Historical Summer in New York – Week 1: Top of the Rock

Historical Summer in New York – Week 1: Top of the Rock

I’ve just moved to New York and it’s the height of summer. So I decided to make it my mission to visit to one new historical site here every week while the weather lasts!. Week 1 wasn’t intended to be the subject of a historical attraction post, but I really enjoyed reading about it’s construction, so here we are!

So one of the first attractions I visited in NYC was Top of the Rock. I’d already been on the Empire State Building, so now it was time to experience something new. I hadn’t bargained that I’d learn a hell of a lot more about the circumstances of the construction of 30 Rock Plaza as part of the process. In fact, if the 1929 Wall Street Crash hadn’t happened, it’s possible that the iconic building might not exist at all.

Rockefeller Center

For those of you that don’t know, Top of the Rock is a building in the Rockefeller Center complex, which has no fewer than 19 commercial buildings. Situated just off the famous 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, the complex consists of 14 iconoic Art Deco buildings (and a private street called Rockefeller Plaza). Five more buildings were later added, bringing the total to 19.IMG_20170113_174059

Rockefeller Family

And the name? Yep, you guessed it, named after the eminent investor John D. Rockefeller (Jr). In 1928, the site was owned by Columbia University. They leased the land to Rockefeller, envisioning that it would be the site for the new Metropolitan Opera Building. But things didn’t go quite according to plan…

The Great Depression

The site (which was originally a botanical garden in the early 1800s) was cited from 1926 as a potential place for the new Met Opera Building. In 1928, Benjamin Wistar Morris and Joseph Urban were hired to come up with blueprints for the Opera Building. When it became clear that the Met couldn’t fund their plans itself, John D. Rockefeller Jr was recruited as an investor (though his father John D. Sr was not involved). New designers were hired, and Columbia agreed an 87 year lease for the plot to Rockefeller.

The principal architect was Raymond Hood, a student of the Art Deco movement which was gaining pace in the late 1920s. By December 1928, was all-systems-go, but two factors were to trouble the plans…

The Great Depression

The first of these factors was the fact that Met was becoming increasingly worried. It didn’t think the proposed site for it’s new opera house was going to be profitable.

And 10 months later, everything came to a halt with the 1929 stock market crash. A few weeks later, on December 6, 1929, the Met confirmed it could not afford a new opera house afterall. Plans were halted. The era of the Great Depression had begun. 

It was a dilemma for Rockefeller, however, who had signed an 87-year lease on the site. He needed to act quickly. Within a month, he had devised new plans to make the site profitable. He entered into talks with Radio Corporation of America, to build a mass-media entertainment complex on the site. Radio City was born. 

And thus, building began – well, that was, after a few plans fell by the wayside, mainly due to the public giving negative feedback. Four small retail buildings and a 41-story tower earmarked the beginning of Rockefeller Plaza in 1931. This was despite the fact that Rockefeller initially did not want the Rockefeller family name associated with the commercial project, but was persuaded on the grounds that the name would attract far more tenants.

After more plan changes, the plan for the building that was to become 30 Rockefeller Plaza opened in 1933.

Building the Tower

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper

(Photo from https://www.rockefellercenter.com/blog/2014/03/12/rock-history/)

“Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper” is on the of the most famous photographs ever taken in New York City. It was taken on September 20, 1932, showing The Rock construction workers having their lunch with no regard for Health and Safety! According to the Rockefeller Website, the photo was taken 840-feet above the ground – about the 69th floor, during the final months of construction in 1932. And the website confirms that these men are not actors – they are genuine construction workers. Whether or not the photo was staged is another debate!

The website gives a very accurate description of what this photo represents historically:

“Regardless of the specifics, this image came to represent a specific time in modern New York’s history. There’s a nod toward the Depression, when workers were happy to have a job (despite the lack of safety harnesses), as well as a strong representation of the exciting period when New York City grew vertically at a rapid rate. A 2012 film called Men at Lunch explores the immigrant backgrounds of the men in the photo, identifying some as Irish and Swedish.”

‘Men at Lunch’ – documentary

In 2010, two Irish brothers happened upon the photo in a pub in Co. Galway. Upon learning that two men from the region were claimed to be in the photograph, the brothers began researching a documentary on the origins of the men, discovering that they were mainly Irish and Swedish. In 2012, their documentary ‘Men at Lunch’ was released. 

