The Epic of Rockefeller Center
New York Times Notable Book
"With characters worthy of a Dickens novel, a supremely gifted writer makes the greatest city on earth come elegantly alive." Ken Burns
In this hugely appealing book, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, acclaimed author and journalist Daniel Okrent weaves together themes of money, politics, art, architecture, business, and society to tell the story of the majestic suite of buildings that came to dominate the heart of midtown Manhattan and with it, for a time, the heart of the world. At the center of Okrent’s riveting story are four remarkable individuals—tycoon John D. Rockefeller, his ambitious son Nelson Rockefeller, real estate genius John R. Todd, and visionary skyscraper architect Raymond Hood. In the tradition of David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, Ron Chernow’s Titan, and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Great Fortune is a stunning tribute to an American landmark that captures the heart and spirit of New York at its apotheosis.
A NOTE TO THE READER
Places: I wish the names of buildings were as simple as, say, designing, erecting, and occupying a group of remarkable structures in the heart of America’s largest city in the middle of the Great Depression. In most instances my proper nouns are the ones in use during the periods I’m writing about. Therefore, at different points in this book different names are used to describe one thing: Metropolitan Square, Radio City, Rockefeller City, Rockefeller Center; looking back from today, it’s always Rockefeller Center. For individual buildings I’ve generally used the names they were known by when built—thus, the building now called 1270 Avenue of the Americas is referred to here as the RKO Building; the Time & Life Building I refer to is the original version, south of the skating rink, and not the current one on Sixth Avenue. (The illustration on pages viii–ix should clarify any nomenclatural murkiness.) By “Rockefeller Center” itself, I mean those buildings completed before World War II. The two later buildings in the original style (Sinclair and Esso) and all those across Sixth Avenue, from 46th Street to 51st Street, are formally part of Rockefeller Center, but not of the concept that became Rockefeller Center.
Numbers: Dates of buildings vary by source—some authorities use the date when construction begins, some the date when it ends. When in doubt, I’ve gone with the dates provided by Norval White and Elliot Willensky in their indispensable AIA Guide to New York City. The height of buildings, in feet as well as in stories, is often the concoction of developers and their publicists, who like to count rooftop air vents, water tanks, radio antennae, and anything else that can stretch the “official” number. I’ve generally allowed them their fun, except where it’s material, as in the case of the sixty-six- (or maybe sixty-seven-, but not remotely seventy-) story RCA Building. Same with quantity of buildings: Rockefeller Center management has always counted the six-story eastern appendages of the International Building as separate structures, but the whole thing is clearly one building, and I count it as such.
People: The only nomenclatural issue here has to do with the family at the book’s heart, the Rockefellers. The three men bearing the name John Davison Rockefeller are here referred to in two instances by the names by which they are known to the family archivists—Senior and Junior. The third, depending on context, is either Johnny or John.
Some readers may think a more material issue concerning people has to do with gender: save for a very few lesser characters, this saga has an all-male cast. This is a reflection of the era, and not of any authorial bias.
Finally, a comment on memory: Interviews are great for color and for a sense of personality. But even those conducted much closer to the events described here—those compiled by the Columbia University Oral History Project, for instance, or by the excellent architectural historian Carol Herselle Krinsky—are flawed by that most unreliable of research tools, memory. Contemporary documents, however, are precise. When I’ve encountered a conflict of facts, either I point it out in context or go with the one that seems to me, after six years’ immersion in this project, to be accurate. In a jump ball, the document almost always wins.
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?
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.
It was inevitable that a man so comfortable within the embrace of the American patriciate would provoke such epithets. He had built a career, a reputation, and an unblemished belief in his own virtue upon a nearly holy devotion to the marriage of money and power. Wherever Butler traveled, his focus italicized by the vivid smear of his luxuriant eyebrows, he looked benevolently upon the deeds, and the needs, of America’s last ruling class. Rising from a middle-class New Jersey upbringing, he had become a pillar of the Republican Party (and a plausible candidate for its presidential nomination in 1920), a ubiquitous presence on the circuits of international power (he was Gladstone’s houseguest as a young man, dined with Kaiser Wilhelm in his early forties, met with Mussolini when Italian fascism was still new), a joiner and a leader so prolific in his associations and so enamored of his own renown that, year after year, he made certain that his was the longest entry in Who’s Who. This annual exercise in self- celebration cataloged honorary doctorates (writer Alva Johnston, who thought well of him, called Butler “a harvesting machine of university degrees”); club memberships (in New York alone, he belonged to the Century, the Union, the University, the Lotos, and the Metropolitan); publications (mostly repurposed speeches, few of them substantive, none of them memorable); and a sufficiency of other details that each year consumed more than a column and a half of tiny type, a mutable monument to his floodlit success.
Whatever it was he was seeking, the man worked at it. He produced all those speeches without the aid of ghostwriters, and his workday was frighteningly efficient. Letters poured from the President’s House on Morningside Heights or from his office in Low Library in a volume that would overwhelm the hardiest archivist. He dictated each morning until noon, pacing back and forth, his coattails flying behind him, his secretaries desperately trying to keep up. Even the most trivial letters were answered within a day of their receipt at 60 Morningside Drive— or at his summer place in Southampton, on Long Island, or at the hotels in which he lived on his annual visits to Europe. In London he always stayed at the Berkeley, where he would receive wires from the States addressed in care of the hotel’s comically inappropriate cable address: sybarite, london.
Butler’s European trips were largely the product of his long- held presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a platform from which he helped negotiate the Kellogg- Briand Pact of 1928. This was a document that renounced war, a deeply Butlerian notion insofar as the nobility of its sentiment balanced precisely with its specious futility. Still, it was an accomplishment that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize three years later, which was a nice thing but probably not nearly as gratifying to Butler as the honor that would endure for forty- three years of his long life. The presidency of Columbia University had brought Butler everything he had—the club memberships, the patronage of the Republican hierarchy, the offer of railroad presidencies extended by E. H. Harriman and J. P. Morgan. But it had also brought him a problem that by his own admission had vexed the university’s board of trustees (and, therefore, Butler himself) since the day he had been installed as Columbia’s president in 1902: what to do with the eleven acres of midtown Manhattan that Columbia owned—land that produced so very little, and that if properly exploited could be worth so very, very much.
Butler was not the first Columbia president to salivate over the potential revenue from the land, originally almost four full blocks stretching from 47th to 51st Street, from Fifth Avenue nearly all the way to Sixth. For decades the land had looked to Columbia’s officers and trustees much like a lamb chop must look to a wolf. But long before the institutional drooling had begun, the property was more nuisance than asset, acquired almost as a sort of booby prize in a state distribution of public lands.
Originally part of the Dutch-controlled Common Lands assembled by Peter Minuit in 1624, the acreage that Butler would eventually turn into Columbia’s dowry became, by the end of the seventeenth century, property of the City of New York. But the city, such as it was, still lay huddled around the southern tip of Manhattan, and this twenty-acre chunk of hilly slopes and rocky promontories might as well have been in Poughkeepsie.
