The two holdout houses that forced Rockefeller Center to be built around them

In the early 1800s, the bucolic site that eventually became 48th to 51st Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues hosted the nation’s first botanical garden. Through the 19th century, the property was owned and developed by Columbia University.

The 19th century holdout building at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street

By the 1920s, what had been transformed into an elite neighborhood following the Civil War was now a downtrodden collection of shabby low-rise houses, eateries, and retail shops (plus some speakeasies and brothels) made even more undesirable by the hulking steel elevated train tracks above Sixth Avenue.

So when the Metropolitan Opera began looking for a site to build a new opera house that would replace its current home at Broadway and 39th Street, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (son of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., head of Standard Oil and one of the wealthiest men in the world) envisioned these Midtown blocks to be an ideal location not only for the opera but for a gleaming new skyscraper business and entertainment district in the shadow of his own nine-story mansion on West 54th Street.

On the other side of 30 Rock, a three-story holdout at Sixth Avenue and 49th Street

After the stock market crashed in 1929, the Metropolitan Opera dropped out of the project. Still, Rockefeller went ahead with plans for an 11-acre mini-city mix of retail, theater, and office space. He leased the land from Columbia, then brought in architects and builders. Between 1932 and 1939, Rockefeller City’s 14 original Art Deco buildings opened.

Before construction commenced, however, Rockefeller had to buy out (or wait out) the leases for 203 different lots, and then raze 208 of the old low-rise buildings, according to Daniel Okrent’s 2004 book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.

Money talked in the Depression, and owners and lease holders almost always took the cash offered to them. But Rockefeller didn’t buy out everyone. Cases in point: the two 19th century walkup buildings flanking 30 Rockefeller Plaza. One of these holdouts is on the corner of Sixth and 49th Street, and the other stands at the corner of Sixth and 50th Street.

How did they survive the Rockefeller bulldozer? Let’s start with the gray holdout on the 49th Street side, with the charming late 19th century cornice.

This survivor, which the Rockefeller Center website describes as “a pebble surrounded by boulders,” dates back to the 1870s. In 1892, the little building became an Irish pub called Hurley’s, run by brothers John and Daniel Hurley and a bartender, Patrick Daly.

Hurley’s already had to deal with Prohibition in the 1920s, when they turned the “front of their pub into a flower shop, among other ventures, and the upstairs into a speakeasy accessible through an unmarked side entrance,” the Rockefeller Center website noted.

Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street: these might be the holdout buildings on each corner

In 1930, Rockefeller began buying out leases and demolishing buildings. Turns out the Hurleys had a lease that ran until 1942 that “barred demolition,” explained Sam Roberts in his 2019 book, A History of New York in 27 Buildings: “They demanded $250,000 (about $3.7 million in today’s dollars), which the Rockefellers refused to pay. After Prohibition was repealed, the brothers reopened their bar.”

Not long after Rockefeller was forced to build his skyscrapers around the stubborn bar, Hurley’s became a watering hole that attracted media professionals working at the neighborhood’s big network and newspaper headquarters. According to Liz Trencha’s 1994 book, Fighting for Air: In the Trenches With Television News, a man identified as “Old Man Hurley” reportedly said, “I’ve seen sonofabitchin’ Rockefellers come and sonofabitchin’ Rockefellers go and no sonofabitchin’ Rockefeller’s gonna tear down my bar.”

1258 Sixth Avenue at 50th Street in 1939-1941

Hurley’s closed up shop in the 1970s. The saloon reopened with the same name under new owners before going out of business for good in 1999, according to a New York Times article. Today, Magnolia Bakery occupies the ground floor space. A new pub, called Pebble Bar, has recently opened as well.

How the building on the 50th Street side of 30 Rock became a holdout is less clear. According to a 1962 Daily News article, the building was owned by a grocer named John F. Boronowsky, who simply refused to sell his three-story store. Rockefeller built around his grocery as well, which now houses a Warby Parker eyeglass store.

Today, it almost looks like Rockefeller planned to keep two walkups on either side of flagship 30 Rock. The little buildings balance out the Art Deco tower; they look like charming 19th century bookends for a mighty 20th century skyscraper. But the truth is, because of their age and prime location, they may be the most famous holdout buildings in New York City history.

[Third, fourth, and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collection; sixth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

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20 Responses to “The two holdout houses that forced Rockefeller Center to be built around them”

  1. susan nierenberg Says:

    Are there still apartments on the upper floors of the two buildings? Does anyone live there??

