The one landmark that has contributed the most to perpetuating the Rockefeller name was originally planned with the name Metropolitan Square. In fact, Rockefeller Center almost did not happen. The fact that it did had as much to do with John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s business savvy as with his single-mindedness. The combination of both gave rise to one of New York's most emblematic cityscapes -- a 20th century architectural triumph, a "city within a city" that attracts millions of visitors and native New Yorkers every year.
In the late 1920s, New York's Metropolitan Opera became interested in the 12 acres of land between 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Midtown Manhattan for the construction of its new home, along with several office towers. The project sought to replace the shabby brownstones and speakeasies in the area with modern skyscrapers, creating a new cultural and commercial center in the heart of the city's fastest growing section. John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose nine-story mansion was just a few blocks away, was no opera fan. But the idea of erecting a modern urban complex was very appealing to him.
After purchasing a lease for the land, Rockefeller suddenly found himself with the entire burden of the project when the Metropolitan Opera withdrew from it after the stock market crash of October 1929. Although the Rockefellers were also hit by "Black Tuesday," losing half their fortune, the 54-year-old heir managed to finance the costly development by agreeing to be personally responsible for the repayment of the loans. In the absence of an opera building, he envisioned a commercial development for the site. In July 1931, work began on the largest private construction project in New York City. Over the course of nine years, in the depth of the Depression, the building of Rockefeller Center would provide employment for 75,000 workers. But the impact of such a massive undertaking was felt even more deeply on the city's morale, boosted by Rockefeller's confident move.
Rockefeller's faith in progress was also evidenced by his choice of a modern architectural style, Art Deco, over his beloved Gothic. Chief architects Raymond Hood, Wallace K. Harrison, and Max Abramovitz, with others designed the complex that consisted of 14 impressive Indiana-limestone buildings, including a 70-story tower soon taken over by RCA (Radio Corporation of America). The vertical thrust of the whole ensemble was meant to symbolize humanity's progress toward new frontiers, a theme dear to Rockefeller, who sought to advance that cause through his philanthropies.
In spite of the initial criticism regarding the design, construction proceeded at a steady pace. Rockefeller -- much like his father at Standard Oil -- thoroughly supervised the details, a golden four-foot ruler always at hand. "Do me the favor of driving down Fifth Avenue … in the front seat of your car so that you may see the high building of Rockefeller Center from that viewpoint all the way down," he once wrote to the main architect in the project. "I did this Sunday and was again impressed with the need of something to extend or improve the outline of the building in its upper portion."
In charge of finding new tenants for the center was Rockefeller's son Nelson, taking on a prominent role in the family business for the first time. Nelson also dealt with the well-known artists hired to grace the buildings and plazas with murals, decorative panels and sculptures, among them the controversial Mexican painter Diego Rivera.
Rockefeller Center was the first development in the world to include offices, retail stores, restaurants, broadcasting studios, and entertainment venues in one complex. Among the latter, Radio City Music Hall (opened in 1932 and recently restored) stunned the audiences of the time with its breathtaking gold-leafed proscenium arch. Another crowd-pleaser, the skating rink, was built in 1936, after Rockefeller discovered that a system had just been invented that would make artificial ice for one of his family's favorite pastimes. New technology was widely used throughout the complex, which for the first time featured high-speed elevators, air conditioning, and an elaborate underground concourse and parking lot. At Rockefeller's request, no desk was placed more than 27 1/2 feet from a window, the maximum distance that would allow for natural light and ventilation.
The Rockefellers' commitment to the brand new center was symbolized by their decision to move the family offices from 26 Broadway to the 56th floor of the RCA building, subsequently known by the deceptively modest name "Room 5600." By the time he drilled the last rivet of the last building, in a ceremony held in November of 1939, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had turned the Rockefeller Center's finances from red to black, ensuring the project’s profitability. This goal was as important to him as that of building an architecturally harmonious complex.
Following the Second World War, Rockefeller Center became the headquarters of the Rockefeller brothers, who purchased it from their father for a small amount in 1948. During the 1950s and 1960s, they would use the family's most visible asset as their launching pad and the locus of their power.
But the family's ties to the Rockefeller Center would not withstand the changing economic times. In 1989, just four years after it had become a national historic landmark, those ties were abruptly and quite publicly broken when the Rockefellers sold 80 percent of their stake to a Japanese real estate company, Mitsubishi Estate, for $1.4 billion. Unable to make up for the declining rents in the midst of a real estate recession, the new owner filed for bankruptcy in 1995, setting off a crisis that would mark the Rockefeller Center's darkest hour.
An investor group that included David Rockefeller was eventually able to reclaim the property, and has sought to renew its appeal to tenants and visitors by attracting more upscale shops and restaurants. Although somewhat controversial, the renovations are certain to contribute even more to the mass appeal of this "mid-Manhattan town square," which for over 60 years has endeared itself to residents and out-of-towners alike.