It was the largest private building project undertaken in modern times. Today John D. Roosevelt’s vision sits on twenty-two acres between 48th and 51st Streets and between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan. It has nineteen buildings total, housing NBC’s television studios, the venerable Radio City Music Hall, offices, shops, restaurants and an ice skating rink. It is a masterpiece of art deco architecture and boasts incredible pieces of commissioned art. Every holiday season for the past eighty years thousands of New Yorkers and tourists gather to watch as a one-hundred foot Norway Spruce is unveiled and lit to mark the beginning of the season.
This is Rockefeller Center. The land upon which the original fourteen buildings sit was leased from Columbia University in 1928 when the original plan of building and Opera House for the Metropolitan Opera was conceived. After the stock market crash of 1929 however the Met kept delaying the project and ultimately John D. Rockefeller felt he had to move on without them. In 1930 ground was broken. During the hardest economic times the United States had seen thus far, his project – his “city within a city” – employed 40,000 people.
John D. was a passionate patron of the arts and envisioned his project showcasing the murals, paintings, reliefs and sculptures of the artists of that time. His wife and his son Nelson shared in his passion. Nelson was charged to find an artist to paint a mural for the great entry way in center’s main building, 30 Rockefeller Center. He first approached Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso who were both up and coming important modernists for what he hoped would be an important piece of art and quite the coup in attracting these two European men. Both declined. Through his mother he discovered Diego Rivera and admired the man’s edgy and politically charged murals. Rivera accepted the commission and began work on “Man at the Crossroads” in 1932. The artist’s vision was for the work to depict the social, political, industrial and scientific possibilities of the 20th Century.
Included in the sixty-three foot long mural was a scene of a giant May Day demonstration of workers marching with red banners and a clear and recognizable portrait of Vladimir Lenin leading the march. Understandably this image concerned not just the Junior Rockefeller but his father as well and debates ran rampant through the newspapers and streets of New York causing controversy around John D.’s overall vision. Nelson approached Rivera and asked him to replace Lenin’s face with that of an unknown; Rivera refused. Instead the artist offered to balance the painting with the image of Abraham Lincoln; not good enough. The Rockefellers insisted the artist remove Lenin’s face and work was halted on the mural. The painting was covered and remained covered until 1934 when workers were instructed to demolish and remove it from the building.
Rivera returned to Mexico in 1934 where he re-created the painting and renamed it “Man, Controller of the Universe”. It hangs today in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.
In place of the Rivera work Jose Maria Sert (1874-1945) was commissioned in 1934 and to this day his mural “American Progress” graces the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center. Next to one of the panels the artist included the words to the Sermon on the Mount. The entire work was restored to its original glory in 2009.
Despite the Rivera debacle Rockefeller remained committed to filling his project with art – on the walls, in the masonry and all around the gardens and majestic promenade.
One of the most prominent and identifying features is the eighteen foot high and eight ton “Statue of Prometheus” lording over the sunken plaza at Rockefeller Center. Paul Manship (1885-1966) received the commission in 1933 after presenting the “Prometheus Maquette” to the Rockefeller Committee. It is said that after the Statue of Liberty, the “Statue of Prometheus” is perhaps the most celebrated piece of art in America.
30 Rockefeller Center is known world-wide and represents the center as a whole, but there is another, equally important building that is part of this complex that draws more tourists and locals every year than even 30 Rock. Radio City Music Hall sits on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, its marquee a full city block long. Since the original property had been slated for an Opera House, performances attainable only to the very rich it was timely and poignant that the project include a theater to offer high quality entertainment at affordable prices for everyone to enjoy. Rockefeller partnered with RCA and the theater impressario Roxy Rothafel to form a vision of a theater “unlike any in the world”. The result was Radio City Music Hall, the largest indoor theater in the world which opened in 1934. In keeping with the style of the center as a whole the building is a magnificently adorned with art outside and inside and built in art deco style.
I sat at the foot at one of the “Mankind Figures” in the Channel Gardens last spring in the evening as the sun set and the lights began to glow. I watched as hundreds of tourists milled about, cameras flashing and the flags waiving around the plaza. I was seeing this place with new eyes; when I lived in New York I barely gave Rockefeller Center a thought. Here was an obvious tribute to industrialism in America, built at a time when it seemed everything was going to hell in a handbasket. Yet this complex – its twenty-acres, its artwork and its now nineteen buildings spanned past the Great Depression and through some of this country’s most successful economic boom times. Here I was sitting, in 2011 in the midst of yet another economic disaster for this country and yet Prometheus is strong and capable overlooking this place and entire city, exuding strength and confidence. I sat among the buildings that saw the glory days of radio and the birth of television. The importance and historic significance of Rockefeller Center is not lost on this visitor and it continues to be celebrated as one of Manhattan’s treasures.