosack decided to take on the task himself. His efforts to find a suitable site led him to 20 acres lying between the Middle Road on the east (now Fifth Avenue) and the Albany Road to the west (now Sixth Avenue), which were part of the common lands. Because the tract was rocky and lay some three miles north of the built-up part of Manhattan Island, the city fathers were glad to be rid of it. In 1801, Dr. Hosack agreed to pay $4,807.36 in cash, plus a quitrent of 16 bushels of wheat a year. In 1810 he paid another $285.71 in commutation of the quitrent and thus owned the property outright.
Hosack christened his demesne "The Elgin Botanical Garden", after his father's native town in Scotland, and he set about turning the tract into one of the wonders of New York. He enclosed the garden within a seven-foot-high stone wall, constructed hothouses and a greenhouse, laid out elaborate beds for herbs and flowers, and brought in some 2,000 rare plants from all over the world. Hosack, characterized by a fellow physician as "a man of profuse expenditure"his Saturday evening parties were famous for their talk and the quality of the winehad soon spent more than $100,000, an astonishing sum. When his expectations that his costs would be offset by the sale of medicinal plants and the products of his nursery came to nought, he turned again for help to Columbia and the state. But once more he was turned down, and in 1810, the very year that he had made his final payment on the property, he ended up selling it to the State of New York for $75,000. Without Hosack's loving care and his money, the garden quickly deteriorated. Fences and buildings fell into disrepair; rare plants disappeared. Within four years of the transfer, Hosack's Eden had become an eyesore.
The subsequent linkage to Columbia, which was to keep the site together, had little to do with Dr. Hosack. The college, located on what it called its "Lower Estate" on Park Place between Church Street and Broadway, had long sought financial aid from the state. But while other educational and even religious institutions had received help, Columbia had been regularly rebuffedbecause, some said, of its close association before the Revolution with the Tory Anglican Church. In 1814 the State of New York organized a lottery to help Union and Hamilton Colleges, and, once again, turned down Columbia when it asked for a share of the proceeds. But the Legislature, seeing a way to be rid of Dr. Hosack's decrepit botanical garden while offering at least something to Columbia, presented the tract to the college. Columbia's trustees, who'd been seeking money to finance a move from the cramped quarters that had housed the college since its founding in 1754, felt that once more they'd been shortchanged.
Until 1828 they were correct. In that year Columbia found a long-term tenant for the property who would pay cash. By the 1850s, when Columbia finally decided to make its move uptown, the property, now assessed at $550, 000, had grown too valuable for the college to build on. Instead, Columbia bought the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb's building on Madison Avenue between 49th and 50th streets and settled there in 1857.
To help pay for the move, Columbia sold 16 lots at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 48th Street for $40,000 to the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas. It divided the rest of the property into 272 lots and rented them under 21- year leases, renewable for an additional 21 years. Columbia had the right to purchase the buildings at a fair price if either the college or the tenant failed to renew. Four decades later, to finance its 1897 migration to its grandiose new McKim, Mead & White campus in Morningside Heights, Columbia sold one block of its "Upper Estate" between 47th and 48th Streets for $3 million, reducing the tract to just under so 13 acres.
During the real estate boom that engulfed Manhattan in the 1870s, Columbia's Upper Estate flourished. Along Fifth Avenue, four- and five-story stone-fronted houses sprang up, while in the cross streets behind them rose uniform rows of modest brownstones. By the dawn of the twentieth century, most of the Fifth Avenue residences had been converted to shops and offices, and while the brownstones close to Fifth Avenue continued to be desirable, those to the west, near the clamor of the Sixth Avenue elevated, had declined into rooming houses. By the 1920s the college's property had degenerated into a notorious district of speak-easies and brothels.
Yet this black cloud had a silver lining. Most of the leases on the property were due to run out between 1928 and the end of the decade. With the stock market reaching new highs every day and New York in the midst of an unprecedented building boom, Columbia envisioned a bonanza from the redevelopment of its midtown property.
