Rockefeller Center

A TIME history video discussing the picture from 1932 of the men eating lunch on top of the construction of the RCA Building.

A City within a City: Developing Culture in a Dark Time

From the time the idea came about in 1929 until the completion in 1940, Rockefeller Center created economic prosperity, initiated by John D. Rockefeller, creating a city within a city.  From providing jobs for people during the Great Depression, to drawing in hundreds of thousands of people a day, Rockefeller center was always booming.  Architects and construction worked together to design and bring to life infrastructure that was never seen before, proving that New York can still prosper in times of despair.  With all the opportunity for work that Rockefeller Center provided for economic prosperity in creating thousands of jobs, some of this opportunity had gone to artists who contributed to making Rockefeller Center the cultural center that it remains today.

Located in midtown Manhattan, Rockefeller Center was conceived during a time of economic prosperity, the Roaring Twenties.   On October 28th, 1929, the day before the stock market crash, the architects were assigned by developer John R. Todd to the construction of Rockefeller Center. The two architects were L. Andrew Reinhard and Henry Hofmeister.[1]  Their first design was brought about in January of 1930, but a design was not settled on until 1932, by these men.  In such a time of despair, high unemployment rates, this construction did not seem to have a bright future, since people did not have money to preliminary rent out parts of the buildings.  However, Rockefeller wanted to be able to provide for these people.

At the time that building began on July 22, 1931, the New York economy was terrible.  When construction began, 1/3 of the manufacturing firms were out of business and 64% of the construction workers were out of work.[2]  The times were hard but the potential failing of Rockefeller Center that the depression framed compared to the success Rockefeller Center could have had during the Roaring Twenties caused some skepticism.  However, Rockefeller was able to defy these odds of failing.  Once the design was agreed upon in 1932, the construction began.  Since this was during the Great Depression, it caused the cost of buildings to be at a new low, along with technological advances from World War I, the number of employees hovered around 40,000-60,000  jobs. [3] The contractors excavated 1.25 million tons of debris, using 88,000 tons of cement, and set 39,000,000 bricks.  Contractors also paved a private street, called Rockefeller Plaza.  Rockefeller’s project was the “biggest building project ever undertaken by private capital.”[4] This proves that Rockefeller really had the interest of the people in mind during this process, but not only did Rockefeller have this in mind, but he wanted to be able to keep the principles of manhood alive.[5]  One of these principles was rooted in the fact that the Great Depression took away from the economic prosperity of man.  Therefore, he invested $100,000,000 in Rockefeller Center, and in doing do was able to keep industry flowing for man to be able to provide for himself and his family.

In conjunction with wanting to keep manhood alive, Rockefeller had several motivations for wanting to create Rockefeller Center.  In a newspaper article from 1938, these motivations are listed as: wanting to be the “most inspiring example of urban planning that New York has ever seen,” to be able to “demonstrate faith in the country’s future when everything was doing dead wrong, and to provide work in a time of lengthening breadlines.”[6]  This development was not just a benefit to Rockefeller, but it was seen as an opportunity to help those in need of jobs, which it did.  He wanted to take people out of the life-style that the Great Depression was imposing on the people of breadlines and anguish.  Therefore, he took a duty upon himself in order to improve living conditions for those around him.  Granted he was looking for return for his investment, but he also did see it as his contribution to the public good.  Due to his family line of wealthy from the Oil Industry of his family, he wanted to be able to give back to the people who did not have as much as him.

The skyscraper RCA Building, the tallest in Rockefeller Center, taken April 2005. Wikimedia Commons, no known source.

In the time between 1932 and 1940, 14 buildings had been built, the tallest being the International Building and the RCA Building, which is the center of the all the buildings.  The other buildings surrounded include the RCA Building West, the U.S. Rubber Building, the Center Theater, the Eastern Airlines Building, the Time & Life Building, the La Maison Française, the British Empire Building, the Palazzo d’Italia, the International Building North, the Associated Press Building, the Radio City Music Hall, the RKO Building, and the Esso Building.  These were all showing all the architectural advancements that were made in a time of economic trouble.  Along with the massive buildings, a new form of architecture was designed and created: an underground parking garage.  This garage was the first underground parking garage, having six-levels and being able to hold up to 725 cars.[7]  Not only was creativity coming about through the architecture, but during the construction the tradition of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree came about in 1931.

