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Ten fascinating secrets of Rockefeller Center

By Rebecca Paul

Rockefeller Center is one of New York City's most visited and recognized attractions. However, this iconic site is far more than just a tourist destination. The all-inclusive center was conceptualized as a "city within a city" and has remained so for over eight decades. And with its unprecedented design—including architecture, fine art, and public venues—it has provided inspiration for many urban planners around the world.

While it is easy to be struck by the center’s conspicuous beauty, the history behind all that gold and grandeur packs in some surprising secrets. Ahead, find 10 things you didn’t know about the famed New York locale.

1. Rockefeller Center almost wasn’t built

Initial development plans for Rockefeller Center were derailed when the stock market crashed in 1929. In fact, Rockefeller's original idea for the project was to erect "the grandest plaza in all of New York" that would include a new Metropolitan Opera House.  But when the economy tanked, the Met backed out of the deal and Rockefeller had to go at it alone. Rockefeller funded the project himself, and construction began in 1930. Later additions to the site were paid for with Standard Oil stocks and a healthy line of credit from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

2. It’s the world's largest privately-owned building complex

Rockefeller Center took nearly a decade to complete and cost $100 million to build—again, a figured wholly financed by Rockefeller himself. The project became as a result the world’s largest privately-owned complex, and inarguably John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s defining business venture. What’s more is that the project was executed at the height of the Great Depression and provided work for 40,000 people. The center officially opened in May of 1939 and included 14 buildings occupying three blocks between 48th and 51st streets, and Fifth and Sixth avenues. Today, the lot has been increased to 19 buildings including 30 Rock, NBC studios, Radio City Music Hall, and home to the TODAY show, as well as theaters, underground corridors, and public spaces.

3. During construction the project was harshly criticized by local experts

It's difficult to argue the success of Rockefeller Center in its current form, but this collection of buildings wasn’t always admired. When construction first began, Lewis Mumford, a historian, urban planner, and architecture critic for The New Yorker, had very strong opinions regarding the massive undertaking. In 1931, he wrote in his “Sky Lines” column, “If Radio City, as now forecast, is the best that could be done, there is not the faintest reason for anyone to attempt to assemble a big site. Chaos does not have to be planned.” In 1933, after a significant portion of the site had been completed, he added,  “The ornamental features are no less painful than its more utilitarian efforts. … I cannot find a word of even faint praise for any of the sculptural or graphic decoration now visible on any of the buildings. … The whole effect of the Center is mediocrity — seen through a magnifying glass.” However, by 1940 his opinion shifted and he finally—although somewhat begrudgingly—gave Rockefeller his seal of approval, “In spite of all these handicaps, Rockefeller Center has turned into an impressive collection of structures; they form a composition in what unity and coherence have to a considerable degree diminished the fault of overemphasis. In other words, they get by.” 

4. Rockefeller Center has secret rooftop gardens

Amidst the steel and concrete, Rockefeller Center also hosts an obscured stretch of rooftop gardens. The hidden oasis is located at the 620 Loft and Gallery, which is part of the building at 650 5th Avenue. This multi-functional indoor/outdoor space boasts views of St. Patrick's Cathedral and is available for rent for weddings and other events. Unfortunately, the space is not freely accessible to the public. Thus, outside of an event, if you want to catch a glimpse of the greenery, you'll have to  secure a meeting or a job the neighboring Tishman Speyer office that overlooks the gardens.

5. Famous Empire State Building photo was staged and taken from 30 Rock

The Empire State Building has an epic history of its own, and part of that story includes documentation of the building’s rise during construction. However, one of the skyscraper's most celebrated—and parodied—images, “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” was actually shot from the 69th floor of the RCA building (now 30 Rock). In 1932, Charles C. Ebbets joined Rockefeller Center as its photographic director, and on September 29, 1932 he took the famed image. And though the photo does, in fact, show real ironworkers, according to some archival records it is alleged to have been completely staged by Rockefeller Center and then published in The New York Herald Tribune as a way to promote the new skyscraper.

6. The secret apartment in Radio City Music Hall

The legendary Radio City Music Hall easily holds its own as a celebrated New York landmark. It was opened in 1932 and has since seen over 300 million visitors. The theater was dreamed up by vaudeville producer Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel and designed by architect Edward Durrell Stone and interior designer Donald Deskey. Upon completion it stood as a gilded palace of elaborate murals, bakelite detailing, luxurious drapery, and gold leaf. But in addition to its unmissable glitz and glamour, Stone and Deskey designed a hidden apartment for “Roxy.” The apartment was outfitted in the same ornate Art-Deco style as the rest of the building, making it the perfect backdrop for parties attended by Hollywood's golden era elite, including Alfred Hitchcok, Samuel Goldwyn, Olivia de Havilland. Today the space is called Roxy's Suite, and is reserved for Radio City performers and VIP attendees. You can get a peek at the apartment during the venue's regular Stage Door Tour.

7. It housed the primary location of the U.S. Operations of British Intelligence

In the mid-1930s, the last of the four European buildings in Rock Center remained unnamed. Ivy Lee and others tried to rent out the space to German commercial concerns with the attended name of the “Deutsches Haus.” But fortunately for Rockefeller, his advisors provided him with intel on Hitler's Nazi march toward World War II. Thus he rejected the rental offers. The office building remained empty for a stretch, but later found use as the primary U.S. location for British Security Coordination (or British intelligence) during the war. “BSC became a huge secret agency of nationwide news manipulation and black propaganda,” according to the Guardian. The organization had three floors within Rockefeller Center. Per the Guardian: “The aim was to change the minds of an entire population: to make the people of America think that joining the war in Europe was a ‘good thing’ and thereby free Roosevelt to act without fear of censure from Congress or at the polls in an election.” Additionally room 3603 became the principal spot for Williams Stepehnson's “allied intelligence organization,” and the office of Allen Welsh Dulles, the man who would later be appointed as the director of the newly formed CIA.

8. Diego Rivera's controversial lobby mural was destroyed before completion

Part of Rockefeller Center's claim to fame is its inclusion of great art. The complex has everything from epic statues to delicate tile murals, but one of the most controversial pieces of the center's collection has never been seen by the public. In 1932, Mexican artist Diego Rivera was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to add a mural to the soaring lobby of Rockefeller Center. Despite being known for his petulant temper and loyalty to Communism, Rivera was still one of the most highly sought after artists of his time. But Rivera and Rockefeller clashed in 1934 when a displeased Rockefeller had the very mural he commissioned from Rivera chiseled off the wall the night before it was to be completed. As the story goes, it was removed specifically on account of an image of Vladimir Lenin.

9. The Rainbow Room was named for a “color organ”

The famous Rainbow Room is located on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and is the second highest restaurant in NYC, after ONE Dine on the 101st floor of One World Trade Center. Since opening in October of 1934, the fine dining establishment has been known for its glamour (guests were originally required to wear white tie and evening gown attire). The original name for the venue was "Stratosphere Room," but the Rockefellers felt it missed the mark, as it was too generic and not reflective of the extraordinary space atop the RCA Building. The name was officially dropped when an RCA color organ was installed. This special organ automatically converted music into changing colors that were in harmony with moods expressed by the music. Inside the Rainbow Room, the changing lights were projected onto the dance floor until 1986 when the organ was removed.

10. The history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Rockefeller Center sees tens of thousands of daily visitors all year round, but nothing compares to the draw of its famous Christmas tree and ice skating rink. While the buildings have an interesting history, the tree has a rich tradition of its very own. Indeed, the tree extravaganza we know today had humble beginnings, first introduced in 1931 by Depression-weary workers looking for extra hours, and decorated with tin cans and scrap paper. While the tree stands tall in this bustling corridor from late November to early January, the hunt for the centerpiece evergreen begins more than a year in advance, and is given as a donation by its grower. The massive tree also requires a mind-boggling amount of lights, and the wire used to light the pine-tower are long enough to stretch from 30 Rock to Battery Park City.

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