At the center of these plans was the Metropolitan Opera, housed since 1883 in what was called "the yellow brewery," an ugly brick structure occupying the block bounded by Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and 39th and 40th streets. Prodded by its most powerful board member, Otto Kahn, a partner in the prestigious Kuhn, Loeb investment bank, the opera was considering building a more glamorous house in a more fashionable neighborhood. In January 1926 Kahn presented the opera's board of directors with a memorandum that outlined a plan to finance the move. With the Coolidge boom showing no sign of abating, Kahn estimated that the opera could sell its old property for $12 million and that a new house would cost $8.5 million to build, leaving $3.5 million for the purchase of land. In addition, Kahn proposed to combine the opera house with a large office building whose rents would help subsidize the company's operating costs. He secured a site on West 57th Street, and the opera board hired the eminent architect Benjamin Wister Morris and the designer Joseph Urban to work up plans. They produced a striking opera house and office building in a dazzling French Art Deco style. But the West 57th Street location soon proved to be too cramped for an ever more ambitious project.
John Tonnele, a vice president of the highly respected real estate firm of William A. White & Company, got wind of the opera's plan to move to a more elegant quarter. His company was Columbia's advisor on the development of its Upper Estate, and an opera house immediately struck him as the ideal magnet to attract upscale tenants to the property. Inspired by the prospects of the expanded site, Morris sketched a grand structure fronting a plaza. Surrounding the opera house the architect envision seven other buildings hotels, apartment houses, and department storesall linked by a promenade and set amid gardens and fountains. The prototype of what was to become Rockefeller Center had been born. The only missing component now was a Rockefeller, and that key piece of the puzzle was about to be added.
In order to spur interest in the project, on May 21,1928, Kahn and the other Metropolitan Opera directors hosted a dinner at the sumptuous Metropolitan Club on Fifth Avenue. They invited some of the city's richest men, including John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil. He was not able to attend, but Ivy Lee, the public relations genius who worked for him, did attend. Four days after the dinner, Lee sent Rockefeller a memo noting that, with the opera house as its focal point, the Upper Estate site could become "the most valuable shopping district in the world."
Intrigued, Rockefeller initially expressed interest merely in joining a large syndicate, which would take over the leases of the Upper Estate for 99 years. When the idea of such a syndicate failed to attract backers, Rockefeller began thinking of taking on the entire project alone. In his typical methodical and astute manner, he consulted separately five of New York's top real estate specialists and asked them, if he did assume the leases, how much he could expect to realize on subleases to those who would erect their own buildings on the site. The estimates ranged from slightly more than $3 million to more than $5 million a year. All five, Rockefeller later noted, considered the project "a sound one and good business."
Another consideration was at work here too. The Rockefellers lived on West 54th Street just north of the Columbia property. For a tee-totaler and strong supporter of Prohibition, a good Baptist who taught Sunday school, the opportunity to level saloons and houses of ill repute must have been almost irresistible. "The plan commended itself to me," Rockefeller observed, "as a highly important civic improvement."
Rockefeller quickly opened his own negotiations with Columbia and by the summer of 1928 reached an agreement giving him the right to buy part of the Upper Estate for $6 million and to lease the rest for 21 years at $3.3 million a year. He also received the option of three renewals of 21 years each. An appraisal valued the property at $62 million.
The Rockefellers have always had the habit of seeking out the best advice on any subjectand heeding it. Now John D. Rockefeller Jr. turned to John R. Todd, the attorney who headed the Todd & Brown engineering firm. He was a man who understood the complexities of urban construction and of matching the right client to a property as few men did. It was Todd who now brought in L. Andrew Reinhard and Henry Hofmeister, the first architects of the team that actually constructed Rockefeller Center. Both were in their late thirties. Hofmeister specialized in ventilation, plumbing, and the arrangement of interiors, while Reinhard was both a designer and a top-notch craftsman. Working over the summer, by September 1928 they produced proposals that became known in the history of Rockefeller Center as "The Labor Day Plans." The mix of structures included office towers, a 37-story hotel, and a 35- story apartment building.
That autumn, lawyers crafted the formal agreement, and on January 22, 1929, the distinguished longtime president of Columbia, Nicholas Murray Butler, publicly announced the details. The New York Times reported that the ensemble, with its open plaza, exclusive shops, and cafés, was reminiscent of Paris's Place de l'Opéra. John D. Rockefeller Jr. wrote later that he never for a moment thought that he would be responsible for any construction. Others, he believed, "would develop and finance their own building programs as the opera proposed to do."
