30 ROCKEFELLER PLAZA
THE GE BUILDING (formerly the RCA Building)
(between 49th and 50th Streets, the Avenue of the Americas and
Developer: Rockefeller Center
Architect: Reinhard & Hofmeister; Corbett, Harrison &
MacMurray; Raymond Hood, Godley & Fouilhoux
Erected: 1932 - 1940
By Carter B. Horsley
The world's finest Art Deco
commercial complex and best private urban renewal project, Rockefeller
Center abounds in good design and craftsmanship and its centerpiece
is 30 Rockefeller Plaza, its tallest structure that looms over
the famous sunken plaza with its gilded statue of Prometheus,
shown above, by Paul Manship.
excellent book: "Streetscapes, Tales of Manhattan's Significant
Buildings and Landmarks," (Harry N. Abrams, 2003), Christopher
Gray devotes a chapter to this statue in which he made the following
finished figure had the stylized hair and blank expression of
ancient Greek sculpture that was Manship's trademark. But it also
had Manship's typical emphasis on lithe movement. Installed in
early 1934, the eight-ton bronze sculpture had Prometheus
flying almost horizontally, with a clump of fire in his right
hand, through streams of water over a zodiacal ring. Edward Alden
Jewel, writing in The New York Times, called Prometheus
'a genuine masterpiece, beautiful in its rhythm.' But he acknowledged
that another critic, the actor and writer Frank Craven, considered
it 'a boudoir knicknack.' Manship's unhindered success inspired
detractors who saw in him an upper-class toady irrelevant to the
dead-serious modernism of the 1930's....Manship had many reservations
about the completed work. He thought he had been hurried by the
twelve-month schedule, and the horizontal fighure of Prometheus
was not consonant with the verticality of 30 Rockefeller Plaza."
artists forget that the first impulse is usually the best and
that counterpart is more exciting than context or "boudoir
When it was built, midtown
had not yet developed into the commercial real estate juggernaut
it has become. Most of the properties on the site were occupied
by low-rise rooming houses and brownstones.
The enormous project actually
began when major patrons of the Metropolitan Opera thought that
its home in the Garment Center was no longer good enough for its
well-heeled patrons. A variety of schemes were developed including
plans to build a new opera house in the northern end of Central
Park, another to straddle Park Avenue at 96th Street, and banker
Otto Kahn purchased a large site on 57th Street between Eighth
and Ninth Avenues for which architect Joseph Urbann designed a
gigantic circular opera house with a giant office tower serving
as its campanile.
The original plans, which became
known as Metropolitan Square, did not arouse sufficient interest
from the opera's major patrons, however, although John D. Rockefeller
Jr., who lived on West 54th Street off Fifth Avenue, had been
approached to participate in its funding.
Rockefeller, who had already
embarked on several major real estate ventures such as the Riverside
Church and International House in upper Manhattan and Colonial
Williamsburg in Virginia, leased three blocks of low-rise buildings
from Columbia University between 48th and 51st Streets, a property
known as the university's “Upper Estate,” which had
been given to the university by the state which had received it
as a donation from Dr. David Hosack. Hosack, who had been the
doctor who attended Alexander Hamilton after his duel with Aaron
Burr, had developed the site as the Elgin Botanic Garden, name
after his hometown in Scotland.
One of the new plans for this
midtown site called for the opera house to be housed on the site
on Fifth Avenue in a building with an elliptical plan, but the
opera bowed out of the proposal, leaving Rockefeller with a major
dilemma because the Depression boded poorly for real estate development.
He bit the bullet and his plan,
worked on by several major architectural firms, but finally shaped
into coherent form by Raymond Hood, provided the city with a far
more impressive and widely visible monument than an opera house,
30 Rockefeller Center, a 70-story, 850-ft.-high slab skyscraper
whose form is subtlety modulated by stepped setbacks and fully
clad in gray Indiana limestone as are of the similarly styled
though smaller 13 other buildings in the original complex. The
consistent style was broken in the center's westward expansion
in the late 1950's across the Avenue of the Americas, which had
an elevated transit system when the complex opened and therefore
was far less desirable as a prime office location than Fifth Avenue.
