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The epic of Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center symbolizes the heart of Manhattan

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Great Fortune: The Epic of RockefellerCenter

Daniel Okrent
Viking, $29.95

In all likelihood many decades from now, the day will come when New York will no longer be the most powerful city in the world. At that time, the citizens of this mighty metropolis, like modern Athenians looking up at the Acropolis, will be reminded of the years of power and glory by the great structures that serve as exclamation points on Manhattan's skyline. For obvious reasons, the Empire State Building—once again, through tragic circumstances, the dominant structure on the city's skyline—will inspire the collective thought that "those were the days," with the Chrysler Building playing a similar evocative role. Those are great single spires, definitive skyscrapers.

But a significant number of true New Yorkers might choose as America's acropolis the several buildings, plazas, and roof gardens that make up RockefellerCenter. Daniel Okrent, a former editor of Life magazine and today the first public editor of the New York Times, has written a delightful and exhaustive (but never exhausting) book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, in which he tells the dazzling, complex story of how New York's acropolis came to be. Okrent's subtitle is not hyperbole; this is an epic tale, as mythic as the statues of Atlas and Prometheus that famously hold court in the revered complex. It requires an author up to the task of telling it. From the very first sentence of the book's prologue, we know we are in good hands. "All the men entering the gleaming marble hall of the Metropolitan Club had arrived at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street on the wings of their wealth," Okrent writes.

But it took more than the wings of wealth to raise the great project into Manhattan's sky. Also essential were the thrust of power, the lift of influence, the energy of competing egos. No small part of the mix was architectural and organizational brilliance, for which we can all be everlastingly grateful. In the beginning, the saga of RockefellerCenter began with a piece of land, about 20 acres or so, in what is now Midtown. It is, in that sense, a typical story of Manhattan, where land is limited and the struggle for real estate is the moral equivalent of war—though morality very rarely comes into it.

The acreage on which the center was eventually built, with construction beginning in the fall of 1931, was originally part of the Common Lands assembled by Dutch governor Peter Minuit in 1624. In 1801, one David Hosack, a professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (precursor to ColumbiaMedicalSchool) who was a friend to both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, purchased the parcel from the city of New York for the equivalent of $5,000. Hosack spent a fortune (his wife's, actually) to create a walled garden in which to raise medicinal plants. At the time, Hosack's garden lay so far north of the city proper that, as Okrent puts it, with a touch of Manhattan condescension, it "might as well have been in Poughkeepsie."

Eleven acres of the plot eventually became the property of ColumbiaCollege, was turned into a fairly tawdry mix of small business and residential brownstones in the early 20th century, and at that time, began leasing out the land to help Columbia pay for its new campus on MorningsideHeights. Part of the site was considered as a new location for the Metropolitan Opera. That deal foundered for reasons as byzantine as they are riveting, but it gave birth to the idea of a complex of theatres, stores and office space that would stretch from elegant Fifth Avenue all the way to Sixth, dark and noisy under its elevated train line.

Eventually, John D. Rockefeller Jr. entered the picture with his great fortune (and the desire to make it even larger). David Sarnoff, the ambitious new head of fast-growing RCA, brought his company in as a potential major lessee, and a team of five notable architects was assembled under the organizational leadership of developer John R. Todd and the aesthetic direction of Ray Hood, designer of the McGraw-HillBuilding on 42nd Street. In the summer of 1930, plans for RockefellerCenter finally began to take shape.

At this point in the story, we are only one-third of the way through Okrent's book, and not a page that follows is any less fascinating than what has gone before. The author spares neither himself nor us even the most minor detail. For which we can thank him, since there don't appear to be any details that seem in the end to be minor.

Okrent's cast of characters might have populated Henry James' biggest, unwritten novel. But it's the result of their monumental efforts that remain with us today. From the joyful Deco flamboyance of RadioCityMusic Hall to the elemental inevitability of the Modernist RCA tower, the complex was as innovative as it was impeccable, as smart as a business venture as it was eloquent as an artistic statement. The author puts it this way: "It is one of those expressions of architecture that, after seven decades, seems so natural it's hard to comprehend how revolutionary it was." In his epilogue, Okrent quotes one of the best writers about New York, Brendan Gill: "RockefellerCenter amounts to an extended family of buildings none of which, though they grow older, appears to grow old."

Owen Edwards, for many years a New Yorker, now resides in San Francisco.

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About Owen Edwards
Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.

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