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I don’t know—I don’t see any sign of anyone living there, but that doesn’t mean much in NYC!

  2. carolynquinnCarolyn Summer Quinn Says:

    Fabulous!

  3. Andrew ALPERN Says:

    You can read the stories about these holdouts and many others in my book HOLDOUTS! The Buildings That Got In The Way.

  4. velovixen Says:

    The question of whether Rockefeller had his architects design his skyscrapers around the “holdouts “ is intriguing. If he did, it would have made sense.
    He had to have known that his complex would become a tourist attraction. So, perhaps, he or his architects were thinking about a tourist from a small town or another country who just got off a bus or a train and asked someone “Where is Avenue of the Americas?”—a name which, of course, no New Yorker would use. Properly oriented, said tourist, who may not have seen a big city, much less skyscrapers, before, walks along Sixth Avenue. Whether that tourist is approaching from downtown or uptown, he or she would approach 49th or 50th Street. Seeing one of those “holdout “ buildings “eases in” the tourist while making the scale (and design) of the skyscrapers all the more impressive.

  5. burkemblog Says:

    Does the Women’s National Republican Club building fall into this category, too?

    • Andrew ALPERN Says:

      That building is on the north side of 51st Street, which I believe was outside the borders of the land of the Elgin Botanical Garden, and thus outside the ownership of Columbia University, and thus not part of the lease that Mr. Rockefeller made.

    • Beth Says:

      No, that building was built by the WNRC in 1933 on the site of Carnegie’s old mansion and was not associated with the razing of the neighborhood by Rockefeller.

      • Andrew ALPERN Says:

        What you are calling “Carnegie’s old mansion” was built originally for William H. Vanderbilt.

  6. Beth Says:

    This is full picture of the history of the WNRC building.
    http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2018/12/the-womens-national-republican-club-3-5.html

    • burkemblog Says:

      That was fascinating–thanks for posting it. I was last in NYC in 2017 for an academic conference (we were stationed at West Point twice and spent almost every Saturday in NYC), and we noticed the club while we were having dinner across the street. I’d not recalled it from our many trips to midtown. I learned a great deal.

  7. Andrew ALPERN Says:

    I misspoke. The house that was reconstructed into the WNRC was indeed a Carnegie mansion for a time, directly adjoining the one-time Vanderbilt mansion, which was occupied by Frick prior to his building what is now the Frick museum. Quite a propinquity of pelf.

  8. Tom Rice Says:

    It should be noted that neither of these building were on the Columbia land. After John D. Rockefeller, Jr. signed the lease with Columbia, all the lots facing 6th Avenue were then purchased to extend the property to 6th Avenue. Rockefeller used a shell company call Underel to buy the properties. He then sold then to Columbia they then became of the the Columbia/Rockefeller lease. These two were the holdouts. The 49th Street corner by 1942. The 50th Street corner was finally bought out in the 1970’s. Raymond Hood, the lead architect, did have to make adjustments to the 1250 Avenue of the America (originally the RCA Building West) entrance to the RCA Building when these buildings would not budge.

  9. Tom B Says:

    The construction of Rockefeller Center seems like Gentrification to me. Was there any outcry from local citizens?

    • Andrew ALPERN Says:

      Tom, you are looking at the past through a filter of today’s values. That usually yields more heat than light (witness the confederate-statue problem). It is only recently that the concept of gentrification has surfaced. In the past, we were interested only in “progress,” which almost always equated to building new and better. That this sometimes resulted in displacement of poorer people and their replacement with richer ones was not looked on as a bad thing because there was significant net gain to society. Sadly, with gridlock in Washington, the concept of doing what most benefits society overall is fast becoming moribund.

  10. Glenn MacDonald Says:

    Thank you! Very cool story. Thank God for the holdouts of the world!!

    • Andrew ALPERN Says:

      Glenn you evidently make the assumption that holdouts are inherently a good thing. Sometimes they are, when they are attempting to prevent a bad development from happening, but far more often they are being holdouts for self-involved reasons. As I detail in HOLDOUTS! The Buildings That Got In The Way, the people behind the physical holdouts are often unreasonably greedy, or they unrealistically misjudge the value of their property, or they are frightened, or stubborn, or sometime even just plain nuts. The problem of holdouts versus developers is not as simple as you are viewing it.

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