Rockefeller Center

Fifth Avenue between 47th and 50th Streets
New York, NY

Contributed by Project for Public Spaces

The world's largest privately owned building complex is also a prominent cultural, business, and tourist attraction in Midtown.

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Why It Works

An extraordinary public space within one of the world's most prominent office building complexes, Rockefeller Plaza is a study in transformation. Thirty-five years ago, this complex was insular and almost privatized. It had a skating rink, but most of the retail was just services for the tenants. The Channel Gardens were planted mainly with dreary yew bushes. Around that time PPS was asked what kind of spikes would be appropriate to keep people off of the yews. Instead, we suggested politely, "Try benches." This was a revelation to the Center's management--a turning point where they began to see the potential of inviting people into the Plaza, accommodating them, and eventually entertaining them. This transformation has taken many years. There was no plan, but through constant experimentation, Rockefeller Center has become the most visited destination in New York, and, some might say, the nation's Central Square.

Today, Rockefeller Center's central gathering place has expanded from a fairly small skating rink and Channel Gardens into a much larger destination including the three blocks of Rockefeller Plaza and all the smaller plazas on 49th and 50th Streets. The next step forward should be to diminish vehicle space on those streets so that the Center's prominence can be sensed from a greater distance.

History & Background

The land beneath Rockefeller Center was originally pastureland, which was purchased by Dr. David Hosack in 1801. He created a public garden, the Elgin Botanic Garden, which served as a promenade as well as a laboratory for herbs. Hosack willed the land to the State of New York, which gave it to Columbia University in 1811. The Rockefellers leased the land from 1928-1985, when they bought it outright.

During the 1920s, the area surrounding the site was filled with decrepit row houses and seedy nightclubs. The Metropolitan Opera was supposed to make its new home there, but pulled out of the deal after the stock market crash of 1929. John D. Rockefeller Jr. went on to build a commercial development for the young network-broadcasting industry, and despite the depression, he broke ground in late 1929. Completed in 1940, the complex was originally named "The Radio City," with RCA, RKO, and NBC as the primary tenants. The original 14 buildings were designed by three of the era's foremost architectural firms: Hood & Fouilhoux; Corbett, Harrison, & MacMurray; and Reinhard & Hofmeister.

Today Rockefeller Center consists of 19 buildings and covers 11 acres. It is still the largest privately owned building enterprise ever undertaken in the United States. It was also the first private real estate project to include extensive garden landscaping at both street and rooftop levels. Rockefeller Center was declared a national historic landmark in 1988.

Contact Info:

General Information/Concierge: 212-332-6868

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