Even as a kid, Rockefeller Center thrilled me and it still does. It seemed to me the center of the civilized world: the swanky Rainbow Room, the deco design of the towers which reached to the sky, the skaters in front of the Prometheus statue, the dressed-up office workers and shoppers, even the subterranean shopping arcades. It was a chance to brush up against the Mad Man world of the ’60s and ’70s.

But I wonder how it came about.

What would be the response to such a proposal today?

At a used bookstore I came across this:

Nelson Rockefeller calls it “A story of Planning and Building”. But it’s also a story of the promise of a new technology, of optimism and of fear, of destruction and rebirth. It’s a relic of another time and of other attitudes toward the city.

Rockefeller Center was built during the Depression and when the war in Europe had begun. The project began during a boom time. Nelson Rockefeller, in his remarks at the ceremony when the last rivet was driven: “It’s a little difficult to recapture the flamboyant spirit of that era, when everything was going up and up: stock market, business, hopes, expectations, schemes, projects, everything”. Then came the Depression – “the crash and the collapse. Everything was changed.”

John D. Rockefeller had bought the site – three city blocks full of tenements and speakeasies – with plans to demolish them for a new home for the Metropolitan Opera. 228 brownstones, with 5,000 tenants and an estimated 1,000 speakeasies, came down.

Here’s how the French newspaper Le Jour described the scene in an article dated August 19, 1934: “A sort of Montmartre, populated by artists, writers, journalists, that is, men of vivid imagination, little money, and great optimism.”(Of course many women lived in the district as well and many of them lived in bordellos.)

Imagine if today the family of an oil tycoon bought up a neighborhood, evicted thousands of people, demolished hundreds of brownstones, and built office towers. Those days are over. Here in San Francisco, the Rockefellers duplicated their NY success with the Embarcadero Center, but displaced only the wholesale produce market.

Back to New York. The Opera decided to stay put, and Rockefeller now owned a neighborhood. Or, more specifically, Columbia University owned the site, as it still does, with a ground lease held by the Rockefellers.

Fortunately for the Rockefellers, a new technology came along to serve as the economic engine of the project. Radio: the dotcom of the day.

Nelson Rockefeller, again: “The answer was – radio. Opera was the great old art; radio the new – the latest thing in this contemporary world of ours, the newest miracle of this scientific era, young and expanding.” So RCA, Radio Corporation of America became the anchor of the project.

David Sarnoff, president of RCA, saw more miracles to come: “And to this modern means of carrying sound through the air there is now being added the miracle of sight. Someday, we hope, television may enable everyone, everywhere, to see the handiwork of man.”

The Last Rivet, the commemorative program for the opening of Rockefeller Center, is a collection of speeches given on that day and it touches not only on quaint concepts like Growth and Art and Progress but also on war and peace. Specifically peace between Capital and Labor, but also about the war clouds in Europe. John D. Rockefeller: “The business men of this country want peace, peace among themselves, peace with government, peace with labor. They are tired, and the public is tired, of strife and discord, doubt and uncertainty, at home and abroad. They yearn for peace.”

Rockefeller Center: worth the bother? I admit it’s a silly question. First because Rockefeller Center exists and it’s too late to ask it.

But also because, as with any project, there were winners and losers. Columbia University is winning to this day. So is the City of New York (according to Mayor LaGuardia, in his remarks, the assessed value of the site jumped from $32 million in 1928 to $86 million on opening day. 20 years ago that was $1.6 billion.)

Sure there was displacement and buildings came down. Those buildings look “historic” in old photographs but most of them were less than fifty years old. A raffish enclave was lost, with its bars and whorehouses.

The small businesses really made out. A contemporary observer wrote “If there is one thing calculated to bring tears of joy to the eyes of a small business man, it is to hold a lease on a piece of property which is being assembled by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.”

And there was controversy about the design. Of all the people who hated the plans for Rockefeller Center–and almost everyone did–none hated them more than Lewis Mumford, writing in the New Yorker.
He assaulted its “absence of scale,” its promotion of “super-congestion,” even a perceived moral turpitude evidenced by its “failure to recognize civic obligations. … If Radio City is the best our architects can do with freedom,” Mumford thundered, “They deserve to remain in chains.”

Many of my friends would be at the barricades against such a proposal today.

Me, I agree with The Last Rivet:

“Rockefeller Center is more than a triumph of architecture. It is a triumph of the human will. It passes on to future generations the heritage of our nation’s pioneers. It expresses the modern age. It is a living symbol of the spirit of America.”