Rockefeller Center: the history and specifications of a New York icon

A unique building complex in the heart of Manhattan, a "city within a city".

There’s a black-and-white photograph from the thirties that everyone is familiar with: it depicts 11 workers while they calmly eat their lunch sitting on a long steel beam. Nothing strange about that except that the beam is suspended in the void, hundreds of feet above the pavements of New York. That very famous photograph – entitled “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” – was taken in 1932 by Charles C. Ebbets during the construction of the Rockefeller Center and, specifically, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, one of the symbols of the city and the thirties.

Visitors to ‘The Big Apple’, as well as architecture enthusiasts from all over the world, have always been drawn to New York’s Rockefeller Center by the height of its buildings, the art déco style that sets it apart, its location and the important name with which it is inextricably linked.

The construction of New York’s Rockefeller Center

The son and heir of the oil magnate John Davison Rockefeller (regarded in those days as the richest man in the world), John Davison Rockefeller Jr. was an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a lynchpin in international finance for many decades. His name is inextricably linked with the Rockefeller Center: it was he, in fact, who came up with the idea for this group of buildings in the twenties of the last century, giving the go-ahead on 17 May 1930.

The idea was to construct a building complex in Midtown Manhattan, which he described as a “city within a city“. The land used, a whole block, was owned by Columbia University, which granted use to Rockefeller for 87 years (in 1985, the land on which the buildings stand was finally sold to the Rockefeller Group, which had to pay 400 million dollars to purchase it).

As mentioned, construction works began in the spring of 1930 at the height of the Depression, a few months after the devastating Wall Street crash. Despite this, Rockefeller’s monumental project was not halted. On the contrary, the construction of the Rockefeller Center ended up employing as many as 40,000 people. The first inauguration of the building complex was in 1933, the year when 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the beating heart of the new block, was opened.
By 1939, the 14 buildings in art déco style had been successfully completed.

It should be emphasised that the construction of New York’s Rockefeller Center did not end in the thirties: indeed, in the sixties and seventies, another 4 buildings were constructed in the western area of the complex.


New York’s Rockefeller Center remained firmly in the hands of the Rockefeller family until 1989 when the Rockefeller Group was acquired by the property company Mitsubishi Estate. A few years later, in 1996, the iconic building complex was acquired by a group of players in the world of high finance: 50% of the property was bought by the Goldman Sachs Group, while the remaining percentage was divided among personalities like David Rockefeller (son of John Davison Rockefeller Jr.), Stavros Niarchos and Gianni Agnelli.

This new property situation did not last long, however: at the dawn of the new millennium, most of the complex (the original 14 buildings) passed to Tishman Speyer Properties.
In 2015, the skyscraper 30 Rockefeller Plaza was finally acquired by Comcast.

30 Rockefeller: height and floors

The most famous building of the Rockefeller Center is the skyscraper 30 Rockefeller Plaza, initially called the RCA Building, then the GE Building and, from 2015, the Comcast Building. In any event, among New Yorkers, the building is known by the abbreviation 30 Rock, given its location at number 30, Rockefeller Plaza.

The height of this skyscraper is 849 feet 9 inches, made up of 70 floors in all, served by 60 lifts. There are obviously much taller skyscrapers in New York, like the recently-built One World Trade Center, with its height of 1,774 feet 11 inches, or Central Park Tower, which is 1,548 feet six and a half inches tall. Undoubtedly, however, the panorama offered at the top of the skyscraper (known as “Top of the Rock”) is one of the city’s most famous, together with the equally celebrated view from the Empire State Building.

The construction of this renowned skyscraper was supervised by Raymond Hood; one of the main innovations of this building is the positioning of a group of lifts in the central part of the skyscraper for the first time. What makes this huge building absolutely unmistakable is its façade in pure art déco style, which characterises other famous New York buildings of that time, such as the Chrysler Building. Unlike other buildings constructed in this style, however, 30 Rockefeller Plaza does not have a spire.

The team of architects coordinated by Hood was firmly convinced that art was an act of good citizenship: the stylistic peculiarity of the façade and the works of artists like Frank Brangwyn and Josep Maria Sert placed in the entrance hall should therefore come as no surprise, nor should the frieze that adorns the building, created by Lee Lawrie, in which Wisdom is depicted, accompanied by the biblical verse “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the Stability of Thy Times”.

The Rockefeller Center and its skyscraper are certainly not only famous for the panoramic terrace. The skyscraper’s main tenant was, from the start, the Radio Corporation of America, from which the building took its original name. NBC also has its headquarters here along with, of course, the offices of the Rockefeller Family & Associates, which occupy the building from the 54th to the 56th floor. On the 65th floor is the famous Rainbow Room Restaurant, which was the highest restaurant in the United States for decades.

Radio City Music Hall

The second most famous office in the Rockfeller Center, immediately after 30 Rock, is the Radio City Music Hall, a large theatre designed by Donald Deskey and commissioned by S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel, remembered for his philosophy “Don’t give the people what they want, give ’em something better”.

Another supreme example of art déco architecture, it is the home of the traditional New York Christmas show, the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular”, and has hosted and continues to host events such as the Grammy Awards and the Tony Awards.