Conclusion

So that’s how a supposedly panoramic view of the city I’m calling home for the next three months left me realising there is always a much bigger story behind such iconic buildings. Who knows what might be on the Rockefeller Center site today if the 1929 Crash hadn’t happened? 

I’m setting myself the challenge of visiting 1x new historical scene in New York every week that I’m living here. Follow more of my historical NYC trails on Twitter: @blogger_history.

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10 Historic Facts you might not know about the London Underground (Tube)

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Photo: author’s own

Having lived in London for six years, I use the Tube virtually every single day. The history of it has always fascinated me – I was aware that civilians had sheltered in it during World War II, but actually descending into the stations…I couldn’t believe this was where they slept and it got me thinking about the creation of the Tube and what’s it become. 

    1. The London Underground was the first underground railway system in the world. In 1863, The Metropolitan Railway, as it was then known, began running between Paddington (then called Bishop’s Road) and Farringdon Street. Around 30,000 passengers went on The Metropolitan Railway on its first day of public business – January 10, 1863. It was not until 1890 that the phrase ‘Tube’ was used, and the name ‘Underground’ did not appear in stations until 1908.
    2. The Tube was originally steam-powered. Although the underground railway has opened in 1863, it wasn’t until 1869 that it began to run under the Thames and south of the river, through the Thames Tunnel. And it was not until December 1890 that the world’s first deep-level electric railway was opened, running from King William Street in the City of London, under the Thames, to Stockwell.
    3. As noted above, it wasn’t until 1869 that the Tube started running under the Thames, and through the Thames Tunnel. The Thames Tunnel had opened in 1843- the first tunnel under a river – and upon its opening became known as the Eigth Wonder of the World. Built by the Brunels, it’s construction was not without its flaws – the miners were subjected to sewage flows, ignited methane gas and some died during construction due to flooding – but the completed tunnel provided the basis for the Tube to run under the Thames.
    4. The Tube was designed so that illiterate people could navigate it. Ever noticed how some Tube stations are coloured/some tiles contrast? The reason for this is because the designs were originally created to help commuters recognise the station they had arrived at without the benefit of the blue and white signs commuters are used to seeing on a daily basis.
    5. It’s a well-known fact that many Tube stations were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War, but the Central Line was even converted into a fighter aircraft factory that stretched for over two miles, with its own railway system. Its existence remained an official secret until the 1980s. Brompton Road (now disused) on the Piccadilly, Line was apparently used as a control room for anti-aircraft guns.
    6. But while the Tube acted as an air-raid shelter during World War II, it was not without its tragedies. The worst civilian death toll on the Underground occurred at Bethnal Green Tube tragedy in 1943, when 173 people died in a human crush. And earlier, than that, in 1940, 41 people were killed when a bomb burst a mains pipe,causing people sheltering in the Balham Tube station to drown.
    7. Winston Churchill had his own secret station during the World War II. Down Street was a working station between 1907 and 1932, and was converted into bomb-proof shelters during the Second World War. Initially on what was to become the Piccadilly Line, it was between Dover Street (now Green Park) and Hyde Park Corner stations. Mainly used as a shelter by the Railway Executive Committee during the war, it was also used by Winston Churchill and his war cabinet until the Cabinet War Rooms were ready for use. The London Transport Museum offer tours of Down Street as part of it’s Hidden London series – https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london/down-street
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      Photo taken August 2018 by the author

      After the war, the deep level shelter at Clapham South housed 492 immigrants from the West Indies who arrived aboard the HMT Empire Windrush, having responded to an advertisement for labourers to come to London. When they arrived, the colonial Office didn’t have enough accommodation for them all, and they were sheltered in the deep-level shelter at Clapham South. You can visit the shelter today thanks to the London Transport Museum – https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london/clapham-south

    9. One of the proposed names for the Victoria Line was Viking Line. Sadly though, this wasn’t for historical reasons, but more-so because it would run through the stations of Victoria and King’s Cross.
    10. And finally…on it’s inaugural journey in 1863, around 30,000 passengers traveled on the Tube. On 4 December 2015 (a day when I travelled to and from work at the BBC), I helped contribute to a new record – being one of 4.82 million people who traveled on the Tube that day.

THANK YOU TO THE AUTHORS OF THE FOLLOWING SOURCES FOR HELPING WITH MY RESEARCH FOR THIS POST: