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Secrets of New York

The ultimate insider's guide to the best-kept secrets of NYC's must-see places and buzzed-about people.

A US flag flies between buildings 08 April,

A US flag flies between buildings 08 April, 2005, at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. (Credit: Getty/AFP/Stan Honda)


Secrets of Rockefeller Center

New York, NY 10111

For over eight decades, Rockefeller Center has lost none of its ambition or grandeur.

It remains the foundational “city within a city” that inspired urban planners across the world with its expertly designed mix of architecture, art and public space.

Built in the midst of the Great Depression, its construction was a monumental undertaking that captivated the press and the public. It was a source of jobs, controversy and nail-biting suspense. It was almost too complex to pull off. In spite of everything involved, it came together.

The Center, which officially opened in May 1933, originally consisted of 14 buildings around three blocks between 48th and 51st streets, and Fifth and Sixth avenues. It was later expanded and today includes 19 buildings, as well as theaters, underground corridors and public spaces. The buildings include 30 Rockefeller Center, the tallest at 850 feet, home to NBC studios; 10 Rockefeller Center where the 'TODAY' show is produced; and 1260 Avenue of the Americas, the cradle of Radio City Music Hall.

Of course, Rockefeller Center is also home to the annual New York City tradition —now global in its popularity — of the annual Christmas tree lighting, when a hulking evergreen is hauled into the plaza and illuminated for the holiday masses.

The Center is also known for its ice skating rink in winter months, as well as being a destination for shopping and commerce year-round.

Given the scope of the Center, we turned to historians to discover some of its forgotten secrets, especially Daniel Okrent, whose Pulitzer-nominated history “Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center,” proved indispensable. Here are ten things we learned.

The construction of Rockefeller Center, which began in

Credit: New York Public Library/Wurts Bros.

Rockefeller Center construction was a job creator

The construction of Rockefeller Center, which began in full in 1931 in the midst of the worst financial crisis anyone had experienced, was like a massive jobs program. Okrent writes that while it's not known how many people found jobs at the site during the Depression, "it may have been a number exceeded only by the federal government's various job creation programs." He writes that the Rockefeller Center's press office calculated jobs in the range of 40,000 to 60,000 jobs, sometimes even as high as 75,000. Whatever the number, the development of the center meant full employment for thousands of people who needed the work.

One of the tenants of the 850-foot tall

Credit: Library of Congress/ Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc.

Rooms within rooms

One of the tenants of the 850-foot tall RCA building, the National Broadcasting Corp., was determined to avoid unwanted sounds coming into their studios. To accomplish this, the studios were "structurally isolated from the rest of the building to prevent the transmission of noise and vibration," according to the "The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America." These were, according to Okrent, windowless "virtually rooms within rooms," the floors "floating on enormous, felt-covered springs."

The vision of Rockefeller Center included a robust

Credit: Wikimedia/Wolfgang Sauber

Diego Rivera’s fresco fiasco

The vision of Rockefeller Center included a robust arts program. Big names were courted for commissions. So it appeared to be a triumph for arts at the center when one of the preeminent Mexican muralists of the day, Diego Rivera, agreed to paint a fresco on the 63-foot-long, 17-foot-high wall across from the main entrance to the RCA Building. But the developers of the Rockefeller Center somehow didn't consider the highly charged political tones of Rivera's murals, which often invoked his Marxist ideology (although he had been kicked out of the Communist Party, he remained committed to its ideals). This time around would be no different, but the Rockefeller Center leadership signed off on Rivera's plans anyway, even when they included detailed drawings showing workers rallying in front of the Kremlin with Lenin's Tomb in plain sight. What's more, when Rivera began work on the fresco in 1933, he added an element that had not been in the sketches: A portrait of Lenin himself. The Rockefeller Center leadership couldn't ignore this; Rivera was asked to amend the painting. And, when he refused, Rivera was fired (but not without pay) and the mural demolished. An altered version of the same mural, "Man at the Crossroads," now covers a large wall at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. A new portrait was added - that of John D. Rockefeller. And near his head: a depiction of venereal disease.

While some artworks caused controversy, others had people

Credit: Flickr/Wally Gobetz

Somewhat unintelligible artwork in mosaic

While some artworks caused controversy, others had people stifling yawns. Barry Faulkner's minutely detailed mural "Intelligence Awakening Mankind" was somewhere in between. Relegated to the Sixth Avenue side of the RCA building where it was unlikely to be seen by too many people when it was first executed, Faulkner's mural was a mosaic of a million tiny tesserae. Bluntly allegorical, its figures bear labels such as "thought," "publicity" and "cruelty." A Times art critic called it "inept" and referred to it as "mural decoration."

