History Of Rockefeller Center

History Of Rockefeller Center

Feature Photo: maytikka / Shutterstock.com

The historical Rockefeller Center has been gracing the heart of New York City ever since this large complex was erected between 48th Street and 51st Street in Midtown Manhattan. What started out as fourteen buildings taking up prime real estate space between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue eventually expanded to nineteen.

Breaking Ground

Before this center became what it is today, Columbia University owned the land that was leased to John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1928. Originally, it was to build a new Metropolitan Opera house. However, this could no longer be afforded due to the stock market crash in 1929. As a result, plans changed after Rockefeller negotiated with Radio Corporation of America and its subsidiaries (namely NBC), there was a decision to erect a complex that would best accommodate the media industry.

When it was agreed to move forth with this ambitious project, it was now a matter of getting city approval. This didn’t come easy due to zoning restrictions as well as unfavorable public opinion. This came at a time when America was reeling from the stock market crash and the Great Depression.

Nevertheless, this project moved forward. It featured rooftop gardens and a central plaza. In 1931, an assigned construction crew had already broken ground, even though it wasn’t until 1932 there was a decision made on how this grand complex was to be designed. Going with an Art Deco theme, Rockefeller’s first new buildings opened in 1933. By 1939, the core of Rockefeller Center was completed.

Changing Names

Rockefeller Center certainly came a long way since 1801 when twenty acres of this land were owned by a physician named David Hosack. It was originally opened as Elgin Botanic Garden that ran for ten years before Columbia University assumed ownership of the land in 1923.

Originally, David Jr. did not want his family’s name associated with this commercial project. For the moment, it was referred to as either Metropolitan Square or Radio City. It didn’t officially become Rockefeller Center until after it was suggested by an advisor in 1931.

Establishing Territory

The first completed building belonging to the center was the RKO, which was ready for move-in in September 1932. Next was the Music Hall which opened in December. In April 1933, it was the British Empire Building, then the RCA Building in May after a brief delay due to a controversial painting that was displayed in its lobby. Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads was first covered up, then removed from the premises.

It was at this time Rockefeller Plaza and its street was a stage-by-stage construction that would continue until its completion in 1937. It’s at this location the Rockefeller Christmas Tree glorifies the plaza with its presence, year after year. It went up first time in December 1933 and has remained a crowd-pleasing favorite ever since.

As of the summer of 1934, all but twenty percent of available space among the six completed buildings was already rented out. As for the underground pedestrian mall, this unsuccessful attempt as a retail venue was replaced in 1936 with what is now the city’s iconic ice skating rink that’s based at the Time & Life Building.

Family Business

Going into 1938, Nelson Rockefeller became president of this newly developed center. His first move was changing its management, as well as moving into the 56th floor of the RCA building. Over time, the family business took up three floors of space inside its sixty-six-foot tower.

Even though November 1, 1939, marked the ceremonial date of the final rivet that officially completed the Rockefeller Center project, it wasn’t until October 1940 that the buildings involved were technically finished. The United States Rubber Building was where the final rivet was placed but it was the Eastern Air Lines Building that had yet to be finished. Upon completion, the center already had over twenty-five thousand tenants and over one hundred thousand daily visitors. Upon its completion, this curiosity among New Yorkers and visitors wasted no time checking out this impressive piece of property.

International Inspiration

Going into the autumn season of 1934, there were three buildings in development that focused on establishing an international flavor. There were two retail outlets, as well as a thirty-eight-story complex, on the way. One of these buildings was already rented out to Italian tenants. At one point, Germany was interested in renting but was rejected due to that nation’s socialist views as a government. By April 1935, The International Building and its wings were completed and ready to accommodate foreign tenants.

75 Rockefeller Plaza, along with four other buildings, was erected across 51st Street as part of the center’s family. Connecting these new additions was the sunken square space and private street. The idea of these complexes was to accommodate tenants that had migrated to New York City from other countries. This served as a replacement for what was initially supposed to be a retail outlet.


Due to rising tensions that led to World War II, New York City was already facing foreign-related issues. After Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, whatever lease agreements were in place with Germans, Italians, and Japanese tenants at that time were terminated for security reasons. There were also office relocations and evictions among businesses that consistently dealt with international travel and other matters. Any artwork or displays that were deemed fascist in any given way during this time were also removed. From 1943 until 1950, the art gallery known as the Rainbow Room kept its doors closed as a safety measure. While America was involved in the war, the RCA Building served as a base of U.S. military operations as they corresponded with British Intelligence.

