THE ROCKEFELLER CENTER
First Stage (1931-1940). Part One.
The birt of a megaproject.
History, that includes almost five decades, will be divided in two parts:
The part one will include from 1931 to 1940, the years of the construction of the fourteen original buildings. We will talk about of the Center's site history, and the first project in this land for the new Metropolitan Opera House headquarters. Soon we will talk about of the conception and evolution of the project that would become the Rockefeller Center, and soon will speak of the construction of RKO and RCA Buildings and Radio City Music Hall until the dedication of US Rubber Building, in 1940, all of these buildings, in Art Deco style.
The part two, that we will speak in some weeks, will be speak of the of the Rockefeller Center's 1940s-1970s extension, under the canons of the International Style Modenism. This new age began in the end of World War II, in 1945, with the start of the construction of the Esso Building, until the construction of the monolithic X, Y and Z (Exxon, McGraw-Hill and Celanesse)Buildings, between 1968 and 1974.
The land in the early times
Like the Empire State Building, the history of the parcel where the Rockefeller Center is stand, also it has a little history. Until the end of 18th Century, the terrain was occupied by numerous farms, until in the first years of 19th Century, the land was the site of the Elgin Botanical Garden, directed by the Dr. Hosack. A site where species of plants and flowers were cultivated, local and foreign, supporting the investigation of new vegetal species. It was a favorite place of many curious and visitors by the botanical wonders that were there.
The Elgin Botanical Garden was sold to New York State in 1810 and "was donated to Columbia College in 1814 on condition that it erect a new campus there within twelve years. The college succeded in removing the restrictions and began to develop the property in the late 1830s" (Stern, Robert A. M., Gilmartin, Gregory, Mellins, Thomas. New York 1930. Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars. New York. Rizzoli. 1987. Page 628).
The lands were divided in lots to built luxury houses and included from the Villa to the Sixth Avenues and 48th to 54th Streets. It was called the "Upper Estate".
"In 1854 Columbia finally commisioned Richard Upjohn to designed new facilities on the site, and the site for St. Patrick's Cathedral, (...) was purchased in the expectation that it would overlook the college gardens. but Upjohn's designs proved too expensive for Columbia, wich instead moved two blocks east, into the former Institute for the Deaf and Dumb" (Stern. 1987. Pages 628-629).
After the Civil War, luxurius apartments house were built in the Columbia University's parcel , the majority of them enters the 3 and 5 floors. For the early 20th Century, the area were in the heart of the rising Midtown Manhattan's new commercial district: than 200 apartments buildings were surrounded, in the the Fifth Avenue, by the St. Patrick's Cathedral, and many luxury shops and boutiques; In the Sixth Avenue, the Sixth Avenue's EL and many little shops, bookstores, taverns and dinner restaurants. For 1920s, Stern says, the land "was a seedy neighborhood sprinkled with speakeasies, and its more than 200 buildings were providing Columbia with a mere $300,000 in annual rent" (Stern. 1987. Page 629).
Here a picture of the site in summer 1931, before of the construction of Rockefeller Center
A new headquarters for the Metropolitan Opera House
But in january 1928 the Opera House choose the Columbia Univerity's lands, between Fifth to Sixth Avenues and 48th ton 51st Streets for built its new headquarters, the Opera House, as Donald Martin Reynolds (1984) says, "retained the fashionable architect Benjamin Wistar Mooris, whose works included the Cunard Building at 25 Broadway, the addition to the Morgan library at 29 East Thirty-sixth Street, and the American Women's Association Clubhouse, 353 West Fifty-seventh Street, to develop recommendations for the new opera house. In adition to the opera house, Wistar's plan included a landscaped plaza to enhance a cultural atmosphere and to produce revenue to support the enterprice. thos more ambitious project was influenced by the succesful Grand Central Station complex, and it was planned to involve tall commercial buildings, fashionable shops, gardens and terraces; and to allow for efficent circulation of traffic, a street, covered parking, open and underground walkways, and brigdes" (Reynolds, Donald Martin. The architecture of New York City. History and views of important structures, sites and symbols. New York. Macmillan Publishing company. 1984. Page. 250).
The Benjamin Morris's Metropolitan Opera
And a aerial perspective of the project, with tall 30 to 50-story skyscrapers. 1928.
The Opera House find the help of many sponsors by give the money for its new headquartes and found the assistance of John D. Rockefeller, Jr, who give the money to finance it. He, the son of the magnanimous Standard Oil's tycoon, John D. Rockefeller, and founder of Rockefeller Institute, view on the Morris project tyhe best opportunity of development a big business on real estate enterprises and he decided to take the control.
In August 1928, Rockefeller and Columbia University, the owner of the parcel, "had reached agreement on their epoch-making real estate deal. Rockefeller agreed to lease the entire Upper Estate for twenty-four years at an average anual rent of $3.8 million, more than twelve times what Columbia was currently collecting in rents" (Karp, Walter. The Center. A history and guide to Rockefeller Center. New York. American Heritage Publishing Company. 1982. Page 14). The new centrer was called Metropolitan Square.