To David Hosack, though, it was a convenient and comfortable ride up the carriage road that ran along the spine of Manhattan Island. Hosack was a man of parts, most of them glittering: physician, scholar, gentleman botanist, salonnier, friend to both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Through a provident marriage and his own native talents, he had by 1800 become one of the foremost citizens of the growing city. His portrait was painted by Rembrandt Peale; Tocqueville wrote of the pleasures of Hosack’s table. He was also a professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons—precursor of Columbia’s medical school— and longed for a piece of land that he could turn into a garden of materia medica, a sort of natural pharmacy.
Finding the ideal conditions for his garden about three and a half miles up the carriage road from the heart of inhabited New York, in 1801 he purchased the plot from the city for slightly less than five thousand dollars. Within three years the Elgin Botanical Garden, named after Hosack’s father’s birthplace in Scotland, bloomed with species from all over the world, some of them rare items contributed by Thomas Jefferson. A sixty-two- foot-long greenhouse anchored a row of structures running west from present-day Fifth Avenue. The entire plot was, Hosack noted with satisfaction, encircled by a “belt of forest trees and shrubs judiciously chequered and mingled,” which were in turn enclosed by an imposing stone wall, two and a half feet thick and seven feet high.
Many years later a student of Hosack’s recalled his mentor as “a man of profuse expenditure” who “had he the wealth of Astor” would still never have had enough. Over the nearly ten years he owned the Elgin plot, Hosack tried to prove his student’s point, spilling nearly $100,000 into the garden until his wife’s fortune could no longer bear the leakage. Unable to find a buyer for land he could no longer afford, he turned to the state legislature, where he had many friends, for relief.* After two years’ effort, Hosack was able to persuade the lawmakers to give him $75,000 for a parcel of land that no one wanted.
Including the state of New York. Soon the spot to which the city’s grandees had once proudly brought their European visitors became a near ruin. When the trustees of Columbia College came hat in hand to the state government seeking funds, just as their brethren at Union and Hamilton Colleges had done recently and successfully, the tapped-out legislature considered its empty pockets and instead gave Columbia land. The college trustees, whose existing buildings were confined to a plot of land on Park Place, some four miles away in downtown Manhattan, were more bemused than gratified. The trustees turned over responsibility for the plot to the son of a past Columbia president, but Clement Moore proved a better light poet (“’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) than an agricultural manager, and the place sank into utter decrepitude. By 1823 the best Columbia could do with Hosack’s Folly was rent it to a private individual for $125 a year and taxes.
The evanescent Eden that was the Elgin Garden would manifest itself in the life of the city several times over the next century. Many of the surviving plant specimens were shipped off to the Bloomingdale Asylum in distant Morningside Heights, where they were planted on what would decades later become the site of Low Library, the dominant building on Columbia’s eventual campus. The Elgin itself became the model for the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx; Hosack’s large collection of horticultural texts was incorporated into its library. And both the carriage road that led to the garden and the pathway that fronted its south-facing expanse found their eventual forms in the city’s decision, in 1807, to appoint a commission to plan New York’s future. When they emerged from their deliberations four years later, the commissioners put forth a scheme to organize mile after mile of empty Manhattan terrain on a grid of 12 numbered avenues running north and south, and 155 similarly labeled streets crosshatching the island east and west. It was, wrote architect Rem Koolhaas in 1994, “the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization: the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, non- existent.”
But the grid gave names to the carriage road, which became Sixth Avenue, and to the pathway in front of the greenhouse, which became 50th Street. And what was soon known as Columbia’s Upper Estate (to distinguish it from the Lower Estate, its property downtown near City Hall) was now fixed on the map, and in the city’s history.
Land-loving avarice pinned educational duties to the mat. One chunk of the property, sixteen lots at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, had already been sold to the Dutch Reformed Church. A few years later the remaining frontage along Fifth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets went to the Goelet family, landowners whose substantial Manhattan holdings—fifty- five acres in all—derived from the two Goelet brothers who had inherited the land from the man whose two daughters they had wisely married. Proceeds from the sales covered taxes, made a contribution to Columbia’s operating costs, and built, at last, the new campus on a two-acre plot down the road, east of Madison Avenue at 49th Street. Continuing income was expected to come, someday, from long-term ground leases on all that land in the Upper Estate.
But in the late 1850s, ambitions flowering within the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York—hardly a Columbia ally— suddenly spiked the land’s value. Brownstone houses rose in what Edith Wharton called a “chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried,” but which nonetheless produced perfectly lovely rents. Hosack’s land became the virtual guarantor of Columbia’s future solvency, not the last time it would play so noble a role.
The man who decreed a new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the plot facing the northernmost block of the Upper Estate was John J. “Dagger John” Hughes, the first archbishop of New York. Hughes was part cleric, part politician (antecedent of the Tammany bosses, he successfully ran slates of his own candidates for public office), and all Irishman. The city’s established German Catholics had made way for the wave upon wave of Irish immigrants who had flowed into New York in the previous two decades, and the Vatican had provided them with one of their own as a leader. Hughes almost instantly made the church the center of Irish life in New York, both the symbol of his people’s aspirations and the instrument by which they would achieve them.
The trustees and officers of Columbia may have been, every one of them, Protestant members of the city’s commercial and genealogical elite, and may have included among their number, ex officio, the city’s Episcopal bishop, but they could hardly have objected to the grand plans that Hughes revealed on August 15, 1858. The Irish place in the city virtually certified by Hughes’s action, a crowd of 100,000 deliriously happy Catholics watched as the archbishop presided over the laying of the cornerstone for a building which, he said at the time, would cost more than $1.5 million. Never mind that the final cost, after more than two decades of construction, would exceed $4 million; never mind that, at the time of the cornerstone ceremony, Hughes had in hand pledges amounting to all of $73,000. Wrote one historian, “Hughes believed that if you took on a challenge, you would perforce rise to meet it.”
Once met, Hughes’s challenge transformed New York. By the Civil War, Fifth Avenue had already begun to evolve into the city’s grandest thoroughfare, even if the grandeur largely resided below 23rd Street. But with the declarative punctuation of a lavish Gothic cathedral (even a Catholic one) inscribed at 50th Street, the northward rush accelerated. Almost as an ironic comment on the great gray cathedral, in a handsome residence one block north, with a staff of seven servants, lived Madame Restell, whose eminence as New York’s leading abortionist had made her as wealthy as she was infamous. But just south of St. Patrick’s rose a more congenial neighbor, the Buckingham Hotel. The Buckingham boasted in its advertising that “there is no noise, no confusion of porters or waiters, no loungers or patrons of the bar who are not guests of the house.” This was exactly the sort of reassurance that a thirty-eight-year-old oilman from Cleveland might have sought before moving his young family into the hotel in 1877. Occupying a suite that looked out directly upon the filigreed towers of the cathedral, John Davison Rockefeller may have appreciated the general calm of the Buckingham and its neighborhood, but at least one member of his family did not: years later, John D. Rockefeller Jr. said, “I can still hear the noise of the steel tires [of the carriages] rumbling along the street. It was fearfully noisy.”
