Rockefeller Center – a City Within a City

Strangely enough, the story of Rockefeller Center starts with that of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met, located at the time on Broadway and 39th, needed a bigger space. The land around 49th Street behind 5th Ave belonged to Columbia University and seemed like an ideal new place for the opera house. As the wheels of commerce started turning, the Metropolitan Opera involved John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the project.  The plans were grand and the location was perfect… alas, the timing was all wrong. As the stock market crashed and the Great Depression set in, the Met pulled out of the deal completely, leaving John Rockefeller Jr. to deal with the project on his own.

In the early 1930s, times were hard and the future uncertain; no one built or financed in NYC. Rockefeller Jr. had the choice of either pulling out of the project altogether or going for it on his own. He chose to back the project with his private funds, making it the largest private building venture ever undertaken in modern times. The construction of Rockefeller Center employed over 40,000 people!

In order for the mammoth project to be profitable, it was conceived as a “city within a city” with office spaces, shops, and restaurants organically connected by a series of underground tunnels. Despite the shattered economy, the media continued to function. The ingenious decision to make the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) the main tenant solved the crucial issue of renting the work space out. The connection between the media and the complex never stopped, as the Rockefeller Center still houses NBC shows like Today and Saturday Night Live among others. The popular TV show 30 Rock is a play on the central tower’s address: 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

The Rockefeller Center is a complex of 19 interconnected buildings — 14 of them being the original Art Deco office buildings from the 1930s. The focal point of the complex is 30 Rockefeller Plaza (formerly the GE and RCA building), a stunning Art Deco masterpiece. Narrow, simple, and elegant, it appears taller than its actual height and is crowned by a three-tiered observation deck. The main pathway to 30 Rock is Channel Gardens, a passage leading from 5th Ave that separates  La Maison Francaise from its twin, the British Empire Building. The international theme was decided upon in order to attract international business. The International Complex, located entirely along Fifth Avenue, was supposed to include “German” and “Italian” buildings, but owing to the political situation in Europe in the 1930s they were named International Building and the Palazzo d’Italia instead.

The idea of a “city within a city” — a single, multifunctional space of offices, public spaces, food courts, shops, and services — was borrowed from that of the Grand Central Terminal, completed couple of decades earlier. The Rockefeller Center built on this idea and expanded it. It also pioneered a brand new concept of an International Complex, which in turn inspired the creation of the World Trade Center several decades later. In tribute to the international trade theme, the recessed Lower Plaza is adorned with 200 flags of the United Nations member countries. 

  • The largest private building project ever undertaken in modern times.
  • Location: 5th Ave between 48th and 51st Streets
  • Principal architect: Raymond Hood
  • Created: 1933-1939

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