Construction of Rockefeller Center

Construction progress in December 1933

The construction of the Rockefeller Center complex in New York City was conceived as an urban renewal project in the late 1920s, spearheaded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to help revitalize Midtown Manhattan. Rockefeller Center is located on one of Columbia University's former campuses and is bounded by Fifth Avenue to the east, Sixth Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) to the west, 48th Street to the south, and 51st Street to the north. The center occupies 22 acres (8.9 ha) in total, with some 17 million square feet (1.6 million square metres) of office space.

Columbia University had acquired the site in the early 19th century but had moved to Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan was a prime site for development. Around that time, the Metropolitan Opera (Met) was looking for a new site for their opera house, and architect Benjamin Wistar Morris decided on the former Columbia site.

Rockefeller eventually became involved in the project and leased the Columbia site in 1928 for 87 years. The lease excluded land along the east side of Sixth Avenue to the west of the Rockefeller property, as well as at the site's southeast corner. He hired Todd, Robertson, and Todd as design consultants and selected the architectural firms of Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray, Hood, Godley & Fouilhoux, and Reinhard & Hofmeister for the opera complex. However, the Met was unsure about moving there, and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 put an end to the plans. Rockefeller instead entered into negotiations with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to create a mass-media complex on the site. A new plan was released in January 1930, and an update to the plan was presented after Rockefeller obtained a lease for the land along Sixth Avenue. Revisions continued until March 1931, when the current site design was unveiled. A late change to the proposal included a complex of internationally themed structures along Fifth Avenue.

All structures in the original complex were designed in the Art Deco architectural style. Excavation of the site started in April 1931, and construction began that September on the first buildings. The first edifice was opened in September 1932, and most of the complex was completed by 1935. The final three buildings were built between 1936 and 1940, although Rockefeller Center was officially completed by November 2, 1939. The construction project employed more than 40,000 people and was considered the largest private construction project at the time. It had cost the equivalent of $1.4 billion in 2016 dollars to construct. Since then, there have been several modifications to the complex. An additional building at 75 Rockefeller Plaza was constructed in 1947, while another at 600 Fifth Avenue was constructed in 1952. Four towers were built along the west side of Sixth Avenue in the 1960s and 1970s, which was the most recent expansion of Rockefeller Center. The Center Theatre from the original complex was demolished in 1954.

Site

Map of Rockefeller Center
Map of Rockefeller Center. The subway station is 47th–50th Streets–Rockefeller Center.

In 1686, much of Manhattan, including the future Rockefeller Center site, was established as a "common land" of the city of New York.[1] The land remained in city ownership until 1801, when the physician David Hosack, a member of the New York elite, purchased a parcel of land in what is now Midtown for $5,000,[2] equivalent to $74,000 in 2017 dollars.[3] In terms of the present-day street grid, Hosack's land was bounded by 47th Street on the south, 51st Street on the north, and Fifth Avenue on the east, while the western boundary was slightly east of Sixth Avenue (also known as Avenue of the Americas). At the time, the land was sparsely occupied and consisted mostly of forest.[1][2] Hosack opened the Elgin Botanic Garden, the country's first public botanical garden,[4] on the site in 1804.[5][6] The garden would operate until 1811,[7] when Hosack put the land on sale for $100,000 (equivalent to $1,471,000 in 2017[3]). As no one was willing to buy the land, the New York State Legislature eventually bought the land for $75,000 (equivalent to $1,103,000 in 2017[3]).[1][8][9]

In 1814, the trustees of Columbia University (then Columbia College) were looking to the state legislature for funds when the legislature unexpectedly gave Hosack's former land to the college instead.[1] The gardens became part of Columbia's "Upper Estate" (as opposed to the "Lower Estate" in Lower Manhattan), on the condition that the college move its entire campus to the Upper Estate by 1827.[8] Although the relocation requirement was repealed in 1819,[8] Columbia's trustees did not see the land as "an attractive or helpful gift", so the college let the gardens deteriorate.[9][10] The area would not become developed until the 1830s, and the land's value did not increase to any meaningful amount until the late 1850s, when St. Patrick's Cathedral was built nearby, spurring a wave of development in the area.[11] Ironically, the cathedral was built in that location because it faced the Upper Estate gardens.[10] By 1860, the Upper Estate contained four row houses below 49th Street as well as a wooden building across from the cathedral. The surrounding area was underdeveloped, with a potter's field and the railroad lines from Grand Central Depot located to the east.[8]

Columbia built a new campus near its Upper Estate in 1856, selling a plot at Fifth Avenue and 48th Street to the St. Nicholas Church to pay for construction.[10] Shortly afterward, Columbia implemented height restrictions that prevented any taller buildings, such as apartment blocks or commercial and industrial buildings, from being built on its property.[12][8] Narrow brownstone houses and expensive "Vanderbilt Colony" mansions were built on nearby streets, and the area became synonymous with wealth. By 1879, there were brownstones on every one of the 203 plots in the Upper Estate, which were all owned by Columbia.[8][10][12][13]

The construction of the Sixth Avenue elevated line in the 1870s made it easy to access commercial and industrial areas elsewhere in Manhattan.[8] However, the line also drastically reduced property values because the elevated structure obstructed views from adjacent properties, and because the trains on the structure caused noise pollution. Columbia sold the southernmost block of its Midtown property in 1904, using the $3 million from the sale (equivalent to $64.8 million in 2016[14]) to pay for newly acquired land in Morningside Heights even further uptown, to replace its Lower Estate.[10][12][13] Simultaneously, the low-lying houses along Fifth Avenue were being replaced with taller commercial developments, and the widening of the avenue between 1909 and 1914 contributed to this transition.[15] Columbia also stopped enforcing its height restriction, which Okrent describes as a tactical mistake for the college because the wave of development along Fifth Avenue caused the Upper Estate to become available for such redevelopment.[16] Since the leases on the Upper Estate row houses were being allowed to expire without renewal, the university's real estate adviser John Tonnele was tasked with finding suitable tenants, who could net the university more profit than what the row houses' occupants were currently paying.[17][18]

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