Around the same time, starting with the “Vanderbilt Colony” in the lower 50s, hothouse blooms of mythic splendor began to burst into life on Fifth. The Millionaires’ Mile grew into a lush garden of limestone turrets, marble finials, and formal porte cocheres. Behind Gothic windows outlined in lead and stone stretched grand ballrooms, mirrored galleries, rooms harboring Rembrandts, Flemish tapestries, furniture made for Marie Antoinette. Henry Clay Frick, whose own palace uptown on Fifth and 70th had not yet been built, estimated that the maintenance cost on just one of the Vanderbilt houses ran to $1,000 a day. Beside the Vanderbilt mansions—there were four in the space of two blocks, which was quite an accomplishment given the size of these beauties—stood houses for Astors, for Goelets, for the entire mercantile aristocracy of the Mauve Decades. Nathan Silver, in his Lost New York, called it “a visual summary of free enterprise and the history of architecture.” And, he might have added, of the gaudy rivalries of the superrich, expressing themselves in a can-you-top-this orgy of rabid self-indulgence. Richard Morris Hunt, the favored architect to the wealthy, said, “If they want a house with a chimney on the bottom, I’ll give them one.”
The side streets throughout the 40s and 50s were substantially different, the better blocks lined with what Wharton considered “narrow houses...lacking in external dignity, so crammed with smug and suffocating upholstery,” but also featuring some relatively noble exemplars of Victorian luxury. One, directly across from the shaded lawns of St. Luke’s Hospital on 54th Street, just west of Fifth, was a present from railroad king Collis P. Huntington to his beloved mistress Arabella, the “unofficial Mrs. Huntington”—ergo, the recipient of gifts far grander than those bestowed on any old official wife. Four brownstone stories, dressed outside in demure threads of ivy and inside in the relatively understated style championed by the English aesthete Charles L. Eastlake, every cent of Huntington’s investment nonetheless showed: the rosewood and mother-of-pearl inlays in the maple cabinets, the stenciled canvas ceilings, the ebonized cherry furniture as solid and as worthy as a government bond. But in 1884 Arabella the Unofficial tired of 4 West 54th Street and swapped it for nine pieces of uptown real estate that belonged to John D. Rockefeller Sr. The new owner probably enjoyed nothing about his 54th Steet mansion quite so much as the opportunity it gave him, each winter, to skate leisurely around the frozen surface of its capacious yard. The Columbia land harbored few houses as grand as Rockefeller’s, but by 1879 every one of its 203 lots was developed and under long-term lease.
Beneath the tracks, in the foul, murky shadows of the ungainly superstructure, there grew a netherworld of sin and sleaze—dance halls, brothels, crime-ridden bars. A Brooklyn clergyman called Sixth Avenue “a gaslit carnival of vice,” and that was one of the nicer things anyone said about it. In a way, it was a perfect release valve for the palace-lined Fifth; without having to bear the clutter of public transportation, the smooth asphalt of Fifth Avenue evolved into a fine road for carriages and a handsome promenade route to Central Park.
But the presence of the el so near to hand, the promise of open vistas beside the park, and the inevitable northward march of the city’s commercial enterprises led in time to the decline even of Fifth. As various Vanderbilts and assorted Astors relocated to mansions in the stretch of the avenue that faced Central Park, the blocks in the 40s and lower 50s attracted retail and other businesses. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the area had taken on the complexion of commerce. The stores that had replaced the mansions on Fifth may have been suitably exclusive, but they were still stores; however refined the crowds they attracted might have been, they were still crowds. In the space of six years land values on Fifth Avenue, bid up by the merchants flocking to midtown, more than tripled. As the Automobile Age accelerated, the city mandated a fifteen-foot widening of the roadway to accommodate the press of traffic. One Vanderbilt mansion gave up its garden to the project, another its handsome stone steps. St. Patrick’s lost the grassy bank that buffered it from the street.
Nothing, however, changed the neighborhood so much as Columbia’s decision to vacate its Madison Avenue buildings for the land it had purchased on upper Broadway in Morningside Heights. When the university abandoned its Collegiate Gothic structures east of Madison, Columbia’s relationship to the Upper Estate changed radically. “The attention of the trustees,” Butler wrote, “was divided between the important problems relating to the reorganization of the college and its development into a university and those growing out of the renewal of the leases on the Upper Estate.” Translated out of Butlerese, this meant that expansion on the grand scale of McKim, Mead & White’s Olympian campus on Morningside Heights had somehow to be financed, and the Upper Estate was the only cash cow in sight. The milking commenced in 1904, shortly after Butler’s presidency began. Over the protests of Columbia treasurer J. M. Nash, the southernmost block, between 47th and 48th Street, was sold for $3 million to pay for the land Columbia had acquired uptown. On a more sustained basis, the college attempted to renegotiate the remaining Upper Estate leases as they came up for renewal, but failed to wrest them entirely free of terms that had been set at the time of their original execution. Hurried along by some well-aimed lawsuits, and simultaneously seeking to maximize the value of the leases that did expire, Columbia stopped enforcing its 1859 restrictive covenants barring apartment houses and commercial or industrial use.
This last act proved to be a tactical error that would, over time, mutate into a brilliant strategic coup. For with the suspension of the covenants, the Upper Estate began a plummet that turned it into a tawdry collection of rooming houses, brothels, speakeasies, and shoe repair shops able to bring in by 1928, at the very peak of an unprecedented economic boom, a pathetic $300,000 a year in ground rents. But because of the accident of these eleven acres remaining under a single ownership for the entire 127 years since Hosack acquired them, it was possible for someone to think about taking over the whole thing and building something grand—at the very least a new opera house, ideally with a handsome plaza in front of it.
On January 20, 1928, a Friday, Butler’s daily letter to Goetze included this bit of news: “I am told on good authority that a group of stockholders of the Metropolitan Opera House Company think that the best place for the Opera House would be on our property.” Goetze’s reply was speeding back to Morningside Heights by Saturday morning. He acknowledged that he had fielded an expression of interest from R. Fulton Cutting of the Metropolitan Opera less than two weeks earlier but wasn’t very enthusiastic about it—the idea of an opera house on Columbia property, Goetze felt, was an especially bad one. “We have only to look at the neighborhood of Broadway and 40th Street to get an idea of how the [current] opera house has depressed that section for business purposes.”
