By Daniel Okrent
Viking -- 512pp -- $29.95
The redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan continues to preoccupy many of the world's leading architects and city planners. There remain many competing visions, but they share a common aspiration: to create the 21st century equivalent of Rockefeller Center. In its felicitous combination of mass and class -- of popular accessibility and patrician refinement -- Rockefeller Center has towered over the American landscape as the ultimate urban amenity ever since it arose in the 1930s on 11 acres of midtown Manhattan.
Initially, this great icon of urbanism was an object of scorn and derision. If Rockefeller Center "is the best our architects can do with freedom, they deserve to remain in chains," sneered the critic Lewis Mumford when the plans were unveiled in 1931. Yet by the time John D. Rockefeller Jr. famously drove in the last rivet of the project's first phase before a national radio audience in 1939, Rockefeller Center had surpassed the Statue of Liberty to become New York's biggest tourist attraction, and even Mumford had recanted. Ira Gershwin said it best, in a 1937 lyric: "They all laughed at Rockefeller Center/Now they're fighting to get in."
The story of Rockefeller Center's genesis and commercial triumph is authoritatively told by Daniel Okrent in Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. The book suffers a bit from lack of big-picture context. Okrent, a longtime Time Inc. editor, makes little effort to assess Rockefeller Center's role in New York City's evolution, or its influence on urban planning and design generally. But as narrative history, Great Fortune is compelling. The book is peopled with many fascinating personalities, deftly rendered by the author. Even the most familiar parts of the tale -- such as the clash between the ultracapitalist Rockefellers and the Communist muralist Diego Rivera -- are told here with panache and a precision that betokens deep research.
To this day, Rockefeller Center is mistakenly associated in the popular mind with John D. Rockefeller Sr., the ferocious monopolist who created Standard Oil. In reality, the 15-building complex was the handiwork of the oil baron's pious, mild-mannered son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Known virtually into his dotage as "Junior," the younger Rockefeller dedicated his life to what Okrent describes as "a long, deliberate campaign to change the word 'Rockefeller' from the signifier of rapacious greed to a symbol of enlightened citizenship." Rockefeller Center was Junior's jackpot. It not only burnished the family image but was also his one surpassing business triumph. The complex, which the family finally sold for $846 million in 1989, became the largest repository of Rockefeller wealth in the fortune's transfer from the second to subsequent generations.
If Rockefeller had not been the richest man in the world when work began on Rockefeller Center, the project might never have been finished. Its timing was abysmal. Launched on the eve of the stock market crash of 1929, Rockefeller Center's development coincided almost exactly with the Great Depression. The project caused Junior as much moral as financial discomfort. To fill Rockefeller Center's millions of square feet of new office space at a time of economic catastrophe, Junior's leasing agents effectively bribed potential tenants to break existing leases, inflicting heavy damage on rival landlords. In 1934, The New York Times ran a front-page story about these tactics filled with words calculated to make Junior cringe: "coercion...unfair...monopoly."
In a lighter vein, Okrent needles the teetotaling Junior for the hypocrisy of his proprietorship of the Rainbow Room, the superswanky nightclub perched atop the 70-story RCA Building, the center's centerpiece. Rockefeller's ownership of a place "where society would frolic, celebrities would parade, and great quantities of liquor would flow night after glamorous night...was about as likely as famous communists being commissioned to paint Rockefeller walls," Okrent writes.
The author reliably locates the fun in his tale but tends to skip lightly over its dark side -- the predatory leasing tactics, the systematic chiseling of suppliers, the abortive attempt to interest Hitler's government in sponsoring a German building. On balance, though, Okrent's obvious admiration for Rockefeller Center and its creators is easy to forgive. The complex that long has defined midtown Manhattan's emotional and geographic center was indeed a momentous accomplishment, dependent as much on inspired improvisation and tenacity as on the world's deepest pockets. By Anthony Bianco