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Rockefeller Center’s Art Deco Marvel: A Virtual Tour

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With New Yorkers self-quarantining, Rockefeller Center conjures up the promise of life returning to normal someday and the unshakable glory of the city. It was New York’s Depression-era version of building the pyramids. When it opened during the 1930s, the critic Lewis Mumford heaped abuse on it, then seemed to forget that he had ever said anything bad after it became a beloved emblem of Art Deco-era Manhattan and a Midtown magnet.

Or as the famous Gershwin song from the time put it, “they all laughed at Rockefeller Center, now they’re fighting to get in.”

Not at the moment, of course. This is the latest in a series of condensed and edited architectural walks around town, which for the time being I am conducting with architects and others virtually, meaning via phone and Google maps. They’re meant to be consumed virtually, too.

Daniel Okrent is many things — a prolific historian, co-writer of the hit comedy revue “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” an inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball and the first public editor of The New York Times. He also happens to have written the book on Rockefeller Center: “Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.

He suggested we “meet” on Fifth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets, at the entrance to the Channel Gardens, the pedestrian passage that declines toward the skating rink, framing a postcard view of 30 Rock, the skyscraper formerly known as the RCA Building.

Michael Kimmelman Why is it called the Channel Gardens?

Daniel Okrent It’s named after the English Channel because it is flanked by two six-story buildings called the British Empire Building, to the north, and La Maison Française, to the south. To attract tenants, Rockefeller Center advertised itself as a hub for international trade. Congress actually passed a bill in 1932 making these buildings a free port, which enabled importers to bring goods in duty free and store them on the premises — a commercial masterstroke. Another masterstroke by the developers was the decision to rent the second floor of the building just north of these two — the one guarded by Lee Lawrie’s famous “Atlas” sculpture — to the United States Passport Service for $1 a year. The presence of the passport office helped fill the center’s rental spaces with steamship companies, airlines, consulates, luggage stores and travel agencies.

I remember as a child getting my passport at the office. My mother would take me to Rockefeller Center, we’d eat at Schrafft’s, and if she was browsing in Saks, we walked back to the subway via the Channel Gardens.

Gertrude Stein, in her Gertrude Stein-ish way, said the Channel Gardens view was “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen ever seen ever seen.” Raymond Hood, who led the team of architects that designed Rockefeller Center, thought the slope downhill would help draw people from Fifth Avenue into the complex.

The shift in grade does act like a portal.

Hood had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It’s significant that he didn’t do a classic, triumphal arch. He designed a modern garden walkway, human-scaled, like the buildings on either side of it. Putting up these two six-story buildings on Fifth Avenue seemed incredibly uneconomical even at the time. But Hood — along with Todd and Rockefeller, the other key figures behind Rockefeller Center — wanted to break up the massing of the giant development, to make it less monolithic, more coherent and inviting.

You’re talking about John R. Todd, the developer, and John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Family archivists call him Junior, so I do too. Junior set aside millions of dollars for the gardens, reflecting pools and art — works like Rene Paul Chambellan’s bronze fountainhead sculptures of mermaids and tritons in the Channel Gardens. Decorating a commercial development with gardens and pools and sculpture was unheard-of back then.

What was on the site before?

Since the early 19th century, Columbia University had owned the land — 12 acres bounded by Sixth and Fifth Avenues and 49th and 51st Streets. By the 1920s Fifth and Madison Avenues were booming, but Columbia had let the property go to seed. It was flophouses, whorehouses and speakeasies. At the time the Metropolitan Opera was looking for some place to build a new home and its trustees approached Junior about acquiring the site. He didn’t care much for opera but was a great benefactor of the city. So he negotiated a 99-year lease with the university, with the idea that the Met would build the opera house. The next day, pretty much, the stock market crashed, and the Met’s trustees, who were very rich people, claimed poverty. Couldn’t Junior build the opera house for them? He hit the roof — to the degree that a man so mild could hit the roof.

So he dropped the opera idea, and in the teeth of the Depression decided to become a commercial developer.

I’ve read that Rockefeller Center trailed only the federal government as an employer during those years, accounting for as many as 225,000 jobs, if you include suppliers mining iron ore in Alabama and copper in Arizona, workers fabricating windows in Pennsylvania, etc.

The center accounted for as many as 75,000 jobs in New York alone. After the Empire State Building was completed in 1932, remember, it was the only private construction project of any size in the city until after the Second World War. There’s a bas-relief near the rear entrance to 630 Fifth Avenue that pays tribute to the workers who built Rockefeller Center, by the well-known sculptor Gaston Lachaise. Although labor and construction prices plummeted during the Depression, Todd and Junior used the opportunity not to cut costs but to spend extravagant amounts on materials like excess structural steel, which they added to various buildings to support lush roof gardens.

The goal was to add luxury and surprise, to enhance the public experience — within a family of materials and forms.

You might say the plan for Rockefeller Center does something similar, fitting itself into the city grid while standing out.

If I had to pick one reason for Rockefeller Center’s success, it’s how it was fitted into the street grid. The Channel Gardens lead down to the skating rink, which originally was conceived as a sunken plaza for high-end shops and restaurants. It was a dead end. It turned out customers didn’t want to climb down a flight of stairs then trudge back out. So the stores and restaurants flopped. Things turned around after they brought in a guy from Cleveland who had figured out a way to maintain artificially refrigerated skating rinks. People were only too happy to pay for the privilege of being the entertainment for passers-by, who loved to watch them.

Meaning the former dead-end plaza was integrated with the flow of the city.

It’s a miraculous place. Like a moment’s pause. Half a block away from the city’s main thoroughfare, with benches where you can stop and sit, and plantings in front of the RCA Building, you feel you’re in Midtown and also apart from it.

You haven’t talked about 30 Rock, or the RCA Building.

I still call it the RCA Building. Can’t help myself. Alice B. Toklas, who visited with Stein, said something like, it’s not the way it goes up into the air, it’s how it comes out of the ground. It rises with an almost physical energy. Hood used the tops of elevator banks as setbacks to let as much light into the office spaces as possible and used the tops of the larger setbacks for gardens. Todd figured tenants would pay another dollar per square foot to have garden access, so he was very happy to let Hood design them.

I like to walk west on 49th Street, around the corner, to the south entrance of the RCA Building, which is decorated with Leo Friedlander’s Art Deco nudes. Junior’s office was on the 56th floor of the RCA building. It was styled like an 18th-century English baronial mansion. His tastes were conservative. He detested the Friedlander nudes here and also the ones on the 50th Street side of the building so much that he refused to enter the building through those doors. But, significantly, he also never ordered the sculptures to be removed. He saw art as a public service. If we continue west on 49th Street, cross Sixth Avenue and then look back up at the third floor of the RCA Building (you don’t really get a clear view otherwise) we can find four bas-reliefs, carved in stone, still hard to see but striking, also by Lachaise. You might well ask, “What are they doing all the way up there?”

The answer is that when Rockefeller Center was built, the elevated train still ran up Sixth Avenue. Hood positioned the Lachaise reliefs so El riders passing through the station could see them.

The train stopped at Rockefeller Center’s most famous building.

A block north on Sixth Avenue, Radio City Music Hall.

Designed by Edward Durell Stone and Donald Deskey.

It was built to outshine the Roxy Theater, which was across Sixth Avenue. The Roxy had 6,200 seats. So Radio City advertised that it had 6,201. To reach that number, they had to include the chairs in front of the mirrors in the ladies’ rooms and the seats in the elevators for the elevator operators.

I gather Radio City bombed at the start.

They put on lavish shows that flopped. Things turned around when they started to focus on movies. But from Day 1 the building was a work of art. Remember Chambellan, who did the bronzes in the Channel Gardens? He did wonderful bas-reliefs on the Sixth Avenue side of the music hall, near 50th Street, that represent various forms of entertainment. My favorite was called “Jewish Vaudevillians.” I can never decide whether it was a tribute or an insult. I can tell you that there isn’t one in 10,000 people today who notices it depicts Jews.

For years I worked across Sixth Avenue in the Time-Life Building and I never noticed Hildreth Meière’s polychrome roundels on the music hall’s south wall, representing Dance, Drama and Song. And farther east on 50th Street the wonderful grillwork covering the fire escapes was Stone’s idea. He was eventually let go, having spent too many hours at the bar of the 21 Club. As one of his colleagues said, “Ed could draw anything except a sober breath.”

Stone went on to team with Philip L. Goodwin and design the Museum of Modern Art’s first purpose-built home on 53rd Street. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Junior’s wife, was a founder of MoMA — one of the great patrons and pioneers of American modernism. Her taste was very different from Junior’s.

There were, at onetime, plans for a triumphal midblock boulevard linking Rockefeller Center with MoMA, which may explain why MoMA is the only major museum that isn’t on a corner or facing a plaza. The boulevard was supposed to extend, northward, the plaza between the RCA Building and the skating rink, culminating in a second plaza that would front the museum. There were also plans for a network of underground concourses, beyond the existing ones at Rockefeller Center, that would have connected the center to Grand Central Terminal, but the owners of Saks thwarted that.

Which brings us to a significant hole in the wall farther east on 50th Street, a vehicle entrance ramp that leads to an underground delivery network — one of the most crucial elements of Rockefeller Center. Trucks delivering to the center’s offices or commercial operations drive down to a turntable that directs delivery vehicles toward different spots below street level, where they unload their goods. This means, along 49th Street and 50th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, unlike in the rest of Midtown, you don’t have double-parked delivery trucks.

It’s part of what makes Rockefeller Center feel like an oasis.

You realize we haven’t even circled one block yet.

So let’s end back at the building on the corner of Fifth Avenue, where “Atlas” lives. They piped the 18th floor for nitrous oxide and compressed air.

Laughing gas?

To entice dentists. Thirty of them signed leases immediately. The developers had a scheme for everything. The south wing of this building was called the Palazzo d’Italia. Like Britain and France, Italy had its own pavilion. This was the 1930s. The original facade of the Italia building had a Pyrex sculpture that included a slogan associated with the Fascists, “Arte e Lavoro, Lavoro e Arte” [“Art and Work, Work and Art”]. It was covered up once the United States entered World War II.

But there’s still a remnant of Fascist Italy. If you cross Fifth Avenue and look back at the building’s roofline you can see four stone bas-reliefs representing different eras in Italian history. Second from the left: Mussolini’s symbol, the fasces.

I hate to give a dictator the last word, so let me ask, what happened with the triumphal boulevard?

The Rockefellers tried for years to make it happen. But the 21 Club was in the way and its owners wouldn’t budge.

No matter how powerful the Rockefellers were, in the end even they were no match for the speakeasy business.


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