From Debt to Profit

Upon the completion of Rockefeller Center in 1940, it was in debt by nearly forty million dollars. However, the debt didn’t last for long, thanks to so many tenants filing up all the rental space it had available at the time. In fact, it was so popular there was a waiting list just to rent space in the center.

As for the Music Hall, this was a favorite venue that had lineups stretching as far as four blocks long of people waiting to get in and check out the shows that were held inside. Straight into the 1960s, this was the “it” place to go for a night out on the town.

Even upon the completion of the center gracing Manhattan, the need for expansion was already there. The Rockefellers already anticipated this and had additional buildings and towers ready to tackle the growing waiting list of potential tenants. This includes the Esso Building, which was a 1947 acquisition before it finished construction. By 1950, whatever debts the Rockefeller Center had at that time were taken care of by the family as key financial strategies were made at that time.

Making Moves

As newer offices throughout New York City were erected that came with upgrades such as air conditioning and improved spacing, some of the existing tenants seeking to relocate. At this time, Columbia University still technically owned the land underneath all this development. As renters themselves, the Rockefeller Center put in the request to have air conditioning installed. This was their way of competing against other real estate developers that were offering rental agreements to some of the center’s existing tenants.

In 1949, St. Nicholas Church leased its building to Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. In turn, there were three plots of land were slated for a twenty-eight-story building for the center. After this old and virtually obsolete church was demolished, The Sinclair Oil Company Tower was built. This expansion enabled Esso to relocate as well NBC as and RCA as they took advantage of more floor space that was now available to them.

In 1959, the Time-Life Building officially replaced the Center Theatre as part of the complex’s landscape. Adding to this roster was 1961’s Sperry Corporation, 1963’s New York Hilton at Rockefeller Center, and the Exxon Building in 1971. These were followed by the McGraw-Hill Building in 1973, and then the Celanese in 1974. By this time, Rockefeller Center summed up seven percent of Manhattan’s leasable office space. That’s a measurement of one-quarter of a million square feet.

From Profit to Debt

Despite Rockefeller Center’s success, they also had a landlord of their own. Columbia University was still technically a landowner of all the property involved in this urban development. While New York’s economy was thriving, developers were able to cash in. When the 1970s saw a skid that included a proliferation of closed-captioned foreign films, this marked a big dent in Music Hall’s appeal as a theater. Once upon a time, one had to wait in line just to get in. That changed when people began to go elsewhere for live entertainment. By 1978, one of the most prolific tenants of the center was in debt and it looked like its days were numbered.

There was a campaign to save it that soon had the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designate it as an interior city landmark. It was later established as a National Register of Historic Places. When the Empire State Development Corporation voted to create a nonprofit subsidiary to lease the Music Hall. This managed to keep its doors open just days before it was slated to close for good.

What the Music Hall experienced was a similar circumstance that threatened Rockefeller Center. What started out as a popular spot for tenants eventually dwindled in popularity. This commercial property didn’t leave much room for entertainment so there was now a debate to see what could be done to protect it as a landmark.

Rockefeller’s Mark

The Rockefellers and Columbia University agreed the center’s buildings were already symbolic landmarks. Also, the university felt it wasn’t making enough lease money from the center. Going into 1983, Columbia looked into selling land underneath the buildings to outside investors. It wound up selling to the Rockefeller Group for $400 million USD.

In 1985, the entire complex became designated as a New York City landmark. Two years later, it was deemed a National Historic Landmark.

The Rockefellers modernized as much as they could. This was a costly renovation that included the RCA Building’s name change to the GE Building in 1988. Going into 1989, the Mitsubishi Group bought the Rockefeller Group. However, the group filed for bankruptcy protection in May 1995 after failing to keep up with several mortgage payments.

This resulted in David Rockefeller, son of John Jr., and a consortium led by Goldman Sachs purchasing the center’s buildings for over one billion dollars in 1996.

Going into 2000, Tishman Speyer purchased the original fourteen buildings for $1.85 billion USD by Jerry Speyer and the family of Lester Crown from Chicago. Since then, a series of renovations and upgrades have continued to keep one of New York City’s most iconic landmarks open for business. To this day, this landmark continues to be a hub of activity that has since made more room for arts and entertainment in order to accommodate New Yorkers and visitors.

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