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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Skyscraper City Rockefeller Center
The Genesis
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Rockefeller Center
The Genesis
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After the success of the McGraw-Hill Building and several other office buildings that Hood designed, he was asked to become one of the architects for one of the largest construction projects in New York—Rockefeller Center. Hood was responsible for the design of its major buildings. Rockefeller Center is not only great architecture but is great urban design and great urban planning. It is a complex of buildings extending over several blocks. This complex has been imitated in other cities, but the others have never equaled how spectacular Rockefeller Center is. The genesis of Rockefeller Center was an interest by the Metropolitan Opera in having a new opera house. The Metropolitan Opera House was located on Broadway at about Fortieth Street in a building that had been erected in the 1880s and was really out of date. So they were looking for a new home. And John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was very interested in the civic realm in New York, became interested in helping the Metropolitan Opera find it. He had a proposal for them: He would build a complex of buildings that would include a site that he would give to the Metropolitan Opera, and then they would raise the money to build the new opera house. So this was a way for the Met to get a site, basically, for free. And the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1920s, during a period of economic boom, thought this was a really good idea.

So Rockefeller arranges to lease land along Fifth Avenue south of Fiftieth Street from Columbia University, which owned the property between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It was a long-term lease, and he brought together a series of advisers, including several architects and economic advisers, who were helping him to decide what kind of office buildings to build. And a decision is made that they will build a complex and the Metropolitan Opera House will be right in the center, in the core of this development. The stock market crashes in October of 1929, and shortly thereafter the Metropolitan Opera realizes that they're never going to be able to raise the money to build an opera house, so they bow out of the project. But Rockefeller has a long-term lease on the site; he has to do something with it. So he and his advisers decide that they are going to create a great office and entertainment facility. And it is going to be a spectacularly beautiful place that will attract the public, but will also make an enormous profit—these office buildings and the theatres and the shops are going to be profitable.

He begins the design and planning of this complex, and it was planned in a very interesting manner. Along Fifth Avenue there would be low-rise buildings, because Fifth Avenue at that time was basically a low-rise street. There were still many residential buildings, many mansions, located on Fifth Avenue, so Fifth Avenue was going to have low-rise buildings. Then in the center of the complex, where the Metropolitan Opera House was supposed to be, would be the largest office building in the complex, the one that became known as the RCA Building. Around it would be smaller office buildings, and there would be shops on the street and shops underground that would connect people to the new subway that was being built on Sixth Avenue. There would also be theatres that would attract people in the evenings. So you would have a community of office workers and shoppers during the day and theatergoers during the evening.

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