Not likely what Butler wished to hear. Though he himself wasn’t connected to the Metropolitan, there was no institution in New York whose prime movers were closer to the center of the world Butler inhabited. On Monday evenings, the parterre boxes of the Opera House on Broadway accommodated a skein of New York notables whose names glittered as brightly as their jewels: the “Triple Entente” of Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Astors; the old New York clans like the the Goelets and the Cuttings; the industrialists- turned-aristocrats who bore such names as Harriman and Harkness. Together, the boxholders owned the Metropolitan Opera House, but that was not the same as controlling the Metropolitan Opera itself. That was the property of a man who couldn’t have been in some ways more like them (aristocratic, fabulously wealthy, supremely confident) and in at least two others more different (he was Jewish, and he actually liked opera). And had Otto Kahn not been “slapped down [by the boxholders] in a manner distinguished for cold rudeness and disregard of fact,” had they not “insulted, abused, flayed, and embarrassed” him, Rockefeller Center would never have been built.
Like so many Manhattan sagas, the story of opera in New York is a tale of real estate and money, specifically the convulsions that arise from not enough of the former and too much of the latter. In 1854 the old Knickerbocker families who comprised society in New York—Beekmans and Schuylers and Bayards—built the city’s first opera house, the Academy of Music, at the corner of 14th Street and Irving Place. The Academy’s sixteen prime boxes were enough for the founding families but could not accommodate the members of the rising merchant dynasties who may not have particularly cared for opera but definitely cared about any club they were not allowed to join.
In 1880 a well-connected lawyer named George H. Warren announced that he had mustered “the Astors, the three Vanderbilts, the Morgans, myself and others” to build a new opera house. Three years later, architect J. C. Cady’s yellow- brick pile opened on Broadway between 39th and 40th Street. The Metropolitan Opera House was a design anthology of styles so inconsistent with one another, so extreme in their efforts to ape the tastes of the Europeans whom New York plutocrats admired (and misunderstood), that the New York World, at the house’s opening, said that “a more amazing example of wealth working without taste or conviction or public spirit was never seen.” The World also said the building looked like “an enormous malt-house”— the first instance of its being likened to a brewery, a characterization that would be used again and again over the eighty-plus years of its life.
Inside, nothing defined the Met so thoroughly as the dreadful sight lines and awkward seat positions that demanded a “sidesaddle, neck-craning posture” for operagoers who actually wished to see what was happening onstage. From nearly a thousand of the less expensive seats in the dress circle, the balcony, and the family circle—25 percent of the entire house—one could barely see the stage at all, blocked as it was by the justification for the house’s very existence: the two tiers of boxes comprising the Diamond Horseshoe, “in which ladies expose their diamonds, chests and boredom, and old gentlemen sleep.” Every Monday night during the opera season, each of the seventy founding families enjoyed what really mattered—what one writer called “exceptional sightlines from box to box.”
To say merely that Otto Kahn differed from the Met’s founding families because he was Jewish and because he loved opera may mislead. Given his upbringing, his place in the world of finance, the nature of his business associations, and his absolute lack of adherence to anything remotely resembling the practice of Judaism (Kahn and his equally aristocratic German-Jewish wife, the former Addie Wolff, had all their children christened in the Episcopal church), Kahn’s religion was in most ways no more relevant to his stature in New York than was the shape of his silvery mustache. He was suspended so comfortably between the world into which he had been born and the world in which he lived that the social historian Dixon Wecter called him “the flyleaf between the Old and the New Testaments.” To the founding families, much more offensive than either his ethnicity or the depth of Kahn’s passion for opera was Kahn’s wish to share that passion with a broad section of New York’s citizenry.
Kahn was an unlikely populist. He was born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1867 to a wealthy family, and immigrated to New York in 1893, after several years as a banker in London. Working at the elbow of Jacob Schiff, the great financier who built the merchant banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Company to near preeminence in the last years of the nineteenth century, he became one of the towering figures in American financial history. It was largely through syndicates organized by Kahn’s firm that the first John D. Rockefeller expanded his oil fortune by acquiring large pieces of the Southern Pacific and Pennsylvania Railroads, and got hold of his chunk of the meat-packing trust dominated by Armour and Swift. Kahn was only thirty when he attracted the attention of the rail baron E. H. Harriman and guided Harriman’s successful effort to consolidate control of the Union Pacific, the Baltimore & Ohio, the Missouri Pacific, and several other lines.
Such activities will make a man very rich, a condition that Otto Kahn rather enjoyed. His most endearing indulgence was the purchase of two seats for every musical or theatrical performance he attended: one for himself, the second for his coat and hat. But Kahn spent his serious money on houses. His best-known residence was the three-million-dollar palazzo—those are 1914 dollars—he built on Fifth Avenue, its walls soon lined with Botticellis and Titians. Although it was one of the largest private homes in New York, occupying the entire blockfront between 91st and 92nd Street (after his death it became the Convent of the Sacred Heart), it was a bungalow compared to the manor house at Kahn’s 443-acre country estate in Huntington, on Long Island. There, atop the man-made hill constructed from fill brought in on Kahn’s private railroad, and not far from Kahn’s personal eighteen-hole golf course, sat the 107-room house that would become most familiar from one of the great opening sequences in American movies, the aerial shot in which it served as the stand-in for the palace of Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane.
When Kahn took over control of the faltering Metropolitan Opera Company in 1908, he did it with the tacit support of the men who had founded the Met. That same year he brought in from Italy a young conductor named Arturo Toscanini as well as impresario Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who would build the company into one of the foremost presenters of opera in the world. Gatti was at first reluctant, complaining that the stage was inadequate, the seating abominable, the production equipment antiquated. Kahn persuaded him to leave his position with La Scala by promising him that “in two or three years a new Metropolitan Opera House will be built.”
This was not merely a promise on which Kahn would fail to deliver; it was a promise he was never in a position to make. Though he would eventually own 83 percent of the opera company, Kahn never controlled so much as a single brick of the house itself. The ill-starred old “malt-house” was the property of the original boxholders, the seventy families who had built it in 1883. The vehicle of their ownership was the Metropolitan Opera Real Estate Company, whose relationship to Kahn’s Metropolitan Opera Company was strictly nominal. From 1908 nearly to the end of his life, Otto Kahn produced operas for the pleasure of what one of his biographers called the “feudal barons clinging to their castles and patents of nobility”—their boxes in the Diamond Horseshoe. He put on the shows; they owned the building.
For a time in the early 1920s, Kahn began to make some progress on a plan for a new house. But that effort died in 1925 with George C. Haven, the head of the Real Estate Company, with whom Kahn had worked since taking over the producing company in 1908. Haven’s replacement as the representative of the boxholder/owners was R. Fulton Cutting. If, as at least one historian suggests, Kahn was immediately discouraged by the prospect of negotiating with Cutting, then Kahn knew his man well: over the next six years, the two would become so enmeshed in agreements, arguments, threats, appeasements, feints, and parries that had it all been set to, say, Puccini, it could have satisfied the neck-craning riffraff way up in the Opera House’s cheap seats. After all, what entertainment could be juicier than a prolonged catfight between aristocrats?
