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Rockefeller Center history: Unveiling the story behind the landmark

The Rockefeller Center in New York City is a fascinating 22-acre masterpiece inspired by John D. Rockefeller’s vision to create another city within a city. The perfect blend of low and high-rise buildings coupled with the dazzling array of sculptures, carvings, and architectural styles make it one of the most iconic attractions in New York City. 

Timeline

  • Oct 1, 1928: John D. Rockefeller leases the land from Columbia University to construct the Rockefeller Center. 
  • Dec 1931: The first Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is placed – a tradition that would go on to become an annual tradition from 1933. 
  • Mar 1932: Construction of 30 Rockefeller Plaza begins alongside the construction of Radio City Music Hall. 
  • Oct 1934: The 65-story restaurant Rainbow Room is inaugurated, the highest restaurant in the U.S. at the time. 
  • Dec 25, 1936: Construction of the skating pond inside the Rockefeller Center is eventually completed. 
  • Nov 1, 1939: Construction of Rockefeller Center is complete. 
  • 1961-1970: A shelter program was launched during the Cold War, and supplies were stocked in Rockefeller Center’s basements. 
  • 1985: The Rockefeller Center officially gains New York City landmark status. 
  • 1987: An important year in Rockefeller Center History as the attraction becomes a National Historic Landmark. 
  • 1996: Four well-known private investors and Tishman Speyer acquire the Rockefeller Center as it struggles with bankruptcy.
  • Nov 1, 2005: Top of the World Observation Deck, which opened to the public in 1933 reopens after two decades.

History of the Rockefeller Center

Columbia University leases land in 1928

The three square blocks that the Rockefeller Center is spread across, surrounded by 48th and 51st Streets, Sixth Avenue, and Fifth Avenue, were leased by Columbia University to John D. Rockefeller in 1928, for 87 years. 

Construction begins in 1931

One of the most important years in the history of the Rockefeller Center is 1931 when the construction of 30 Rockefeller Plaza began. This happened alongside the construction of Radio City Music Hall, which eventually opened its doors on December 27, 1932. 

Inauguration of Rainbow Room

The Rainbow Room, one of New York’s finest restaurants, opened on October 3, 1934. Located on the 65th floor, this was once the highest-elevated restaurant in the entire country. Even today, the Rainbow Room is a top-rated restaurant offering a top-notch dining experience against Manhattan’s majestic skyline. 

Construction of the Rockefeller Center finishes

The original Rockefeller Center complex’s construction was marked officially complete when John D. Rockefeller placed the final rivet on November 1, 1939. It took around seven years and 40,000 people to achieve this feat – the successful completion of the largest private building in modern times. 

Two important milestones

An important milestone in the Rockefeller Center’s history, the venue received the NYC Landmark status in 1985. It was recognized as a National Historic Landmark two years later in 1987.

Construction of the Rockefeller Center

Construction of the Rockefeller Center

The Rockefeller Center was designed and constructed by a team of architects including Henry Hofmeister, H.W. Corbett, and lead designer Raymond Hood. The Rockefeller Center is the brainchild of John D. Rockefeller, who was on a mission to not only uplift Manhattan’s skyline but also “create a city within a city”. The entire complex is designed and constructed in the Art Deco architectural style.

The site’s excavation started in 1931, and construction began in 1932. While most of the complex was constructed by 1935, the final three buildings were unveiled between 1936 and 1940. Over 40,000 people were employed to build the Rockefeller Center, which would cost around $1.7 billion in 2023.

Beyond the facade | Rockefeller Center's lesser-known moments

Top of the Rock Observation Deck

The history of the Rockefeller Center is vast, rich, and populated with interesting events since its construction began in 1932. Apart from the periodic opening of different buildings, including the Rainbow Room, Skating Rink, and more, the attraction has garnered immense attention for several reasons. The Rockefeller Center is often described as one of the best and greatest projects of the Great Depression era.

  • The Rockefeller Center hosted the first-ever episode of The Tonight Show in 1952; a first-of-its-kind television program that infused entertainment, news, and other gimmicks to make it one of the most popular shows of its time.
  • The Rockefeller Center was on the verge of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s before four investors and Tishman Speyer acquired the property and redeveloped it to restore its former glory. It is one of the largest privately owned building complexes in the world.
  • Rockefeller Center’s basement was used as a shelter to store and secure supplies during the Cold War.
  • The Top of the Rock Observation Deck was the first point of interest or sight within the Rockefeller Center complex that was open to the public.

The Rockefeller Center today

The Rockefeller Center today - top of thr rock observation

The Rockefeller Center is one of the most iconic “must-see” attractions in New York City, particularly for first-time visitors. Since 1987, the Rockefeller Center has been a national historic landmark home to the NBC Studios, Radio City Music Hall, Top of the Rock Observation Deck, and The Rainbow Room. It is a lively commercial hub with plenty of dining and shopping options. The Rockefeller Center attracts millions of tourists each year and for good reasons. Catch the sweeping views of Midtown Manhattan from the Top of the Rock Observation Deck or simply experience the traditional festive vibe skating in The Rink Park. The Rockefeller Center comes to life during the holiday season in December offering plenty of holiday activities for families. noteworthy artworks.




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Frequently asked questions about Rockefeller Center's History

What is the historical significance of Rockefeller Center?

The Rockefeller Center was primarily built to transform Midtown Manhattan into one of the most vibrant cultural and commercial neighborhoods in NYC.

How old is the Rockefeller Center?

While the first buildings were built in 1933, most of the complex and structure were completed in 1939, so the Rockefeller Center is around 91 years old.

How has Rockefeller Center contributed to the city’s cultural heritage?

The Rockefeller Center, one of the most successful architectural complexes in New York City has played a pivotal role in transforming Midtown Manhattan’s skyline and showcasing the Art Deco architectural style.

What are some lesser-known historical facts about Rockefeller Center?

The idea for the construction of the Rockefeller Center was harshly criticized by many local experts including the famous historian and urban planner, Lewis Mumford. The famous photograph “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” of the Empire State Building was shot from the 69th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Are there guided tours explaining the Rockefeller Center’s history?

Yes, there are guided tours explaining the history of the Rockefeller Center.

How much money did it cost to construct the Rockefeller Center?

Experts believe it cost around $250 million, the equivalent of $1.7 billion in 2023 to construct the Rockefeller Center.

Is it worth visiting Rockefeller Center?

Yes, the Rockefeller Center is worth a visit for several reasons. Its fascinating architectural style, world-famous attractions like Top of the World and Observation Deck that offer sweeping views of the city, and countless artworks are some of the reasons that make it one of the more dreamy attractions in NYC.