From the street, the tower
soars over the Channel Gardens between the low-rise British Empire
and La Maison Francaise buildings with a majesty unrivaled in
the city. Despite its bulk, the width of the tower's slab shaft
is proportionally small. The visual impact is greatly heightened
by the fact that the gardens slope gently downward toward the
sunken plaza and its neat and brilliantly colored, formal forest
of national flags. The flags not only add desperately needed color
to the otherwise drab gray limestone of the complex, but also
motion, which is reinforced in the winter when the plaza is converted
to the world's most famous ice rink.
The somber dignity of the center's
facades is lightened by its art. Lee Lawrie's “Wisdom, Light
and Sound,” shown at the right, is a brilliantly conceived
entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, combining an angled indentation
and sculpted glass blocks to dynamically express the ceremony
of entrance. Lawrie also designed the spectacular “Atlas”
statue, shown below, in the entrance court of the 38-story International
Building facing St. Patrick's Cathedral. The “Atlas”
and the Prometheus” statues are certainly the finest 20th
Century public sculptures in the city, if not the world: monumental
and memorable artworks of great grace and stupendous strength
in dazzling and prominent settings.
Other important art at the
center include Hildreth Meiere's large, enameled metal roundels,
“Spirits of Song, Drama and Dance,” on the 50th Street
facade of the Radio City Music Hall building; Isamu Noguchi's
stainless steel plaque, “News,” over the entrance to
the Associated Press Building; Attilia Piccirilli's glass block
bas-relief, “Youth Leading Industry,” over the Fifth
Avenue entrance to the north wing of the International Building
at 636 Fifth Avenue; Giacomo Manzu's bronze sculptures, “The
Italian Immigrant” and “Italia,” at the entrance
to the Palazzo d'Italia in the south wing of the International
Building at 626 Fifth Avenue, which was given to the center by
Fiat of Italy and replaced another Piccirilli glass bas-relief;
and Carl Paul Jennewein's bronze “Industries of the British
Commonwealth” over the entrance to the British Empire Building
at 620 Fifth Avenue; and Alfred Janniot's gilded bronze bas-relief,
“The Friendship of France and the United States,” over
the entrance of La Maison Francaise at 610 Fifth Avenue.
Handsome gilded carvings and
other sculptures abound on the facades of the original complex.
The interiors were not to be
barren, either. A list of competitors, approved by Rockefeller,
to do murals for the expansive lobby at 30 Rockefeller center
included Matisse, Picasso, Frank Brangwyn, Jose Maria Sert and
Diego Rivera. Picasso, however, declined to even meet with some
of the project's architects to discuss the project and Matisse
disdained the notion of bustling people in an office building
lobby being able to be “in a quiet and reflective state of
mind to appreciate or even see the qualities” in his art.
Sert and Brangwyn agreed to
do murals, entitled “Man's Intellectual Mastery of the Material
Universe,” and “Man's Conquest of the Material World,”
respectively for the elevator bank section of the lobby and Rivera
was commissioned for the lobby fronting the entrance.
Rivera, an avowed Communist,
had been suggested for the competition by John D. Rockefeller
Jr.'s son, Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller,
had commissioned Rivera previously to paint portraits of her grandchildren.
Rivera's mural, “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Uncertainty
but with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a Course Heading
to a New and Better Future,” was decidedly Marxist in content
and when someone noticed that a laborer bore a marked resemblance
to Lenin a major controversy erupted. Rockefeller was so angered
that Diego was dismissed and several months later the mural was
destroyed before it was ever shown to the public and replaced
by the present mural, “Man's Conquests,” by Sert. Although
the sepia color of the murals, shown above and below, is rather
drab, they are impressive and interesting nonetheless.
The center would have later
controversies over a proposal to erect an office tower over Radio
City Music Hall, and the sale of much of the ownership of the
center to the Japanese, but nothing was as publicly scandalous
as the Rivera episode.
What was worse, however, was
the center's decision in 1986 to close its observatory atop 30
Rockefeller Center to provide more space for its Rainbow Room
and Rainbow Grill restaurant/lounge complex. The multi-level observatory
was the best in the city. Most architecture critics were too busy
raving about the refurbished Rainbow Room to notice the loss.