With most people being negatively affected by the Great Depression, some of the more fortunate men who were actually able to find jobs, thanks to Rockefeller, brought and decorated a 12-foot Christmas tree.  Using paper, tinsel, and tin cans, little was known the impression this would leave on Rockefeller Center.  This tradition instituted by the Rockefeller construction workers became so popular over the years that by1966, the trees used have grown to be about six-stories high, and required a lot of work.  In 10 days, 24 electricians had to work “to string five miles of wire, 1,200 illuminated plastic balls in red, green, blue, and yellow, and 4,000 clear 7-watt lamps” in order to have a ceremony, an event still very popular and attractive today as the tree shows offs its massive height.[8]  This iconic tree is not the only beauty that was created to be seen in Rockefeller Center.

Not only was New York able to work against the Great Depression, but New Yorker’s were also still able to be innovative, still able to show their creative ability.  Alongside the construction workers were artists beginning to make their mark around Rockefeller Center.  The amount of artwork coming about was immense and diverse.  There were many contributors to the artwork.  One of these people was Gaston Lachaise.  Known famously for his female nudity work, he switched his style for his touch on Rockefeller.  For the RCA Building, he created four-bas reliefs, and on the International Building he created two-bas reliefs.  These allegorical works by Lachaise are symbolic of grace and inspiration, both things that Rockefeller was adamant about.[9]

One of the most famous, still standing statutes was made by Paul Manship.  This structure is

The famous Rockefeller Tree at the West end of the Plaza. In front of the tree is the Prometheus by Paul Manship. Picture taken myself in the Ice Rink December 2014.

Prometheus at the west end of the sunken plaza, otherwise known as the ice-skating rink.  Right next to this statute is where the Rockefeller Christmas Tree is placed every year, glorifying the aesthetic this artwork provides.  In front of the statue was placed a fountain.  The Prometheus piece became the 4th most famous piece of sculpture in America.[10]  Another sculptor that had a large impact in art was Lew Lawrie.  Lawrie has 14 pieces across three blocks in Rockefeller Center.  Some of his best known works are Mammoth Bronze Atlas, placed at the International building forecourt, and a 37 foot high statute symbolic at “wisdom” as a god-like figure.  This figure holds a draftsman’s compass.[11]

A different kind of art can be seen in glass sculpture.  The artist responsible for this style is Attilo Piccirilli, one of Rockefeller’s favorite artist designs.  There are two major designs by him, the first being at the Palazzo d’Italia entrance a 10×16 “heroic nude figure of a muscled workman digging with a spade,” but this structure possesses a representation of Italian ideology of fascism, which was negatively viewed in America, therefore posing a problem during World War II because the United States was at war with Italy.  The second, more widely liked piece with no fascist aspects, “depicts a heroic young man pointing the way for a charging charioteer and his horses.”[12]  This was more popular with the people because it represents what New York has always represented, that leadership grows from the youth.  Eventually, over time the roles get switched to the younger people as they grow up and create the world for their time.  This is also representative of Rockefeller Senior and Junior. John D. Rockefeller Senior, by investing in his oil companies and becoming a billionaire, paved the way to show his son, Junior, how to give back to his community.  People during the times would say “Mr. Rockefeller gives visitors dimes; visitors give him dollars.” [13]  Even though this was a mistake, confusing the two generations, it is still applicable because Senior would give people he met dimes, just to share his wealth.  Now, to give back, by being able to create jobs and in turn create Rockefeller Center, Junior worked hard to create it and attracted people who now could afford to come out and see the great Center.  He was the symbolism of a building foundation in order for the people of New York to get back on their feet to help strengthen the economy, even though it seems that he was given back more.

The art in Rockefeller is not just around for aesthetic pleasure, but it also has a purpose.  The four phases that the art is meant to show are: historical background, progress in physical matters, intellectual and spiritual advances, and progress of people as a whole.[14]  In addition to sculpture, murals became another form of popular art to represent these ideals.  In the South and North corridors of the RCA Building, some of these ideals can be found in murals.  One artist is Frank Brandwyn, who painted four murals in these corridors.  His murals show men labor, man being master of the tool and the machine, and “mechanizing labor.”[15]  These murals show the progress of physical matters by going from hand tools to machines, therefore this also is representative of the intellectual advances and progress of man.  Another mural by him is representative of “Ultimate Destiny”, not to dwell on new lessons to learn but to rely on lessons set by man thousands of years ago by “Sermon on the Mount.”[16]  This is pulling in historical background.  The second muralist in these corridors is Jose Maria Sert, whose main focus was to show “forces that destroy peace and happiness and preservation of forces which contribute to welfare of mankind.”[17]  By showing evolution of machinery, medical science, and abolition of slavery, all four phases are again shown within his work.

