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A remarkable tour of Rockefeller Center

August 12, 2016
Mural of construction workers at Rockefeller Center on a break
Gold-leafed Prometheus at Rockefeller Center

Gold-leafed Prometheus at Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center is a rare historic, artistic and architectural gem.

Most people, even native New Yorkers, only have a superficial knowledge of Rockefeller Center. They may have:

  • Watched Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey on 30 Rock, the comedy show that is set there;
  • Tuned in to the annual Christmas Tree lighting broadcast, that’s been ongoing for 70 years;
  • Attended a performance of long-legged Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall;
  • Gone ice-skating on the public skating rink;
  • Participated in a raucous standing-room-only Today Show concert on the Plaza; or
  • Visited the Top of the Rock Observation Deck.

But there’s so much more to Rockefeller Center!

Picture of Atlas bronze statue by Lee Lawrie, St. Patrick's Cathedral in the background

Picture of Atlas bronze statue by Lee Lawrie, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the background

As curious staycationing Seekenders visiting the city, we decided to take a guided tour of Rockefeller Center and learned that this treasure is much more than an entertainment mecca and pop culture icon.

The backstory

View of Rockefeller Center from 50th Street, looking West

View of Rockefeller Center from 50th Street, looking West

We hadn’t known that Rockefeller Center actually includes 19 buildings (with 8,000,000 square feet) spanning over 22 acres. It is bounded by 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues, with its central plaza sitting directly across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

This ambitious project, which first opened in the 1930s, was conceived by oil and railroad magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and funded solely by him at a cost of $250 million.

Mural of construction workers at Rockefeller Center on a break

Mural of construction workers at Rockefeller Center on a break (N.B. without safety harnesses or hard hats used today)

The first of our country’s billionaires, Rockefeller originally leased the property from Columbia University. (A private investment syndicate now owns the building complex.) Although reluctant at first, Rockefeller allowed his name to be attached to the building to attract wealthy tenants.

Principal architect Raymond Hood designed the fourteen art-deco style buildings that opened in 1939, a style that is also prominent in the buildings’ interiors and on its facades. The remaining buildings, which opened later, were designed in an International Style.

The largest private building project of its time, Rockefeller Center was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

Plaque designating Rockefeller Center as a National Historic Landmark

Plaque designating Rockefeller Center as a National Historic Landmark

About the tour

We’re not sure know how they do it but the guides that lead these tours seem to be uniformly impressive, both in terms of their knowledge and personality. (If you don’t believe us, check out the TripAdvisor reviews.)

Jonathan, a part-time actor, was our guide. When we met up, he handed everyone in our small group (about 10 people from across the globe) a personal headset so we could hear him clearly wherever we went. He was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and witty; and had the memory of an elephant, remembering and referring to us by our hometowns (or countries) when we asked questions. The pacing was just right; we never felt either rushed or bored.

The 1½-hour tour was mostly outdoors, where Jonathan told us engaging stories about the architecture, mosaics, murals, statues, sculptures and gardens. We followed him into the lobbies of the key buildings where he pointed out historically significant murals and other interesting interior design details.

Thought, the centerpiece of Barry Faulkner's 1933 mosaic, Intelligence Awakening Mankind, 1250 Avenue of the Americas

Thought, the centerpiece of Barry Faulkner’s 1933 mosaic named Intelligence Awakening Mankind, above 1250 Avenue of the Americas

History of transportation mural by Dean Cornwell at 10 Rockefeller Plaza

History of Transportation mural by Dean Cornwell at 10 Rockefeller Plaza

Van Gogh's Ear, Public Art Fund exhibit on the Promenade

Van Gogh’s Ear, temporary NY Public Art Fund exhibit on the Promenade

More about what we saw

A few of the public art highlights incorporated into the design of the complex are the gold-leafed Prometheus sculpture by Paul Manship (the fourth most recognized statue in the world); the giant statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue by Lee Lawrie; and the Promenade with Channel Gardens that change plantings 17 times a year, with the seasons. As art deco lovers, we especially appreciated the building facades, and their sleek bas-relief doorways and stairwells.

News, a bycast stainless steel Art Deco plaque, depicts five journalists "getting a scoop"- at the former Associated Press Building

News, a bycast stainless steel Art Deco plaque depicting five journalists getting a scoop, at the former Associated Press Building

Leo Friedlander bas-reliefs at 49th Street entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza

Leo Friedlander bas-reliefs at 49th Street entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza

Art deco interior with shiny ebonite floors (same material used for bowling balls)

Art deco interior with shiny ebonite floors (the same material used to make bowling balls)

We learned that a controversial mural in the G.E. Building (once known as the RCA Building and now variously called the Comcast Building and 30 Rock) by Diego Rivera depicted May Day in Moscow and a portrait of Lenin. That mural was removed and replaced by one called American Progress by Catalan artist Maria Sert. (Another tidbit we found out: Nelson Rockefeller had commissioned the original Rivera mural after being turned down by Matisse and Picasso.)