Historian Okrent writes in his book that the

Credit: Rockefeller Center Archives

The first Christmas tree

Historian Okrent writes in his book that the first Christmas tree at the under construction Rockefeller Center was a "modest balsam rising out of a rock floor" on Dec. 24, 1931, in the early years of the Great Depression. A photo shows a group of forlorn men beside the tree, which was adorned with "strings of cranberries, garlands of papers, and even a few tin cans," Okrent writes. The men lined up beside the tree in "work boots and grimy overalls" to receive a paycheck from a clerk. Later years would bring ever larger evergreens to the plaza, making an annual ritual out of what had been an informal start.

In retrospect, the idea of putting the National

Credit: NOAA

Weather radar atop 30 Rock

In retrospect, the idea of putting the National Weather Service radar station for the region 900 feet above Manhattan on 30 Rockefeller Center was a bit of a flub. Consisting of an 18-foot-in-diameter fiberglass ball, the radar, installed atop the building in 1961, had a range of 250 nautical miles. But the density of the growing metropolis hampered the radar's forecasts and the decision was made to move it to Suffolk County in 1993.

The Rainbow Room, on the 65th floor of

Credit: Library of Congress/Paul J. Woolf

The Rainbow Room was named for a “color organ”

The Rainbow Room, on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, has had a reputation for glamor since its opening on Oct. 3, 1934. A supper club where guests could dine, dance and otherwise be entertained, entrance originally required a white tie for men and evening gowns for women. Its 24 windows opened up breathtaking views of the glittering metropolis. The planners, however, struggled to name it, first settling on "Stratosphere Room" owing to the "dining in the sky" experience. But that name was dropped when an RCA color organ, "that automatically converts music into changing colors in harmony with the moods expressed by the music" was installed. The organ project color lights throughout the room and onto the dance floor. The lights were synchronized with a Wurlitzer organ until 1935. The color organ itself was removed in 1986.

It was supposed to be a temporary exhibit

Credit: Getty/AFP/Stan Honda

Ice skating rink goes from temporary to permanent success

It was supposed to be a temporary exhibit to fulfill the unquenchable thirst for publicity at Rockefeller Center. But when it opened in 1936, the ice skating rink in the lower plaza was an instant success. To keep the ice smooth even in warm weather, a brine solution circulates through five miles of pipe below the terrazzo floor. The pond is over 100 feet long and over 50 feet wide; it fits only 150 skaters at a time. In 1949, the Saturday Evening Post reported that Rockefeller Center was raking in $80,000 a year from allowing skaters on the ice rink.

About 1801, David Hosack, a physician and professor

Credit: New York Public Library/Louis Simond

It was once home to the country’s first botanical garden

About 1801, David Hosack, a physician and professor of botany at Columbia University, purchased 19 acres of hilly land in what would eventually become midtown Manhattan for a few thousand dollars. He had a dream: To establish the first botanical garden in the U.S. to study the medical uses of plants. A few years later, his Elgin Botanical Garden "bloomed with species from all over the world," according to Okrent. There even stood a 62-foot-long greenhouse on the land. It would become a model for the New York Botanical Garden, but would fall into utter disrepair and disuse after Hosack's fortunes ran out. A complex series of deals led to Columbia University ultimately owning the plot of land, which was pretty much worthless. It wasn't well into the 1920s that a plan was hatched to build a new opera house for the Metropolitan Opera on the land that the idea of Rockefeller Center took hold. John D. Rockefeller Jr. stepped in to help the opera arrange a deal with Columbia, with the goal of building a new opera house at the center of a new complex. The stock market crash of 1929 dashed those hopes, and Rockefeller was left with a long-term lease on the land. He had to build on it.

The Rivera mural was not the only artwork

Credit: Emilio Guerra

Is that Benito Mussolini holding up the sky?

The Rivera mural was not the only artwork to stir up controversy at Rockefeller Center. When it was unveiled in 1937, Lee Lawre's 45-foot-tall bronze figure of the mythical Atlas -- whose punishment for defying Zeus was to carry the sky for eternity -- was intended to be a heroic figure. But, in the midst of World War II, many people saw in the statue's face a too-close-for-comfort resemblance to fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. There were protests that quickly flared out. However, in 1943, New York Times critics joked that Atlas should be melted down because, as one said, it "looks too much as Mussolini thinks he looks." Since then, however, the statue has become associated with Ayn Rand's ideal of the heroic man and her 1957 novel "Atlas Shrugged."


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