There, on one side of the stage, stood Kahn, a modern Maecenas: America’s leading patron of the arts, sponsor of promising talent, ubiquitous symbol of the cultural life of New York—“a town frequently mentioned in connection with the name of Otto Kahn,” wrote one ironist. By 1926 he had put millions of his own dollars into placing musicians in the pit and singers on the stage of the yellow-brick brewery. The house was by then even less adequate than it had been when he recruited Gatti and Toscanini eighteen years earlier, the signs of age compounding the inadequate seating and the cramped performing areas. The Met’s storage capacity was so abysmally small that scenery was stacked against the side of the building along 39th Street. By day, people traveling to work picked their way past Parisian garrets, ancient Roman arches, lacquered Chinese thrones. Kahn no doubt agreed with Frederick Goetze’s harsh appraisal of the neighborhood, the glamorous shops, restaurants, and hotels of an earlier era now supplanted by...the garment industry.
One would think that on this, at least, Kahn would have been able to find common ground with the other figure on this stage, R. Fulton Cutting. His genealogy could be a translator’s key to old New York. He was a Fulton and a Cutting, of course, but also a Bayard and a Livingston. It was in the summer home of Cutting’s great-grandfather, William Bayard, that Bayard’s friend Alexander Hamilton died, David Hosack at his bedside. His family had a box at the old Academy of Music, and occupied a new one in the Horseshoe when the Met opened in 1883. The Cuttings had been there ever since.
If the triumph of good government could be measured by the number of groups devoted to its propagation, Fulton Cutting would have reigned as undefeated champion: he was a founder of the Citizens’ Union, founder and chairman of the progressive Bureau of Municipal Research, president for nearly thirty years of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, president for almost twenty of the tuition-free Cooper Union. He also belonged to the National Citizens Union of a Thousand, whose members included John D. Rockefeller Jr. and 998 other gentlemen who wanted the government to enforce the prohibition laws. He emerged from his limestone mansion on East 67th Street each day in the tall silk hat, cutaway coat, and striped trousers of the Victorian era, his beard trimmed in such a way that he bore an improbable resemblance to Cardinal Richelieu. His professional life was limited to “private banking”—a discreet euphemism for “owning things,” in his case sizeable pieces of real estate and various commercial enterprises. He also found the time and energy to serve as ranking lord among the society of peers that controlled the Metropolitan Opera Real Estate Company. As such, R. Fulton Cutting was Otto Kahn’s landlord, and for all of Otto Kahn’s experience, the role of tenant was not a familiar one.
The Maine Monument made its landing in Columbus Circle because that was the epicenter of the real estate empire the senior Hearst had begun to assemble in a corridor running east from the Hudson River on both sides of 57th Street. Over the next decade and a half Hearst acquired so much of this 57th Street corridor that there had to be more to his ambitions in the area than simple monomania.
There was. Shortly after 1920, Hearst’s colleague, the editor Arthur Brisbane, convinced him that the time was right for a trans-Hudson automobile bridge, and that 57th Street was perfect for its eastern terminus. Hearst’s acquisition of property in the area accelerated rapidly. At Park Avenue he bought all four corners, including the Ritz Towers. At Eighth Avenue he landed the spot for the headquarters of his publishing empire. Along Sixth and Seventh Avenues, Hearst and Brisbane together purchased whole blockfronts of low-rise, low-rent buildings. But the potential flood of traffic emerging from a trans-Hudson bridge held little appeal for most New Yorkers. By 1923 opposition to so large an intrusion on an increasingly congested midtown pushed the proposed bridge six miles north to 178th Street, far from the Duchy of Hearst-Brisbane. Thus did a piece of land become available on the block that ran west from the plot Hearst had reserved for his headquarters. Otto Kahn thought it would make a nice spot for a new opera house.
In late 1925, Kahn paid $2.67 million for the property, a parcel that ran 325 feet along West 57th Street toward Ninth Avenue, all the way through to 56th Street. Deed in hand, he sent a twelve-page letter to Fulton Cutting, a comprehensive catalog of the Metropolitan Opera House’s deficiencies onstage, backstage, in the wings. He specified the inadequacy of the ventilation system, the insufficient storage capacity, the vexing traffic problems in the auto-clogged streets of the garment district. And, making very clear who suffered most in this profoundly ill-conceived building, he addressed the front of the house as well. “The accommodations for those patrons of the opera who cannot afford to buy the more expensive seats,” Kahn wrote, “is inadequate as to quantity and wholly unsatisfactory as to quality....It is really an act of unfairness to take money for some of [the worst seats]—especially from people of small means.”
Within days, word of Kahn’s challenge to the Real Estate Company was out. So, in the last week of January, was Cutting’s public reply: “If the music lovers of New York want a new opera house they are entitled to have one,” his statement said. But the owners of the current opera house, he continued, “are not...of the opinion that the present house is antiquated or that its site is undesirable....No doubt several of its characteristics could be improved and its superiority to other similar institutions still further enhanced. If it is desirable that the building should be replaced by one larger and more scientifically equipped, I presume the company of which Mr. Kahn is the chairman will undertake the project.” Put simply, if Kahn wants a new house, let Kahn pay for it.*
Apparently, most of New York thought he might do just that. Kahn’s announcement brought forth waves of supplicants who saw their own interests enhanced by the prospect of a new house. Writing from the Hotel d’Hermitage in Monte Carlo, Mrs. Florence S. Bache virtually begged for two Monday night subscriptions. Mrs. Roland Harriman made an earnest pitch for seats, and financier John Jacob Raskob pulled Kahn aside at a dinner to stake his claim on a new box every bit as prominent as his old one. Thomas Lamb, the architect whose fevered fantasies had created many of the lavishly overdone movie palaces of the era, applied for the job of designing the new Met; his rivals, the Rapp Brothers of Chicago, offered to do preliminary sketches for free. Theatrical impresario Lee Shubert commended to Kahn an acoustician who would be perfect for the job. Among the mob of tile manufacturers, ironworks fabricators, plumbing suppliers, and other contractors throwing themselves at Kahn, one of the most persistent petitioners was an architect/politician/World War I veteran whose name would live on in New York through the century: Major William F. Deegan, eventually to be immortalized by an expressway in the Bronx.
It took Kahn a year to line up enough support to allow him to reveal his plans. With the backing of such men of means as George Eastman, Marshall Field, Clarence H. Mackay, Vincent Astor, and Robert Goelet, he announced in January 1927 that they would, as a group, “be in a position themselves to make the necessary arrangements to finance a new Opera House” if the Real Estate Company continued its resistance to the idea. Part of the group’s power was more than financial: in Goelet and Astor, Kahn had allies on Cutting’s board, which in February formally approved Kahn’s plans to build on the Hearst property. Shortly thereafter Kahn set sail for his semiannual trip to Europe, no doubt buoyed by visions of the new house that the architect Benjamin Wistar Morris and the designer Joseph Urban would soon be devising.