With the agreement in place, the pace of the project began to pick up. Rockefeller, with the advice of the eminent architects John Russell Pope and William T. Aldrich, invited several other leading architects to submit designs by May 1929designs that all who signed subleases would have to follow in putting up their buildings. Two of the architects chosen, Raymond M. Hood and Wallace K. Harrison, had a profound influence in shaping Rockefeller Center. Hood, a Rhode Islander educated at Brown, was the center's supreme aesthetician. Like such seminal American architects as Richard Morris Hunt, H. H. Richardson, and Charles F. McKim, Hood had studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Thenand significantly he had worked in the office of America's leading practitioners of the Gothic Revival style, Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson. In 1922 he had won the competition to design the new Chicago Tribune headquarters, beating out Eliel Saarinen's avant-garde entry with a 36-story Gothic skyscraper, which, after years of being ridiculed by the modernists, is now widely recognized as one of the nation's most beautiful commercial buildings.
Raymond Hood's mastery of Gothic design strongly appealed to Rockefeller. That style was the family's usual choice for public commissions: perhaps the supreme example of Gothic Revival in the Midwest, their Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue had just been completed, and now John D. Rockefeller Jr. was deeply involved in the construction of Allen & Collen's splendid French Gothic-inspired Riverside Church, the family's home church. Gothic was Rockefeller's first choice for the new project. Though he was overruled, he gained one small victory: the parapet outside his 56th-floor office windowthe one architectural detail he would see when he looked up from his deskwas Gothic Revival.
Wallace Harrison, a 35-year-old from Massachusetts, had also studied at the École des Beaux- Arts. He'd been a craftsman in the fabled firm of McKim, Mead & White and was currently the junior partner of noted architect Harvey Wiley Corbett. Harrison had two important advantages over the other architects working on the project: he'd been a craftsman for Raymond Hood and thus was close to the master architect of the center, and he was married to the sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s only daughter. Harrison had a long career before him, designing, with his partner, Max Abramovitz, the trademark Perisphere and Trylon at the 1939 New York World's Fair and going on to exhibit a stunning decline in taste with his banal opera house at Lincoln Center and the Brobdingnagian Albany Mall, which was built under the sponsorship of another Rockefeller.
During the summer of 1929 the architects, lawyers for the 86 Metropolitan Opera, and Rockefeller's advisors held numerous meetings, some at the Rockefeller summer home in Maine, to discuss architectural details and plans. Those involved found Rockefeller an astute judge of their proposals. He delighted in studying blueprints and would frequently pull out the four-foot folding rule he carried in his hip pocket to gain an accurate idea of what the scale of a room, an open space, or a building would be when completed.
By October the preliminary drawings for the project had been finished. Benjamin Wister Morris was the architect of the opera house, and the other architectsReinhard, Hofmeister, Corbett, Harrison, and Hoodhad charge of all the other structures. The magnitude of the undertaking now began to dawn fully upon the participants. With its 14 major buildings, this was the largest private development the world had ever seen. It was not only the scale of the project that gave some of the participants pause: getting control of the leases on the old Upper Estate had taken longer than expected, and not a single sublease had been signed.
Everything, though, was about to change. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. In the wake of the millions lost that day, the plans for the Upper Estate would be completely transformed
The first casualty was the opera. With its old property plunging in value and Otto Kahn's health failing, there was no chance the opera company could raise the funds for a new house. Indeed, by 1933 the opera was on the brink of extinction, its season cut to 14 weeks, the shortest in the history of the company. What the opera left behind for the planners was both the vision of focusing the project on a central imposing edifice and the concept of an open plaza.
Rockefeller was determined to proceed. He had little choice. As he observed afterward: "The general financial situation was so steadily getting worse that there was no possibility of subletting unimproved, as contemplated, any portion of the area.
There were only two courses open to me. One, to abandon the entire development. The other, to go forward with it in the definite knowledge that I myself would have to build and finance it alone." Suddenly, instead of being driven by the need for a hall for Rigoletto and Tannhauser, the enterprise would become unabashedly a business venture. It would be, in the words of one of its managers, "a commercial center as beautiful as possible consistent with the maximum income that could be developed."
