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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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!