Ignore the fact that Morris was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, a continent away from his family’s Philadelphia roots; forget, too, that he had pursued a career selling insurance before packing off for Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux- Arts: no society architect came so naturally to the position as Morris, and his client list confirmed it. After an apprenticeship in the office of Carrère & Hastings while that firm built the magnificent New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, Morris moved through a series of jobs that might have been booked through a well-thumbed edition of the Social Register. He assisted his partner Grant La Farge on the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine; married to a Morgan cousin, he designed the J. P. Morgan Memorial in Hartford, an addition to the Morgan Library on 36th Street, and a Morgan country palace on Long Island. His neo-Georgian Union League Club on 37th and Park is probably as close as one can get to the architectural equivalent of a stuffed shirt. (The contextual equivalent was his store for Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue.) Morris’s finest commercial building was crafted for the one business entity that people in his social ambit were most likely to patronize: the Cunard Lines, whose stately headquarters near Bowling Green sat directly across the street from the Rockefeller family offices at 26 Broadway.
Kahn’s other candidates for the opera house job included some of New York’s most distinguished firms, including Warren & Wetmore, which had designed Grand Central Terminal, and the legendary McKim, Mead & White, which had designed nearly everything else. In Morris, however, Kahn found someone not only competent but, better still, highly unlikely to ruffle Real Estate Company feathers. When, in February 1927, Kahn wrote to Cutting to inform him of his choice of architect, Cutting responded immediately: not only did he think highly of Morris, but he was delighted to point out that fellow Real Estate Company board members J. P. Morgan Jr. and Robert S. Brewster “very well heartily approve” the selection as well. Kahn had reached Cutting during his—and Morgan’s and Brewster’s—winter holiday at the Jekyll Island Club, a members-only retreat in coastal Georgia that each February was as thick with New York patricians as the Opera House on a November Monday.
But approving Morris did not mean that Cutting and his colleagues approved the task Kahn had assigned him. They may have formally accepted the idea of a new house in February, but while Kahn enjoyed his European trip, his opponents on the board of the Real Estate Company began a counterattack. Nearly every aspect of Kahn’s plan came under assault: its requirement that the boxholders put up some of the cash for the new house; its reduction in the number of boxes; its insistence that the boxholders control their seats only on Monday nights, and not for other performances. Some board members expressed their disapproval of the 57th Street site itself, so far west, so unstylish, so close to the Ninth Avenue Elevated and its unappealing crowds. At an April 12 meeting of the board, when the formidable Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III expressed her displeasure and either elicited or commanded the support of her nephew Robert Goelet—a Kahn ally just months before—Kahn’s plan was severely wounded.
At least one commentator attributed the Vanderbilt opposition to the family’s interest in development on the East Side, where most of their holdings lay; others saw in it the knife of anti- Semitism. But the stated reason was a euphemism of exquisite banality: the board of the Real Estate Company thought it undignified for its Opera House to be situated in the center of a block, not on a corner.
During Kahn’s time abroad, the men he had hired to design the new house set to work. Opera politics may have dictated his selection of Morris, but opera experience led Kahn to yoke the architect into an involuntary partnership with Joseph Urban. “As well commission Brangwyn and Picasso to do a joint mural as set Benjamin Wistar Morris and Joseph Urban designing a single opera house,” commented a disbelieving writer in The New Yorker. (In fact, the unimaginable yoking of Picasso with the British academic painter Frank Brangwyn nearly came true six years later in Rockefeller Center.) Urban, a Viennese émigré, had designed many opera productions for Kahn’s company over the preceding decade, his renown expanding so greatly that he would, in time, receive equal billing with composers. He was perhaps even better known for his work for Florenz Ziegfeld. Not only did Urban design the impresario’s eponymous theater on West 54th Street, but every visual aspect of the annual Ziegfeld Follies was his. He designed the sets, the costumes, the gigantic hats of feathers and plumes and spangles assembled into towers reaching several feet above Ziegfeld’s gorgeous showgirls (who wore far more above their heads than on their bodies). All this theater experience and much of this lavish imagination were just what Ben Morris lacked. Urban, did, however, share one qualification with his new collaborator: as art director for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Studios (where he worked on eleven different films starring Hearst’s inamorata, Marion Davies), and as architect of Mar-a-Lago, Marjorie Meriwether Post’s ripe 118-room Palm Beach playhouse, Urban had learned how to work for the rich.
For months the two men labored at cross-purposes. Morris remained vigilantly loyal to the need for a reborn Diamond Horseshoe (he could hardly do otherwise: the keystone of the horseshoe, Box 35, belonged to his sort-of-cousin and primary patron, J. P. Morgan Jr.). Urban, meanwhile, pushed various schemes for what he called “a democratic house.” But in July Kahn sent Morris on a two-month tour of opera houses and other theaters in France, Italy, and Germany, and his creative imagination was at last ignited. He met with architects, set designers, and opera directors everywhere he went. Whenever he could, Morris would pause with his drawing pad, fashioning page after page of sketches in the same fine hand that distinguished his student work at the Beaux-Arts, where he had spent hours depicting the classical vocabulary of columns and pediments and grand symmetry.
In New York, Urban applied his fecund imagination and his astonishing productivity to the opera house project. He also continued the robust eating and drinking and partying that was so congenial an accompaniment to his large and jovial personality, most especially the weekly Friday afternoon marathon lunch sessions with the architects Ralph Walker, Ely Jacques Kahn (no relation to Otto), and Raymond Hood. Urban was Ray Hood’s closest friend, and though his tenure on the opera house project would last less than eight months, it would have a critical, and permanent, impact on at least one of Hood’s most important projects. From the nine different plans Urban created for Otto Kahn in his first two months on the job came the basic configuration of the revolutionary auditorium in Radio City Music Hall.
Ben Morris, on the other hand, merely came up with the idea for Rockefeller Center.
More surprising than Kahn’s willingness to shift away from 57th Street was the evolution of his relationships with his two architects. Kahn came to feel ever more comfortable with the earnest, accommodating, and surprisingly resourceful Morris. In October 1927, Kahn fired Urban, not because of the quality or quantity of his work but because he published some of his preliminary opera house drawings in Musical America. At a luncheon meeting at the downtown Mid Day Club, Kahn told a group that included, no tably, both Cutting and Morris that Urban had “succumb[ed] to a stress of artistic temperament, had acted most unwisely, unethically and in an unfortunate matter” when he allowed the plans to be published, and that Kahn had accepted his resignation. Morris would now work alone.
However much Cutting might have appreciated Kahn’s including him in what the latter called “a family affair,” however much Kahn might have hoped that casting his lot with Morris might be construed as a cooperative gesture by the architect’s friends among the boxholders, any thaw between the two sides was only momentary. Several weeks later, continuing conflict between Kahn and Cutting’s boxholders led to a war council at the home of banker George F. Baker which failed so completely that Morris was told to suspend his work. And then, a few days into the new year, R. Fulton Cutting received a caller who had an interesting idea.