From Metropolitan Square to Radio City.
Many changes were made on the original Morris project since Rockefeller took the control of the project. Rockefeller commisioned a associated architects, like Cass Gilbert, Harvey W. Corbett, Todd Robertson and Wallace Harrison, who changed the design of the buildings: the tallest skyscraper that whould to be buildt fot Fifth Avenue replaced with two buildings of smaller height, and the facades of the Metropolitan Opera House and other buildings modified, now, in Art Deco style. Here a picture of Metropolitan Square new rendering in the Summer 1929.
In October 1929 L. Andrew Reinhard and Henry Hofmeister "were appointed architects of the project with Benjamin W. Morris, Harvey W, Corbett, and Raymond Hood named consultants. Morris resigned in December on the withdrawal of the opera company" (Balfour, Alan. Rockefeller Center. Architecture as theater. New York. McGraw-Hill. 1978. Page 27). When the stock market crash the Metropolitan Opera House leave the project and this fact determinated the revision of plan and modified the project. When the new project for Metropolitan plaza were showed in January 1930, the famous G-3 plan, the former Opera House were replaced for the tall 70 o more stories office building; the future RCA Building.
In december 1929, Rockefeller find new tenants for the new G-3 plan. He talk with General Electric, and Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and its affiliates, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum. The negociations with these companies began in February 1930, a same time the G-3 project were unveiled.
As Robert Stern (1987) says:
"That same month, Reinhard & Hofmeister drew up Todd's new conception of the project, a design intended to lure the prospective tenant by offering him an irresistibly prominent office building. The scenographic secuence of the pedestrian promenade and public plaza, once intended the honor the lyric arts, now culminate in a fifty-story office building dedicated to the more popular arts purveyed by RCA. Department stores flanked it, private streets giving them four full exposures. Four thirty-story office buildings were located on the north and south blocks, two of them flanking the plaza, the others on on Sixth Avenue. A nine-story loft building faced St. Patrick's Cathedral, and twin nine-story buildings framed by promenade" (Stern, Robert A. M., Gilmartin, Gregory, Mellins, Thomas. New York 1930. Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars. New York. Rizzoli. 1987. Page 638).
"As negociations proceded with the radio interests, Owen Young, the chairman of General Electric and a personal friend of Rockefeller, development the concept of an entertaiment complex embracing opera, theater, cinema, and a symphony hall, all to be broadcast worldwide by NBC. Young's idea was to bring the Metropolitan Opera back into the development. He was convinced that "the time has come when an organization that serves the country as completely and effectively as the Radio Corporation does can no longer be considered apart from opera, from sympony, and education... Due to inventions like the Victrola and the radio, the costs of opera can now be spread over wide geographical areas and the best singers and artists can be retained at salaries which single opera can no longer afford to pay". The rfinal agreement, signed on June 4, 1930, called for a two office buildings -one for RCA, another for RKO- and four theaters, for a total of 1.5 million square feet of space. The theaters would replace the department stores of G-3" (Stern. 1987. Page 639).
The complex was to be called Radio City, because RCA, RKO and NBC stood the headquarters in the new project. Another companies was intention to give office in the new complex, one of this, was the Rockefeller's Chase National Bank. Stern says:
"Radio City also resulted in the dicision to finally purchase the lots along Sixth Avenue that had been included in some schemes but were now essential; while the auditoriums could be accommodated on the less attractive midblock sites, the theaters would need marquesines on the avenue to atract passersby from the theater district, a blick west. The project finally include 550,000 square feet of ground, "equivalent to approximately 10 Graybar Buildings sites or 13 Chrysler Building sites." Aside from theaters and shops, the scheme include 'two hundred thousand feet of office space more than... the Empire State and the Bank of Manhattan Buildings togheter...'" (Stern. 1987. Page 639).
In the last monts of 1930 and first months of 1931, the plan of Radio City were modified. The Associated Architects (Raymond Hood, Wallace Harrison, and others) redesigned the Radio City with a uniform Art Decon designed, influenced in the Hood's Daily News Building, and following the requirements of 1916's Zoning Law. A innovative design were include a 20-story oval building, in the site of the future embassies buildings and Promenade. The RCA Building were redesigned and the reknowed actual design, and added more floors from 50 to 70-stories.
The final design of the now renamed Rockefeller Center were unveiled to the press on March 5, 1931.
After many alteration of the office buildings, in October, 1931, "the British Empire Building and La Maison Francaise replaced the oval building in the design, with a return to the earlier strangement of an axial promenade flanked by low buildings ending in the plaza" (Balfour, Alan. Rockefeller Center. Architecture as theater. New York. McGraw-Hill. 1978. Page 44).
Preliminary studies for RCA Building. Raymond Hood. 1931. One of these alternative studies for the facade show a imitation of McGraw-Hill Building style.
Model of the RCA Building. December 1931
The urban impact of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan skyline. Late 1931.