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Rockefeller Center: City Within A City

Jeffrey Syken

“...They all laughed at Rockefeller Center now they’re fighting to get in...”

These lyrics to a song Fred Astaire sang in the 1937 Hollywood musical entitled: Shall We Dance, pretty well sum up the story of Rockefeller Center. Conceived in the heyday of the 1920s economic boom but built in the depths of the Great Depression, critics scoffed at the idea of such a large commercial project – the largest ever conceived, saying it was a “profitless pit” for Mr. Rockefeller and his family fortune. They may have had a point in 1930, but by 1937 when these words were first sung, Rockefeller Center had proved the skeptics wrong and indeed, the public and corporate America was rushing, if not fighting, to “get in.” The annual lighting ceremony of the communal Christmas tree in front of “30 Rock” has become a New York City tradition and the tree itself the focus of the holiday season, attracting tourists and native New Yorkers alike.

By January 1941 the complex was near full occupancy with the likes of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), American Rubber Co., Eastern Airlines, Shell Oil and the Associated Press as prime tenants. It was the greatest attraction in the land, even surpassing Niagara Falls as a tourist destination. Opened in 1932, Radio City Music Hall - with the world’s largest theater - had become the “Showplace of the Nation.” First conceived as a joint-venture to bring the Metropolitan Opera to a worthy home and serve as centerpiece to a retail and commercial complex, “Black Tuesday” (October 29th 1929) ended that dream, but not the idea of a “city within a city” and the desire to put the scores of unemployed back to work. A highly moral man, J.D. Rockefeller, Jr. believed no man was owed a living, but every man had a right to make a living. With Rockefeller Center, he would live his ethos.

The twelve-acre site known as “The Upper Estate” had become the property of Columbia University as part of a land grant from the State of New York in 1810. By the 1920s, the land was quite valuable and Columbia was ready to cash-in. With the depression came an abandonment of the opera project and a fleeing of financiers. Heir to the great Standard Oil fortune, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. went it alone selling his own stock at a significant loss to personally finance the construction. Without his “altruism and hard cash,” Rockefeller Center would simply not exist. Aside from the great Art Deco architecture, the complex is an open-air museum featuring some of the greatest artworks of the period by the top artists of the day, both within and without. For this, an additional five percent was added to the cost of the complex to “make it beautiful.”

Thank you Mr. Rockefeller.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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