This was the first time a developer included business and entertainment venues in one multi-use complex. Some of the other amazing innovations in this city-within-a-city included the introduction of centrally heated buildings, air-conditioning, high-speed elevators, indoor parking and the first public garden.

Our Rockefeller Center Tour was only a short walk from our NYC staycation hotel, the Hilton by Hampton Manhattan Times Square North. This captivating tour taught us so much about an important historical era as well as the role of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in building this NYC gem.

As a bonus, on our way out of the NBC Studios building, we spotted Rachel Maddow of MSNBC walking into work. What fun!

I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. 


Tips

  • Since the majority of the tour is outdoors, dress appropriately for the weather.
  • Be sure to bring a camera; the complex (inside and out) is extremely photogenic.
  • Preferably, book early morning tours when there are fewer people and when you are less likely to be tired. Considerable walking is involved.
  • Depending on when you visit, check out Top of the Rock, a tour of NBC Studios or the Radio City Music Hall, either before or after.

IF YOU GO

Rockefeller Center Tour

The tour begins here

The tour begins here

  • The tour starts at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (enter at 50th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues).
  • Normal entry price is $17.00 per person; we were able to take the tour at no-cost as New York Pass holders.


Disclosure: As part of the Seekender team, our weekend getaway in Manhattan was sponsored by Hampton by Hilton but all opinions expressed in this post are my own.

Given its convenient location, Hampton by Hilton Manhattan-Times Square North is an excellent value if you are planning a trip to NYC. We wouldn’t hesitate to return to this property again!

  • Reply
    Nancy Monson
    August 12, 2016 at 9:28 am

    As a native New Yorker who has worked at and visited Rockefeller Center many times, I really enjoyed hearing about your tour there, Irene. Thanks! Your blog is always interesting.

    PS: Have you ever done the Grand Central tour? That’s a good one, too.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 12, 2016 at 11:22 am

      Thanks, Nancy! I loved this tour so much that I’ll probably do it again. Thanks, too, for the tip about the Grand Central Tour. I haven’t done that one but now it’s on my list!

      • Reply
        Nancy Monson
        August 12, 2016 at 11:50 am

        Grand Central was built in the Beaux Arts style of design, which it sounds like you would appreciate. The tours talk about the celestial designs on the ceiling and take you to the Whispering Gallery outside The Oyster Bar, where you can stand in one corner and whisper to someone in the opposite corner. The tour is definitely worth the time.

  • Reply
    Lauren
    August 12, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing your tour of the Rockefeller Center. I love the photographs, the travel tips and the wonderful quotation,

    “I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.”

    John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 13, 2016 at 9:33 am

      So glad you liked this post, Lauren! Thanks for visiting~

  • Reply
    Jackie Smith
    August 13, 2016 at 10:47 am

    What a great tour. Seattle Architectural Society offers similar tours of downtown here and I am always amazed at the stories behind those walls! The mural of the construction workers almost made me sick to my stomach (fear of heights) and I wondered how long it took for safety harnesses and rigging to be introduced here!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 13, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      I really loved this tour. Architectural tours are a great way to see cities!

  • Reply
    Janice Chung
    August 15, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    UGH! I wish I had known about this when I was in NYC in June. Guess I’ll have to go back. I’ve had dinner in the Rainbow Room and done the NBC tour and been to the observation deck, but not this….which is actually more up my alley as I love to learn about the history of places.

  • Reply
    The GypsyNesters
    August 15, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    Been by 30 Rock so many times but never gone in. Thanks for the peek inside!

  • Reply
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    August 15, 2016 at 10:16 pm

    Tours always tell you so much more. My son-in-law works at NBC and my husband and I visited Rockefeller Center on our own last Christmas and saw the ice skaters and spectacular tree, but still there is more to see. Always.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 17, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      Totally agree with you, Carole! A knowledgeable tour guide can really make for a remarkable experience!

  • Reply
    Cindy L
    August 16, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Wonderful tours — I haven’t been to NYC in a while, and this post makes me want to pack up and visit again. Thanks for your wonderful blog. I don’t always make time to comment, but truly enjoy your posts!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Kraft
    August 16, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    And remind me why I’ve never done this?? I absolutely will/should now!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 17, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      You were waiting for me to invite you, perhaps? 🙂

  • Reply
    Julie at FuninFairfaxVa
    August 17, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Great write-up and pictures of your Rockefeller Center tour. I attended a couple of meetings at 30 Rock and I\’ve been to this area several times but I\’ve never taken a tour. Sounds like a tour is well worth the time. How perfect that they can hire actors as tour guides!

  • Reply
    Denis Gagnon
    August 17, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks for a most interesting article about touring Rockefeller Center in New York City. I find your postings increasingly unnerving … because they consistently show me facets of New York which are fascinating and that I have yet to discover. And there is only so much time left !!! Thanks for a wonderful article!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 17, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      New York is one of those cities that is constantly changing and has so much to explore that it’s impossible to see everything!

      Best, Irene

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