3:08 p.m. | Updated Welcome to the Big City Book Club. Our live discussion about “Great Fortune,” by Daniel Okrent, will take place from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Eastern time in the comments section below, but you can post your thoughts and questions anytime.
Opening thoughts from Ginia Bellafante, the Big City columnist, follow directly. Mr. Okrent has contributed his comments; a response from the novelist and cultural critic Kurt Andersen will be posted later this afternoon.
Ginia Bellafante: At this evening’s convening of the Big City Book Club, we’re going to be talking about Daniel Okrent’s “Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center,” a rich history of the creation of one of New York’s most dramatic landmarks. That description threatens to undersell a book that leaves virtually no New York obsession unmined: made wealth, inherited wealth, real estate, art, design, philanthropy, society, thwarted ambition, realized ambition, eccentricity. (The appearance of a woman at a speakeasy wearing a toilet seat around her neck? Check. And that’s before we get to a chief architect — Ray Hood — who spent the last year of his life on a diet of brussels sprouts.)
A regular discussion with Ginia Bellafante.
The book chronicles how a sketchy patch of land in Midtown Manhattan owned by Columbia University and given over to vice ultimately became home to a reigning symbol of Deco glamour, media primacy and also the contrarian spirit that animates so much of life in New York: Rockefeller Center went up over the 1930s dismissive of the International Style that had so much emerged as the preferred flavor of the time.
Behind it all is John D. Rockefeller Jr. — or Junior, as he was known — a man with a feisty wife and few obvious passions beyond the wish to avoid seeming like an idler. I found myself thinking throughout that the book lends itself to a parlor game of alternative history. The unparalleled giving for which the Rockefellers were responsible resulted in the donation of the land on which the United Nations was built, the development of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the Cloisters and Rockefeller University, a premiere research institute. In the absence of that one family, would anyone else have stepped in and provided in this way, and how might New York be different?
Another question this book raises: What is it psychologically that makes New Yorkers — maybe human beings in general — so often reflexively disparage any new, destined-to-become-iconic building? Rockefeller Center did not by any means get the love it receives today when it went up. There was little sense initially that it would be so cherished.
Speaking of instinctively hating the new: I find myself already cringing at the prospect of Park Avenue in Midtown lined with Shanghai-style skyscrapers. I refer here to the proposed rezoning of Midtown East, which the Bloomberg administration insists must happen so that New York’s commercial real estate market can remain globally competitive. Wouldn’t these buildings shadow Rock Center — and should we care if they do? Moreover, is there any argument to be made for New York retaining its New York-ness, however benighted an idea that might seem? Isn’t that the lesson of Rock Center in the end?
Kurt and Dan, take it away.
Daniel Okrent: Having spent five years of my life studying Rockefeller Center, and more than 40 years loving it, I don’t imagine that anything the mayor or his successors could do to Midtown East would overshadow the place. There is, of course, an emotional element to my confidence — love makes men blind — but there’s the historical element as well. In the 80 years since Rockefeller Center opened, any number of developers, both private and public, have tried to build on or near its scale — but they have all failed abysmally, each of their projects only serving to underscore Rock Center’s singularity.
For instance: Lincoln Center. Whatever the positive consequences of its recent renovation and redesign might be, they do not alter the fundamental fact that the Lincoln Center campus is dead in the daytime. Nor could the architects who executed the renovation solve the dead-ended-ness of the place. Where Rockefeller Center is enmeshed in the city’s pre-existing grid; Lincoln Center is only an appendix to it. You can go INTO Lincoln Center, but you can’t go THROUGH it; the Stalinesque wall along its western edge, on Amsterdam Avenue, underscores how it seals itself off from the city.
Time Warner Center? A handsome pair of office buildings atop a shopping mall that could be Anywhere, U.S.A. The United Nations Plaza and its Trumpian excrescence? Out of the way, not even part of the conversation. And the tragedy of 9/11 should not obscure how awful a piece of design and planning the World Trade Center was, a veritable moonscape sprouting architecture that was all about size, not remotely about the urban context.
Rockefeller Center, however, endures. There had been nothing like it before it was built; there has been nothing like it since.