The Rockefeller Center’s Rooftop Gardens are a Hidden Urban Treasure
by Jessica Dailey
Image © Rian Castillo
We've written about more rooftop gardens than we can count, but more often than not, these sky-high oases are private terraces atop homes - meaning that regular old people like us never get to experience their green delights. But there is one place in New York City that boasts an entire collection of elaborate rooftop gardens, and every now and then these landscaped escapes are open to the public. For the last 75 years, the Rockefeller Center has maintained impeccably manicured shrubs, flowers, and lawns, making their gardens some of the oldest in the city.
Access to the gardens is rare - mostly reserved for Rockefeller employees - but their secrecy only lends to their allure. We've gathered a collection of stunning images of the gardens, so feast your eyes here while you wait for this rooftop haven to open to the public again.
image © James Maher
The gardens, located atop the British Empire Building, the Maison Francaise, and the setbacks of other central buildings, were planned and built when the Center was first erected. Developer John R. Todd and architect Raymond Hood wanted the buildings’ design to be aesthetically pleasing for the tenants and passers-by, and they felt that the formal gardens would be a special treat for the thousands of employees working in the Center. Originally, they had an even more elaborate idea in mind, envisioning the network of rooftop gardens connected by pedestrian bridges, likening them to the hanging gardens of Babylon.
Just by looking at these images, you can tell that these are not rooftop gardens that were just thrown on top of a building. Created by landscape architect Ralph Hancock, the gardens’ elaborate fountain pools, stone planters, and vegetation are most definitely not the types of structures you see on rooftop gardens today. To support the thousands of tons of extra weight from the pipes, soil, and pumps, the Rockefeller Center’s roofing was reinforced with extra steel.
image © vipnyc
Like we said before, the gardens are closed to the public, but for a few years running, they were opened for the Open House New York weekend, during which many of these pictures were taken. Unfortunately, they have not been a part of OHNY for the last couple years, and it doesn’t look like they will be this year either. But occasionally, companies pay a pretty penny and invite the public into the gardens. They can also be rented for weddings and private events, but we can’t even begin to guess how much that would cost.
NewYorkology unearthed a history book of Rockefeller Center, which revealed that the gardens were originally open to the public, and the operating costs lost the Center $45,000 every year. Here is a passage from the book that describes the gardens as they were built:
Here’s hoping the gardens are opened to the public again soon, or else we might have to find a job at Rockefeller Center.
The roofs on the four low buildings on Fifth were done up in styles appropriate to the buildings’ themes — cobblestones from the streets of Italian towns and two stone plaques from the Roman Forum framed the plantings on the Palazza d’Italia, for instance, and the British Empire’s Building’s umbrella-topped garden tables, where tenants could take tea in clement weather, were surrounded by well-trimmed yews and other hedge plants. But the gardens meandering around the eleventh-floor setback, on the RCA building, 140 feet above street level, were so lavish they made the tops of the low buildings look like suburban backyards.
The Rockefeller Center's Rooftop Gardens are a Hidden Urban Treasure | Inhabitat New York City