In 1930, bulldozers began clearing the site upon which would rise the structures designed by the team of 30 architects and 120 craftsmen working in the Graybar Building next to Grand Central Terminal. The daunting task of planning for the servicing of and access for wheeled vehicles and pedestrians for 14 buildings was finally accomplished. But the troublesome question of what would replace the opera house as the focus of the complex had not been answered. The answer would come from an unexpected source. That it came at all was mere good luck.
Raymond Hood had been remodeling space on Fifth Avenue for new studios and offices for NBC, where David Sarnoff was pushing the idea that radio could be entertainment for the entire family as well as an important advertising medium. Sarnoff wanted to construct large soundproof auditoriums in which audiences could be seated and recording studios with dust-free control panels. Suddenly the Rockefeller project looked like the perfect fit for NBC's parent company, the Radio Corporation of America. With its two networks, and its Radio- Keith-Orpheum movie and theater operations, RCA was desperate not only for the facilities Sarnoff wanted but for prime office space and two " heaters. For that, RCA was willing to pay more than $4.25 million a year in rent. In the spring of 1930 the new focus of the project became the RCA Building.
The structure presented Raymond Hood with the opportunity to create one of the masterpieces of 1930s Art Deco urban design. That style, which had had its apotheosis in the famed Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, frankly celebrated the modern world of industry and science, of aluminum and steel, of speed exemplified by the automobile, the airplane, and the sleek ocean liners plying the North Atlantic. Its aesthetics were based on the cubism of Picasso and Leger; its colorsorchids, surprising yellows, reds, and greens-derived from the Fauve painters. By 1930 Hood had shed his Gothic garb for the sleek raiment of the Deco style. That year he proved his mastery of it in his stunning Daily News building on East 42nd Street.
It wasn't only Hood's enthusiasm for the streamlined modernity of Art Deco that overcame 92 Rockefeller's initial yearning after Gothic. Rockefeller's wife, Abby Aldrich, and his son, Nelson, were both avid collectors of contemporary sculpture and painting; indeed, Mrs. Rockefeller was a founder of the Museum of Modern Art. They both came down on the modernist side with all the force family members can bring to bear. In addition, engineer Todd recognized the key economic reality in constructing contemporary buildings. Speaking of the type of architects he sought for the project, Todd commented, "We didn't want men who were too much committed to the architectural past or who were too much interested in wild modernism." What the center desired was " good plans for what we had to have and then to clothe those plans, as simply and attractively as possible, with clean-looking exteriors."
Art Deco fitted these specifications perfectly and had one further advantage. It was, above all else, an optimistic architecture, one inspired by the belief that out of the modern laboratory and factory would come a better world. It was an architecture committed to a bold modernity in its materials and forms, but also an architecture ready to embrace embellishment by painting and sculpture. It was a style, whether used afloat in a liner like the Queen Mary or ashore in a hotel like the Waldorf-Astoria, that radiated an incontestable belief in progress. And progress would become the theme of every aspect of Rockefeller Center. Hood's 70-story limestone-clad RCA Building, with its rhythmic setbacks expressing both the cubism beloved by Art Deco as well as the declension of its elevator banks, is a hymn to modernity, to a sunny future, to all the good wonders that the twentieth century encompassed. It spoke of power and light and energy.
But the ground it rose upon was not yet, officially, Rockefeller Center. It was no easy task to persuade the diffident John D. Rockefeller Jr. to permit the family name to be used in connection with the development, especially since muckrakers and others had pilloried the family for decades. But once the opera had withdrawn from the project, the designation of "Metropolitan Square" seemed, to say the least, misleading. At the same time, "Radio City" was starting to be applied not only to the RCA Building but to the entire venture. With other corporations beginning to sign subleases and resisting having another corporation's name as their address, the complex's manager insisted that a new name be found. John Todd pushed for "Rockefeller," but, as Nelson Rockefeller later recalled, his father agreed only after he was persuaded that "this would be a sound thing and a creditable institution." On April 17, 1932, Columbia's Upper Estate finally became Rockefeller Center.
It was right that it should be so. It was because of John D. Rockefeller Jr. that the complex was sound and creditable. It was only because he had consented to be personally responsible for repayment that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company agreed to lend the enterprise $65 million at 5 percent. It was Rockefeller who, in the darkest days of the Depression, kept things going by selling Standard Oil of New York stock, which had been valued at $80 a share a decade earlier, for $2 a share to pay construction expenses. Most significantly, it was Rockefeller who insisted on "the last 5 percent," that is, spending one-twentieth extra to get top quality.