Patrons of the restaurants have views but they are constrained
and in no way comparable to the unrestricted vistas that the observatory
In an article in the November
11, 2003 edition of The New York Post, Steve Cuozzo reported
that "Rob Speyer, head of New York operations for Tishman
Speyer, which owns Rockefeller Center with Chicago's Crown family,"
said the observatory will reopen in 2005 under a new plan that
calls for an entrance on West 50th Street that will lead to a
mezzanine where elevators will ascend to the 67th floor and its
"fantastic 16-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows." The article
did not indicate whether the new public access will be allowed
to the observatory's great outdoor terraces and rooftop. The new
plan is subject to approval by the city's Landmarks Preservation
In a March 11, 2005 article
in The New York Times, David Dunlap reported that the observatory
will reopen in the fall of 2005 with a $14 admission charge. He
noted that visitors will board elevators "with glass ceilings
and watch the ascent along illuminated shafts to the 67th floor
where they will find indoor observation areas," adding that
"escalators will take them higher yet, to outdoor terraces
on the 69th floor, shielded from the wind by new eight-and-a-half-foot-high
glass barriers." "But the 70th-floor summit, 850 feet
above the street, will still be completely open to the elements,"
he continued, noted that the observatory was closed in 1986.
The Top of the Rock observatory
did open at the end of 2005 at a reported cost of about $75 million
with tickets available online for specific times.
In the old days, the trip to
the observatory was in taking an elevator in the main lobby of
the building. Now the observatory has its own special entrance
on West 50th Street that is very large and lavish with a huge
chandelier in the entrance that leads to very nice graphic displays
of the history of the building. On the second floor of this "entrance,"
visitors walk over a girder flanked by glass flooring that reveals
construction workers below, a very neat and impressive bit of
Visitors are then ushered into
one of two small elevators with glass roofs for rides up an illuminated
elevator shaft to arrive at the bottom of the three-level observatory
atop the building. Visitors are at first struck by the stunning
large glass prism walls at this level that has very high ceilings
and very tall windows.
Escalators then take visitors
up one level where there are outdoor promenades with large glass
walls and a gift shop.
Detail of 30 Rockefeller Plaza facade showing textures of limestone
Finally, one can walk up one
flight to the roof that apart from some high-tech antennas has
unobstructed views in all directions, the best in the city and
well worth the more than $15 price of admission. A few years later, however, the price of admission had climbed to $25 for adults.
The center survives, of course,
but much of its success had less to do with its art program than
with its urban design, its location as the city's prime office
market shifted uptown after World War II and with its maintenance
program, widely regarded as the best in the real estate industry.
Interestingly, the sunken plaza
was planned primarily to lure customers down to the center's extensive
underground concourses. Two large restaurants flank its north
and south sides and the sunken plaza is used as an outdoor cafe
when the skating rink is closed. The concourses, which are also
tied in to the subway system, never became prime
retail spaces, but are relatively attractive.
The Channel Gardens promenade, shown
at the left, from Fifth Avenue down to the sunken plaza constitute
probably the city's finest public space despite its relatively
small size. Wonderful, very animated fountainheads, sculpted by
RenÚ Chambellan, who also was a major designer for the
Chanin Building on West 42nd Street, another Art Deco masterpiece,
are surrounded by benches and lush landscaping that is changed
seasonally. The flagstone promenade is lined with consistent retail
frontages and the spatial relationships are cozy despite the vertiginous
30 Rockefeller Center tower. At Christmas time, of course, the
center's enormous lighted Christmas Tree, placed above the fire-carrying
Prometheus on Rockefeller Plaza, the three-block-long private,
north-south street that the center created, makes the promenade/sunken
plaza the world's most spectacular and popular hearth.
Taking a cue from the ring
of flags around the sunken plaza, the center installed fixed banners
on all the lampposts around its properties on both sides of the
Avenue of the Americas. The banners definitely enliven the streetscape
and are occasionally changed, but sadly their design has not always
been inspired and free-flying flags would have been more attractive,
although obviously more expensive to maintain.
When GE decided to replace
the large red RCA sign on the north and south sides near the top
of 30 Rockefeller Center with its own red GE sign, it miffed some
traditionalists who had for decades referred to 30 Rockefeller
Plaza as the RCA Building. Amusingly, RCA was originally the lead
tenant in the tall, but slender Art Deco tower at 570 Lexington
Avenue that has served as the campanile for St. Bartholomew's
Episcopal Church on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets.