It doesn’t diminish Tonnelé’s contribution to the creation of Rockefeller Center to note that, although he did have a very good idea, it hardly arose from a concern for either the Met’s housing problem or the development of central Manhattan. Tonnelé’s employer in January 1928, the long-established real estate agency William A. White & Sons, was on assignment for a client that wanted nothing more than a prepaid escape route from midtown’s increasingly commercial streets. That client was Columbia University.
For at least fifteen years, the ill-used Upper Estate had nagged at Nicholas Murray Butler. On occasion he’d ask treasurer Frederick Goetze to bring him up to date on real estate values in the area. At times he even devised his own proposals to enhance university income, including a clever—and prescient—plan to grant the city “sufficient property” to build a north-south street running from 48th to 51st Street, roughly halfway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Columbia would thus own “twelve new corners,” Butler said, with the increased rental income that corner lots could command—“the easiest way within our power to make a literally stupendous addition to our productive capital,” he told the trustees.
But nothing came of Butler’s schemes, and by late 1927 Goetze, inspired by the realization that a large number of Upper Estate leases would expire the following year, had actively begun to explore alternative means of boosting the puny stream of cash trickling from the Upper Estate to Morningside Heights. He turned to Harry Hall, president of William A. White & Sons (Hall happened to teach a course in real estate management at Columbia) and asked him to consider the disposition of the university’s midtown holdings. It was an obvious course of action; around the same time, as Manhattan real estate values pushed to new peaks, the trustees of the Cooper Union were arranging to lease their land on Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street to Walter P. Chrysler, who would build his headquarters on it.
Hall and his firm, which had been among the first to assemble large parcels of land for skyscrapers in lower Manhattan, were by this point confirmed believers in the future of midtown; in the winter of 1927–28 they had even decided to move their own offices from the financial district to Madison Avenue and 45th Street. Like other real estate operators, Hall and his colleagues had seen the boom of the twenties reconfigure the economic shape of the city, the retail stores that had pushed the mansion-owning wealthy northward now joined by office towers spiking the midtown sky. In 1920, advertisements placed by the Astor interests had promoted the sale of some midtown holdings with the elaborately capitalized assertion that “The Heart of This Great City Is Now Settled for All Time. It is the district from 34th to 59th Sts., 3rd to 10th Avenues.” By the time John Tonnelé called on Fulton Cutting, nearly eight years later, Columbia’s blocks of dreary brownstones looked like a severely neglected patch in midtown’s lush commercial garden.
In introducing himself to Cutting, Tonnelé, a youthful-looking forty-three, might have cited their shared academic roots: he was Class of ’06, Cutting was ’71—Columbia, of course. He certainly invoked what he had been reading in the papers, that Kahn’s Ninth Avenue dreams had been waylaid by Cutting and his Real Estate Company board. Perceiving a match between his client’s needs and Cutting’s interests, he proposed that the Opera build a new home on Columbia land, specifically at the western end of the block between 48th and 49th Street, backing up to Sixth Avenue and facing a new north-south street cut into midblock. “It was I who conceived the idea [of] Rockefeller Center when it was thought that the Opera might be part of the development,” Tonnelé wrote in 1943, and in a way he was right.
Within days Cutting handed a rope, a boat, and several weeks’ fuel to a drowning man: he passed Tonnelé’s idea on to Ben Morris. The architect had invested so heavily in Kahn’s plan, and had become so familiar with the Real Estate Company’s clear unwillingness to back it, that he must have recognized that his opportunity to design a new opera house—a commission that would render insignificant everything else he had done before—was rapidly evaporating. Tonnelé’s scheme, wrote Morris to Cutting, wasn’t financially sound, “but it fathered my thought that if carried further it might show a way out of our difficulties.” Morris didn’t merely carry Tonnelé’s plan further; he grabbed it, expanded it, reshaped it, and at every step pulled it closer to reality. In the process, he made it his own.
Employing impressive political skills and unceasing effort, Morris initiated a single-handed blitz along three different fronts: without alienating Kahn, who was still paying his bills, he had to move ownership of the very notion of a new house from Kahn’s domain to Cutting’s; he had to persuade Columbia at least to entertain the idea of an opera house on its midtown land; and he had to commit to paper a plan for the site that made both aesthetic and financial sense.
On the first front, Morris managed to position himself as the link between Cutting and Kahn, whose distaste for each other was growing ever more intense. He met with Kahn’s real estate advisor, William H. Wheelock, to persuade him of the virtues of the 49th Street site, and even after Wheelock pronounced it a rotten idea, Morris wisely continued to include him in all phases of his planning. If Kahn was going to abandon Morris, it wouldn’t be because Morris had aligned himself strictly with Cutting.
At the same time, Morris ramped up his efforts with Cutting and his board. Less than two weeks after John Tonnelé called on Fulton Cutting, Morris was speeding south to the Jekyll Island Club. His bloodlines provided access to the world’s “richest, most exclusive...most inaccessible” club, where for two weeks Morris could enjoy the private racetrack, the expansive beaches, the streams and fields stocked with fish and game—and the company of J. P. Morgan Jr., George Baker, and other Real Estate Company board members who used the place as a winter playground.
To Kahn, Morris burbled with enthusiasm for the 49th Street site; to Cutting, he argued the inadequacies of a plot on Central Park West that had come into play. With Tonnelé he devised strategies that might thaw the icy resistance of Frederick Goetze, who believed that an opera house would have a negative impact on the university’s midtown holdings.*
Something must have worked: when Goetze airily asserted to Tonnelé that the proposed opera house site was not for sale, he appended a coy postscript—not for sale, that is, unless the price was right, and how does five million dollars sound? That was just for the western end of the block bounded by 48th and 49th Streets, and it was a staggering sum even in the overheated Manhattan real estate market of early 1928. To Morris, though, it was not remotely discouraging, for it was around this time that he began to develop the idea that, as he had told Cutting, would “show a way out of our difficulties.” An opera house on its own, Morris believed, could never be self-supporting without income from adjacent properties. This called for something far grander than anything he or Kahn, much less the blinkered Cutting, had yet envisioned.
On March 10, Ben Morris committed to paper the first real articulation of what would evolve into Rockefeller Center. He wrote of a “monumental arcade” threading from Fifth Avenue to midblock, where it would open onto a large square fronting the opera house. The arcade would make the opera house visible from— and give it an address on—Fifth Avenue; under the terms of the New York zoning law, the open space of the square would allow adjacent, income-producing office towers to rise substantially higher than any others in the neighborhood. Retail stores on the ground floor of the buildings lining the square completed the picture, and from the entire development, which he soon expanded to encompass all three blocks of the Upper Estate, Columbia would receive, Morris wrote, a “permanency of income.”
