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The history and purpose of the rockefeller center

Daniel Okrent Viking In all likelihood many decades from now, the day will come when New York will no longer be the most powerful city in the world. At that time, the citizens of this mighty metropolis, like modern Athenians looking up at the Acropolis, will be reminded of the years of power and glory by the great structures that serve as exclamation points on Manhattan's skyline. For obvious reasons, the Empire State Building—once again, through tragic circumstances, the dominant structure on the city's skyline—will inspire the collective thought that "those were the days," with the Chrysler Building playing a similar evocative role.

Those are great single spires, definitive skyscrapers.

The Epic of Rockefeller Center

Daniel Okrent, a former editor of Life magazine and today the first public editor of the New York Times, has written a delightful and exhaustive but never exhausting book, Great Fortune: Okrent's subtitle is not hyperbole; this is an epic tale, as mythic as the statues of Atlas and Prometheus that famously hold court in the revered complex.

It requires an author up to the task of telling it. From the very first sentence of the book's prologue, we know we are in good hands. But it took more than the wings of wealth to raise the great project into Manhattan's sky.

Rockefeller Center History

Also essential were the thrust of power, the lift of influence, the energy of competing egos. No small part of the mix was architectural and organizational brilliance, for which we can all be everlastingly grateful.

  1. The buildings would be connected by a series of bridges and walkways.
  2. To lure tenants during the Depression, all efforts were made to ensure efficient use of the available floor space.
  3. By then the number of visitors had dropped while costs increased. Those are great single spires, definitive skyscrapers.

It is, in that sense, a typical story of Manhattan, where land is limited and the struggle for real estate is the moral equivalent of war—though morality very rarely comes into it. Hosack spent a fortune his wife's, actually to create a walled garden in which to raise medicinal plants. At the time, Hosack's garden lay so far north of the city proper that, as Okrent puts it, with a touch of Manhattan condescension, it "might as well have been in Poughkeepsie. Part of the site was considered as a new location for the Metropolitan Opera.

That deal foundered for reasons as byzantine as they are riveting, but it gave birth to the idea of a complex of theatres, stores and office space that would stretch from elegant Fifth Avenue all the way to Sixth, dark and noisy under its elevated train line.

David Sarnoff, the ambitious new head of fast-growing RCA, brought his company in as a potential major lessee, and a team of five notable architects was assembled under the organizational leadership of developer John R. At this point in the story, we are only one-third of the way through Okrent's book, and not a page that follows is any less fascinating than what has gone before.

Rockefeller Center

The author spares neither himself nor us even the most minor detail. For which we can thank him, since there don't appear to be any details that seem in the end to be minor. Okrent's cast of characters might have populated Henry James' biggest, unwritten novel.

But it's the result of their monumental efforts that remain with us today. From the joyful Deco flamboyance of RadioCityMusic Hall to the elemental inevitability of the Modernist RCA tower, the complex was as innovative as it was impeccable, as smart as a business venture as it was eloquent as an artistic statement.

The author puts it this way: