True story: a few years ago on a late December evening, we arrived in Grand Central after visiting with some friends in Connecticut. We needed to pick up desserts for a friend’s party and Bouchon Bakery was a favorite, so we thought we’d make a quick run to Rockefeller Center. Well, we collided with the holiday-loving mob, and it took us an hour to navigate the tiny Plaza. So now, like all other New Yorkers (well, except Mary Lane at New York Cliche), we avoid Rockefeller Center in December.
Unless it’s late in the season and/or it’s late at night, and it looks like this.
But, now that the holiday madness has subsided, Rockefeller Center is actually a great place to visit. Come for the skating rink, the television show tapings or Top of the Rock. But stay for the history, design and amazing art.
The center was one of the most ill-timed projects imaginable: it commenced shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, requiring John D. Rockefeller Jr. to self-finance the project after initial plans were thwarted. It supported the local economy through the worst parts of the Great Depression, and buoyed spirits when it officially opened in 1933. The skating rink was originally a temporary installation — thanks to exciting innovations that finally allowed for artificial outdoor ice skating — to draw attention to the sunken plaza. It’s been a midtown fixture since 1936. And Rockefeller Center also played an essential role in World War II efforts, housing operations for both the British and Allied Intelligence. On Navy Day in 1945, thousands visited the Observation Roof to view the return of the fleet on the Hudson River.
The Art Deco movement was well underway and still massively popular at the time of construction. The buildings are still landmark examples of the style. The distinguishing features include simple, clean shapes, geometric ornamentation and unusually varied, often expensive materials.
And let’s talk about the art.
When I see the gilded cast bronze sculpture of Prometheus, it’s hard not to hear the 30 Rock theme song. (Or hear Kenneth’s voice). And impressive as it may be, there are other pieces all around that are equally deserving of some time and attention. Here are some of my favorites:
Lee Lawrie’s sculpture is the largest one at Rockefeller Center. It depicts the Ancient Greek Titan condemned by Zeus to stand at the edge of the Earth and hold up the sky on his shoulders. With its position facing St. Patrick’s Cathedral, some have compared it to Jesus carrying a cross on his back.
Another magnificent piece by Lee Lawrie graces the entrance of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or the Comcast Building. The figure presides over a biblical quote from the book of Isaiah which reads, “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times.”
News sits above the entrance to 50 Rockefeller Plaza and depicts five reporters. (The building was previously home to the Associated Press.) It’s Isamu Noguchi’s only stainless steel work. It was a catalyst for his fame, as he was relatively unknown at the time of the unveiling.
Industry and Agriculture
At One Rockefeller Plaza, you’ll find two figures: one holds a shovel while the other holds a scythe. Carl Paul Jennewein’s figures symbolize industry and agriculture, which were seen as the roots of prosperity in America.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The stunning murals by Catalan artist Jose Sert which chart American progress, and the touching portrayal of St. Francis of Assisi with Birds are some of the other inspiring works of art in the area. Rockefeller Center offers guided tours if you’re interested in more in-depth coverage. But just strolling around and uncovering the wealth of treasures is a fun way to remind ourselves why the area attracts millions of visitors every year.
Pair it with:
The Halal Guys
We’ve been going to the Halal Guys longer than we care to admit. Every time we visited New York City, this was a required stop (usually for a late night supper). Back then you had to be in the know: the cart switched hands during the day, so the legit crew was only available at certain hours.
Well, our continued patronage (and that of so many others) has paid off in spades. Now the Halal Guys have multiple carts, a brick-and-mortar location, and a rapidly growing international empire. But the value and quality remains untouched (the price has only gone up one dollar since we started coming here). We still crave the magical combination of meat, rice, lettuce, pita and that WHITE SAUCE. If you’re in the area, join the legions of fans perched on every available bench, stoop, and statue base. They’re the ones hunched over, completely entranced by their steamy platters.