If the elaborate network of bridges and ramps and elevated porte cocheres that Morris envisioned never came to pass, if the hours he had spent sketching the Place Vendôme and the Vatican Piazza on his 1927 Kahn-financed European trip turned out to have no bearing on what would evolve, it really didn’t matter: by mid- April, Morris had identified all the essentials of what would evolve over the next four years into Rockefeller Center. It was missing only one thing: a Rockefeller.
By now, at last, Kahn and Cutting had begun to cooperate. In early April, fed up with the Real Estate Company’s unwillingness to pick up a meaningful share of the cost of a new house, Otto Kahn had told his friend, the eminent lawyer Paul Cravath, “Pulling teeth is a delectable diversion as compared to getting anything out of these people.” But once the Real Estate Company indicated it was prepared to underwrite construction costs (provided, of course, that boxholders could retain the traditional privileges Kahn had sought to dilute), Kahn agreed to collaborate with Cutting in the search for money to acquire the land. Together they drew up the list of people they would invite to a dinner at the Metropolitan Club. Two and a half weeks before the event, Kahn told Cutting that he wished to invite one more person, someone whose wealth could be more readily measured in influence than in money: the self-described “family physician to big business,” Ivy Ledbetter Lee.
Others may lay claim to having first uttered the term “public relations,” but Ivy Lee was the first to practice this gray art with such galloping success. Tall and dignified, with steel-blue eyes that could nail a man in place, the Georgia-born Lee was never his clients’ factotum; they saw him as an equal or, in some instances, as a sort of superior being possessed of wisdom beyond the reach of mortals. As a young man he coined the phrase “enlightened self-interest” to describe why it was sometimes good to do well, and vice versa—exactly the sort of nostrum that could enable a Progressive Era businessman to make a buck and feel noble at the same time. George Washington Hill, the irrepressibly flamboyant buccaneer who ran the American Tobacco Company, said he paid the firm of Lee, Harris & Lee $40,000 a year: $10,000 for publicity, and $30,000 for the privilege of talking to Ivy Lee. Nothing better served Lee’s primary task— explaining the behavior of the powerful to the rest of the world—than his ability to embrace two conflicting ideas at once. This skill was most vividly demonstrated during the years he was the leading American exponent of diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union while simultaneously meeting with Adolf Hitler to discuss Lee’s representation of the German chemical trust I. G. Farben. At the peak of his success, Lee operated out of an enormous office at 15 Broad Street in lower Manhattan, tending to a client list that ran from Otto Kahn and Walter P. Chrysler to Princeton University and the government of Poland. And to an institution every bit as exalted (and a great deal richer) than any of those: John D. Rockefeller Jr.
The two men met in 1914, when a lethal anti-union effort at the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company in Ludlow, Colorado, turned a coal field into a killing field. Among the dead were thirteen women and children asphyxiated in the cellar of a dwelling that had been torched by the state militia. Ludlow was the fulcrum of the junior Rockefeller’s life. Even the labor organizer Mary Harris Jones—the legendary “Mother Jones”— recognized that he was neither culpable for the murderous tactics of the anti-union forces nor without honestly felt horror at their outcome, but the newspaper-reading nation thought otherwise. The Rockefeller son, having none of the confidence of his father, that unmistakable buoyancy that holds the self-made aloft, flinched from the hail of opprobrium and sought the shelter of an expert. When Lee, recommended to him by his friend Arthur Brisbane, told the younger Rockefeller that he should simply tell the truth, openly and frankly, a bond was struck for life. “This is the first advice I have had that does not involve deviousness of one kind or another,” Rockefeller said.
Of course, not everyone considered Lee’s counsel a distillate of the Ten Commandments. Not even Lee: telling the truth, he argued, was worth doing not because it was a moral good but because it was good for business; in many instances, he felt, saying nothing at all was even better. He often withheld his facts strategically, and in the process earned from Upton Sinclair the nickname “Poison Ivy,” and from Carl Sandburg the epithet “Paid Liar.” Robert Benchley was a lot more playful: Lee, he wrote, “has devoted his energies to proving, by insidious leaflets and gentle epistles, that the present capitalistic system is really a branch of the Quaker Church, carrying on the work begun by St. Francis of Assisi.” Take away “insidious” and you have a description of a worldview that approximated John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s most earnest imaginings.
Otto Kahn would have had a more sophisticated view of the capitalist system that had made him so wealthy, but his sense of Lee’s indispensability matched Rockefeller’s. Lee began representing Kahn’s public persona in 1918, and for most of the years they worked together every letter to the editor, every speech, every public utterance Kahn wished to make (“The Problem of Leisure,” “The Motion Picture,” “A Plain Statement of Presidential Preference”) would be sent to Lee for clearance. With uncharacteristic intimacy, Kahn addressed his scores of letters to Lee “My dear Ivy”; Lee, eschewing the formality that scented most of his own correspondence, invariably opened his letters to Kahn with a spirited “Dear Boss.” The one that arrived at Kahn’s office on May 5, 1928, connected the circuit between Lee’s two most important clients: “I cannot come to any other conclusion than the one I suggested as the best way to approach Mr. Rockefeller” about Morris’s “thrilling” idea, Lee said. “I am sure he will be interested.”
If Morris knew this, he didn’t let on. He directed the group’s attention to his model, detailed down to the tiny clay cars cruising Fifth Avenue. His slides showed a formal plaza fronting a rather severe opera house, its auditorium bracketed by private lobbies for the boxholders. Office buildings rose on the south and north sides of the plaza in symmetrical lockstep, and a long arcade stretched from Fifth, passing between two more buildings and across the plaza to the opera house doors. The slide indicating the development’s location in the grid of midtown Manhattan identified nearby landmarks: the subway and elevated lines, adjacent hotels, and—Morris knew the men he was talking to—the Racquet Club, the Union Club, the University Club, the Harvard Club, the Yale Club.
“The whole thing stands or falls on the...increase in revenue obtainable due to the creation of an open square,” Morris said. He explained how the presence of the plaza would, under the zoning laws, allow taller buildings at its flanks; how the additional height would make up for the revenue lost to the plaza itself; and how premium rents could be had for those office suites that benefited from the open views outside their windows. The income from the office towers would cover continuing costs at the opera. All that was needed was the money to buy the land for the plaza.
Ivy Lee was now ready to take care of that. Four days later his report landed on John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s massive Queen Anne desk in the family offices at 26 Broadway, near the southern tip of Manhattan. After duly reporting the essentials of Morris’s plan, Lee made his pitch. “The key to the whole situation,” he wrote, “is the raising of two and one-half million dollars...to purchase the grounds from Columbia University.”
A Note to the Reader
Prologue: May 21, 1928 and September 30, 1939
Altogether stirring and vivid and enjoyable. (The New Yorker)
Puckish good humor and elegant prose. (The Wall Street Journal)
Delightful and exhaustive (but never exhausting)… the dazzling, complex story of how New York’s acropolis came to be. (The Smithsonian)
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