Good taste and finesse inform Rockefeller Center's every aspect, beginning with the buildings' cladding of fine gray Indiana limestone sawed by a special process to texture it, rather than brick as first suggested. They inform the placing of plumbing and storage areas at the core of the structures, so that no working space is more than 27 feet from an outside wallthe farthest that sunlight can penetrate into the interior of a building at New York's latitude. Finesse is evident in the pioneering use of air conditioning and in the elevators, which could whisk people up to the top of the RCA Building at a sensational 1,400 feet a minute and were among the first with electric-eye safety mechanisms. Taste and finesse mark the meticulous maintenance of trees and shrubs and the polished cleanliness of the center's halls and lobbies.
The first chance for the public to see the last 5 percent in Rockefeller Center came on December 27, 1932, when Radio City Music Hall opened its doors. Passing through the restrained black marble ticket lobby, visitors entered the 60foot-high Grand Foyer, aglow with 29-foot-long crystal chandeliers, tall bronzed glass mirrors, and Ezra Winter's vast, colorful mural, The Foundation of Youth. No less sumptuous and dramatic, the lower lobby boasted black mirrored columns, chic club chairs by the noted American Art Deco designer Donald Deskey, and charming murals by Louis Bouché. Even the smaller spaces of the music hall revealed the care taken to carry out every detail to perfection. The circular first mezzanine ladies' lounge, for example, designed by Deskey, employed angled mirrors and round vanity stools to echo the choreographic intricacies of Busby Berkeley.
All of this was but a prelude to the stupendous 6,000-seat auditorium, whose ceiling, consisting of 180-degree arcs of light curving down to the floor, was inspired, the music hall's impresario, Samuel Rothafel, always said, by a sunset he had viewed from the stern of an ocean liner. To perfect the conceit, "Roxy" had the auditorium carpet designed in a pattern of swimming fish. "The great auditorium is beautiful, soul-satisfying, inspiring beyond anything I have dreamed possible," Rockefeller said. It was always his favorite of the center's buildings.
The presence of the work of artists such as Ezra Winter and Louis Bouché at the music hall was not a matter of chance. In 1932, Rockefeller set aside $150,000 for artworks to enhance the center and formed an Advisory Art Committee to find painters and sculptors to make the project "as beautiful as possible." Again, Abby Aldrich and Nelson Rockefeller were two of the moving forces behind this idea. All of the art was to illustrate the general theme of "the progress of man."
No commercial enterprise on earth can match the center's inventory of painting and sculpture, some 200 individual works by nearly 50 artists. It ranges from Jose Maria Sert's dramatic mural in the lobby of the RCA Building, which replaced the Mexican Marxist Diego Rivera's apotheosis of Lenin with the figures of 96 Emerson and Lincoln. to Rene Chambellan's spirited bronze dolphins playing in the fountains of the Channel Gardens. Among the center's undoubted masterpieces are Paul Manship's vigorous gilded Prometheus in the sunken plaza, Lee Lawrie's awesome Atlas before the International Building, and Isamu Noguchi's ten-ton stainless-steel teas relief representing various journalistic skills on the facade of the Associated Press Building.
This prodigal employment of art not only imparts a sense of luxury to the structures but contributes a characteristic Rockefeller Center quality so obvious that it is often overlooked. The writer Jan Morris, as a visitor from the British Isles, perceived it at once in his book Manhattan 45: " Rockefeller Center did not seem at all impersonal. It had pleasant cafés in it, and flower beds, and tucked-away roof gardens for the solace of upper-floor office workers, and a sunken plaza they turned into a skating rink in winter. . . . Altogether it was, though undeniably tremendous, a very welcoming, populist sort of development."
Hood and Harrison's alma mater, the École des Beaux-Arts, taught that the first principle in effective urban planning was the axial plan: a street or boulevard or walkway flanked by harmonious structures that leads to a clearly defined focal point. Thus pedestrians are drawn along the thoroughfare, animating the scene and contributing to the pleasure of city life. Paris is filled with such contrivances, preeminently the Champs Elysées moving up to the Arc de Triomphe.
