The Rockefeller Center that never came to be

Rockefeller Center is a symbol of 20th century New York City: a 14-building Art Deco icon  that’s crawling with tourists and office workers.

Metropolitansquare1928But the complex there today wasn’t the original city within a city that John D. Rockefeller Jr. envisioned for 49th to 50th Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

In 1928, the plaza surrounded by towering buildings was to be called “Metropolitan Square” (right).

Anchoring it would be a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, then located in an 1880s theater on no-longer-trendy Broadway and 39th Street.

MetoperahouseproposalurbanRockefeller offered land at the site to the Met for free; they simply had to raise the funds for a new theater. (One proposal by architect Joseph Urban is at left.)

A deal was set . . . and then the stock market collapsed in 1929. The Met backed out.

“Although the Rockefellers were also hit by ‘Black Tuesday,’ losing half their fortune, the 54-year-old heir managed to finance the costly development by agreeing to be personally responsible for the repayment of the loans,” stated the website for PBS’s American Experience.

“In the absence of an opera building, [Rockefeller] envisioned a commercial development for the site. . . . Over the course of nine years, in the depth of the Depression, the building of Rockefeller Center would provide employment for 75,000 workers.”

[Below, what the neighborhood looked like before it was torn down and replaced by glitzy skyscrapers and office space, from the MCNY]


By 1939, construction finished on the last building. “The vertical thrust of the whole ensemble was meant to symbolize humanity’s progress toward new frontiers, a theme dear to Rockefeller, who sought to advance that cause through his philanthropies,” explained PBS’ American Experience.

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One Response to “The Rockefeller Center that never came to be”

  1. Chris Gaydos Says:

    Just saw your post today and loved it. Will read the others. Thanks.

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