When RCA was lured to Rockefeller Center, its building became
the GE building. That building recently was donated to Columbia
University after GE put its sign up at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, bringing
a historical cycle full-circle. The GE sign is no improvement
over the RCA sign. There is nothing wrong with placing a well-designed
logo atop a building, but these Art Deco-style thin font signs
simply were and are intrusive, tasteless and inappropriate. One
can excuse the somewhat similar Radio City Music Hall sign because
it is a marquee and because it's not as highly visible. When you've
got the goods, as Rockefeller Center does, you don't have to flaunt
The 5,960-seat Radio City Music
Hall was one of two theaters originally built at the center. The
other, the 3,509-seat RKO Roxy was later called the Center Theater,
but was razed in 1954 for the new U.S. Rubber Company Building
in the center, which is now named the Simon & Schuster Building.
Roxy was the nickname of Samuel Lionel Rothafel who had built
the very large and famous Roxy movie theater, then the world's
largest, in 1927 on 50th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.
The Roxy, which featured the Roxyettes chorus line that set the
precedent for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, was subsequently
razed as have been most of the city's greatest movie palaces,
a preservation horror story that in its aggregate was even worse
than the loss of the former Pennsylvania Railroad Station.
Radio City Music Hall continues
to be one of the city's great tourist magnets, but is more impressive
for its scale than its decor, which was coordinated by designer
Donald Deskey. The large mural, entitled “Quest for the Fountain
of Eternal Youth,” over the grand lobby staircase is by Ezra
Winter. Yasuo Kuniyoshi decorated the women's room and Stuart
Davis the men's room, the latter mural entitled “Men Without
Women.” Louis Bouche's murals of American scenes against
a black background in the downstairs lounge was designed to encourage
patrons to be quiet. Paul Manship designed the bas reliefs on
the orchestra doors. Shortly before the theater opened, Roxy removed
three statues of naked women by William Zorach, Given Lux and
Robert Laurent because he thought they might be controversial.
The art program for the theater was ambitious at least in concept
if not execution, but it is the theater itself that is the most
impressive achievement. Its enormous semi-circular proscenium
arch is banded with colored lights behind each band to permit
the theater's “color orchestrator” to “paint”
the sunrise that the stage abstractly looks like. With three very
deep, but relatively shallow mezzanines, the auditorium lessens
the vastness of its space by extended its stage along its sides.
Real estate holdouts and difficult
economic times prevented the center from achieving a more symmetrical
unity. The south end of Rockefeller Plaza sorely needs to be tied
into the center and its northward expansion was blocked by holdouts.
The two low-rise bases on Fifth Avenue of the International Building
mirror the British Empire and La Maison Franšaise buildings
on the block to the south creating a superbly consistent and rhythmic
modulation that ideally could have been extended.
Overall, this pinstripe enclave is
rather conservative and somber, yet its glories far outweigh its
imperfections, especially given the historic context of the Depression
when it was built. Its wonderful statue of Atlas, by Lee Lawrie,
shown at the right, not only is very impressive but it also provides
much needed space to appreciate the glories across Fifth Avenue
of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral.
In the mid-90’s, the Japanese
owners realized that they had paid too much for their interest
in the center and a battle ensued over its mortgage with David
Rockefeller, then the patriarch of the family, whose younger generation
had forced the sale to get more money, eventually regaining control.
The dignified, homogeneous
character of the huge center was severely diminished by its westward
expansion across the Avenue of the Americas and the generally
inferior architectural quality of that expansion. A new expansion
planned to extend to Seventh Avenue was announced at the beginning
of the 90’s, but was stymied for a few years by the city’s
real estate depression. It promises a return to quality.
In 1997, the center was acquired
by an investment group headed by Tishman Speyer Properties that
launched a major program to upgrade its retail spaces. It lured
Christie's, the famous auction house, from Park Avenue, but in
1998 its proposal to alter some of the center's retail frontage
by enlarging store windows incurred the justified wrath of many
preservationists who felt such changes were not only unnecessary
but a serious encroachment on the aesthetic integrity of the world's
greatest Art Deco urban complex. It proceeded with a major renovation
that included the temporary removal from the sunken plaza of the
Prometheus statue in early 1999 and placement on the sidewalk
in front of the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the opening
of Christie's at 20 Rockefeller Plaza in late April, 1999, with
a new and large, colorful abstract mural by Sol Lewitt in the
lobby. The concourse spaces around the sunken plaza were also
What would New York City be
without Rockefeller Center's famous Christmas Tree, shown above?
Not as joyous.
What would New York City be
with Puppy, Jeff Koons's marvelous botanical sculpture, shown
above, that was installed in the Christmas Tree site in the spring
and summer of 2000? A better place.
What would midtown be without
Rockefeller Center? Not as important and not as great.