The brilliant decision to place the comparatively low British Empire and La Maison Francaise buildings at Fifth Avenue on either side of the downward- sloping promenadedubbed by journalists the Channel Gardensleading to the upswept fin of the RCA Building, is classic Beaux Arts planning, Gotham's closest approximation to a Parisian boulevard.
The ice skating rink further enhances the vivid sense of urban activity. Its story is another of Rockefeller Center's small miracles. The lower plaza in front of the RCA Buildingreally nothing more than an entrance to the center's underground shopsproved a problem: it was boring. Pedestrians stayed away, and the shops that opened there almost all failed. When restaurants replaced the shops, diners had little to look at in the static open space. But a surprising solution magically materialized. On a visit to the Rockefellers' hometown of Cleveland, John D. Jr. heard that a local inventor, M. C. Carpenter, had perfected a system for making artificial ice for outdoor rinks. Desperate to try anything to bring life to the lower plaza, on Christmas Day, 1936, the center's managers set up a temporary rink. An immediate success, it became one of Rockefeller Center's most memorable features.
It is due to this axial setting that the Rockefeller Christmas tree has become New York's Christmas tree. Meyer Berger, writing in the New York Times on December 25, 1957, superbly expressed its unequaled magnetism: "On Christmas Eve the city glowed. . . . In Rockefeller Center the 65-foot tree from the White Mountains bathed the area all about it with a wondrous glow, and the path to it was lined with tributary trees, cone-shaped and man-made that bloomed in pale green with inner lighting." The prescient social observer Frederick Lewis Allen, writing in the October 1938 issue of Harper's Magazine, completely understood the Parisian spirit of Rockefeller Center: "These buildings are not simply huge, efficient, and comfortable. They are also gay."
When, on November 1, 1939, John D. Rockefeller Jr. drove what had been billed as "the last rivet" to complete the steel skeleton of the United States Rubber Building, proclaimed the final structure of the center, he had reason to feel a satisfaction granted to few men. "They all laughed at Rockefeller Center," in the words of the Gershwin tune. Now they were indeed " fighting to get in." The critic Lewis Mumford, who had once fairly sneered at the complex, was preparing to publish in The New Yorker his new assessment that the center was "architecturally the most exciting mass of buildings in the city." In the course of the last rivet ceremony, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia asked Rockefeller to create a few more centers around the city. No wonder: the assessment on the structures in Rockefeller Center had jumped from zero in 1930 to $53,439,400 in 1939.
Nineteen thirty-nine was a year to remember for New York. On the broad Hudson, the Normandie, that marvelous advertisement of French Art Deco chic, headed regularly into port, her three strikingly raked funnels giving the impression of movement even when she was riding at anchor. In Flushing Meadows the World's Fair opened, its emblem the gleaming geometry of the Trylon and Perisphere. Within the Perisphere was an exhibition, "The World of Tomorrow," that predicted with certainty that tomorrow would be a much better day. From the RCA studios in the heart of Rockefeller Center, Americans heard Jack Benny's superbly incompetent violin playing and George Burns and Gracie Allen quipping their way through life.
The 1940s would be another story. Before the decade was very old, the glorious Normandie would be a burnt-out hulk lying on her side on the Manhattan shore, and the World's Fair would have succeeded in making only one thing better: dining out in New York, immeasurably improved by the war- stranded chefs and waiters from all over Europe. The war touched Rockefeller Center itself when the offices of German, Italian, and Japanese tenants were seized by the FBI.
Following the Second World War, Rockefeller Center leaped westward across Sixth Avenue. But none of the new skyscrapers, including the Time & Life Building from the office of Harrison & Abramovitz, have the architectural quality and panache of the complex's original structures. Compared with the splendid limestone and pleasing decoration of the RCA or the International Building, the center's postwar structures are depressingly ordinary, without a whisper of Beaux Arts planning in the banal public spaces at their bases.
Perhaps this decline was to be expected. The blitz and the blitzkrieg, Auschwitz and the bombing of Rotterdam, left a world shorn of its belief in progress, a world not very certain that tomorrow would be a sunny day. Perhaps no postwar structure could possibly recapture the lambent urbanity, the shimmery elegance of 1939. And perhaps it's too much to expect that another capitalist wizard like John D. Rockefeller Jr. could be found to create an urban Oz upon the hard Manhattan bedrock.