Built during the height of the Depression, Rockefeller Center is more than just a New York landmark. It changed the face of midtown Manhattan forever. In his new book, “Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center,” author Daniel Okrent traces the rich history of the world’s most famous urban complex. Okrent discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt below.
MAY 21, 1928
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. The guest list was a roll call of New York’s richest: corporate titans Marshall Field, Clarence Mackay, and Walter P. Chrysler; Wall Street operators Jules S. Bache, Bernard Baruch, and Thomas Lamont; various Lehmans and Whitneys, Guggenheims and Warburgs, men whose very surnames provided all the definition they needed. Financier Otto Kahn was there, for Otto Kahn was ubiquitous in New York if opera was on the agenda, as it was on this balmy night. But an interest in Verdi or Wagner was not the primary qualifier for inclusion on the invitation list. According to a young architect named Robert O’Connor, whose father-in-law was scheduled to be the featured speaker, the evening’s host had simply invited everyone he knew who had more than ten million dollars.
Not all of them belonged to the Metropolitan Club, but there was no better venue for a convocation of the New York plutocracy. J. P. Morgan had founded the Metropolitan in 1891, after his friend John King, president of the Erie Railroad, was blackballed by the Union Club (Morgan said it was an act of spite; others insisted that certain members were offended by King’s dreadful table manners). Morgan’s stature had guaranteed a membership distinguished not solely by heredity or by financial success but by an unprecedented confluence of both. By 1928 the Metropolitan membership included two Vanderbilts, three Mellons, five Du Ponts, and six Roosevelts. It also included three men who were parties of interest to the evening’s proceedings. One was the host, an aristocrat named R. Fulton Cutting, known to some as “the first citizen of New York.” Another was Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University and a member of the Metropolitan’s board of governors, who knew that the future of his institution was to a large degree dependent on the evening’s outcome. The third was Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a preacher’s son from Georgia representing the man who, even in his absence, was the lead player in the evening’s drama.
No one expected John D. Rockefeller Jr. to attend the meeting at the Metropolitan Club that Monday night, and he didn’t disappoint. He wasn’t much of a clubman, generally preferring to spend his evenings at home in his nine-story mansion on West 54th Street; just the night before, he and his wife, Abby, had welcomed to a typical “family supper” another Ivy Lee client, Colonel Charles Lindbergh — “a simple, unostentatious, cleancut, charming fellow,” Rockefeller wrote. Rockefeller usually sought to insulate himself from the endless entreaties for access to the family treasury, and the Metropolitan Club event was clearly in that category. He got a lot of invitations of this kind, and almost always chose to deputize one of his associates to serve as a sort of scout.
Oddly, in this instance the scout — Lee — was collaborating with the supplicants. Odder still was the shadow play that was the evening’s presentation, offered ostensibly for the benefit of the assembled guests but mostly for the man who wasn’t there. The speaker was Benjamin Wistar Morris, an architect of middling accomplishment but excellent breeding. On this particular evening Morris was working for the board of the Metropolitan Opera Real Estate Company (R. Fulton Cutting, president), a group of men whose money was substantial, very old, and dearly husbanded. The elaborate clay model of an opera house and other buildings on the table in front of Morris; his impressive stereopticon slides; his reasoned, detailed, and admirably practical speech — how could anyone not be convinced of the enormous civic virtue that would arise from the development of a small plot of land in the center of a slummy midtown block?
Morris’s plan, Lee later reported to Rockefeller, would leave most of this land a plaza for the benefit of the public. “The Opera Company itself is able to finance the building of [a] new structure,” he added. Wasn’t it, Lee suggested, worth putting up the $2.5 million necessary to acquire this land from Columbia University, its improbable owner, so New York could finally have a new opera house?
SEPTEMBER 30, 1939
This time Rockefeller showed up. Seated in the front of a large gymnasium on the fourth floor of a new sixteen-story office building, he waited for his thirty-one-year-old son, Nelson, to finish the introductions. The audience this time consisted of some two thousand carpenters, charwomen, elevator operators, violinists, bookkeepers, rental agents, skating coaches, and widely assorted others on the Rockefeller payroll. One of those in attendance said that Nelson’s natural charm, amplified by his boundless energy, “gave the meeting something of a feeling of a college rally of students and faculty a night or two before the big game.”
His father would not sustain the pep rally; it wasn’t his way. He was a constitutionally shy man, and on those occasions when he was compelled to speak in public he was far more likely to adopt the mien of the Bible-school teacher he had long been than to attempt to become a cheerleader. Facing the crowd that had been lifted so high by his buoyant son, Rockefeller chose to give a history lesson. Eleven years earlier, he said, “I was asked to join with others in acquiring [a] plot to be given to the city for a street and public square, in order to provide an adequate setting for the opera house.” But, he continued, “the opera people withdrew entirely from the undertaking — an undertaking which they themselves had initiated and which I had become interested in solely at their instance.” As a result, he went on to explain, things didn’t turn out exactly as he had thought they would.
Excerpted from, “Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.” Copyright 2003 by Daniel Okrent. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.