In addition to the artwork being attractive, there were also very popular attractions.  Just to name a couple, there was the RCA Building rooftop and there is Music Hall.  The RCA Building rooftop was an observation roof.  When people came they paid five cents to go up to the top, five cents to come back down, and there was also food, drink, and souvenir purchases for the average thousand visitors a day.  Not only was this an observatory, there were also gardens decorating rooftops.[18]  In addition to the famous rooftop, there is Radio City Music Hall.  This became famous for the Rockettes’ performance, Ballerinas, and the Orchestra. [19]  The city always had and always will have something to offer to do or to see, showing the values that lie in this city within a city.

The development of Rockefeller Center was a big accomplishment for New York, another milestone on the list of industrial and architectural advancements made by the city.  In a time where the entire country was in despair by the Great Depression, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was able to hold strong during that time and create Rockefeller Center, a city within a city.  This city has its own cultural values shown through its art scattered around the buildings and city blocks.  Not only is there art to represent the culture, there are attractions to attend: shows by the Rockettes, the top of the RCA Building was popular for its time, the tallest building of the fourteen, and has the largest theater and stage with Radio City Music Hall. In a time where there were competitions to build the tallest skyscraper, Rockefeller was able to easily design and construct these buildings along with smaller ones over an eight year period.  Rockefeller was successfully able to create faith and inspiration, just like he idealized, in a time of desperation.



“Fine Unity of Theme Discerned in Survey of Art of Many Types at Rockefeller Center.” The Washington Post (1923-1954), Washington, D.C., 1935.

This newspaper article is focused on art, and the different representation in art; the four phases.  He describes murals that are book representative of the progress of man in different aspects by different artists, for this paper the focus is on Frank Brangwyn and Jose Maria Sert’s murals in the RCA Building.

Flink, John A. “Rockefeller Center.” Salem Press Encyclopedia (January 2016): Research Starters, EBSCOhost(accessed November 17, 2016.)

This entry gives a lot of historical information to provide a basis for the beginnings of Rockefeller Center. It gives the dates and names of the architects and when their designs were agreed upon and proceeded with construction.  It also gives the details of the first underground car garage that came with Rockefeller Center.

Nevard, Jacques. “Christmases Past–and Present.” New York Times (1923-Current file), New York, N.Y., 1966.

This newspaper article gives a comparison of the first Christmas tree in 1931 with the tree in 1966 to show the evolution of the tradition.  This adds to the attractive aspect of the city, along with adding more aesthetic beauty alongside all the artwork found around Rockefeller Center.

Okrent, Daniel. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.

This book gives a lot of information on the events leading up, during, and after the construction of Rockefeller Center.  Not only does this book give statistics of the unemployment at the start of the construction, but it gives, in great detail, some of the most famous (and not so famous) artwork that can be found around Rockefeller Center.  Some of which are still standing today.  In addition to the discussion of the artwork at length, there is the detailed account of the RCA observation rooftop.


Robbins, L.H. “OUR “CITY WITHIN A CITY”.” New York Times (1923-Current file), New York, N.Y., 1938.

This article gives the information of the motives surrounding Rockefeller’s overall values in creating Rockefeller Center.  To summarize, they all are centered on wanting to be inspiring and provide prosperity to these people suffering by the Great Depression.  It gives the figures of how much debris had to be excavated, and how much cement and bricks had to be used.  It also tells of paving of Rockefeller Plaza.

“Rockefeller Center is completed as its Creator Pleads for Peace.” New York Times (1923 Current file), New York, N.Y., 1939.

This article gives the reassurance of Rockefeller’s principle to provide opportunity for the people.  He calls this opportunity “manhood” and shows how with focusing on this principle, he took it upon himself to provide better conditions for man in the Great Depression – striving for the freedom of man and peace.

[1] John A. Flink, “Rockefeller Center” Salem Press Encyclopedia (January 2016): Research Starters, EBSCOhost(accessed November 17, 2016).

[2] Daniel Okrent, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (New York: Penguin Group, 2003), 188-189.

[3] Flink, “Rockefeller Center.”

[4] Robbins, “Our City Within a City,” 124.

[5] New York Times, “Rockefeller Center is Completed as its Created Pleads for Peace,” The New York Times, November 2, 1939, 1.


[6] L.H. Robbins, “Our City Within a City,” New York Times, February 13, 1938, 124.

[7] Flink, “Rockefeller Center.”

[8] Jacques Nevard, “Christmas Past – and Present,” New York Times, November 30, 1966, 49.

[9] Okrent, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, 291.

[10] Ibid., 292-293.

[11] Ibid., 294.

[12] Ibid., 299-300.

[13] Okrent, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, 353.

[14] The Washington Post, “Fine Unity of Theme Discerned in Survey of Art and Many Types at Rockefeller Center,” The Washing Post, September 22, 1935, G5.

[15] Idem.

[16] Idem.

[17] Idem.

[18] Okrent, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, 353.

[19] Ibid., 352.

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