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6 Secret Spots You May Have Missed at Rockefeller Center

By Julie SchneiderJun 3 2022
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Close your eyes and imagine Rockefeller Center. What do you picture first? A cinematic montage of places central to New York City life or spots made famous by film and television might spring to mind. Or the signature sightlines of the Channel Gardens, lush with blooms and greenery. A wintery scene with ice skaters gliding around The Rink as the Christmas Tree radiates a twinkling aura. The beckoning marquee of Radio City Music Hall. Muscular Atlas shouldering the weight of the world. Or maybe a pigeon’s eye view of the city from Top of the Rock, with yellow taxis zipping below like tiny toys from F.A.O. Schwarz. But do you know which landmark rooftop doubles as a park? Or the most riveting spot in all of Rock Center?

Despite having a firm foothold in the cultural life and traditions of our city, Rockefeller Center still harbors plenty of lesser-known spots worthy of discovery. Here, we let you in on a few of our favorites, complete with glimpses into the history and layered lives of Rock Center’s buildings. Let’s start exploring, shall we?

1) The original architecture of The Rink

The Rink initially opened on the campus on Christmas Day 1936 as a temporary exhibit known as the “skating pond.” According to New York Times reporting at the time, it was the first “old-fashioned” skating rink on Fifth Avenue since 1869; and its popularity turned it into a beloved, permanent mainstay. Inside the Rink Level, below 49th and 50th Streets, if you look up toward the ceiling, you can spot some of the original architecture of the building. Ridged blocks of terracotta, ranging from salmon pinks to dark red-browns, laid like brickwork are capped by slabs of concrete textured with the impression of woodgrain — this “faux bois” (fake wood) technique was popular in the 1930s.

2) A network of underground passageways

Like arteries in a circulatory system, an intricate underground network of corridors on the Rink Level connects every building in Rockefeller Center, from 48th Street to 51st Street and across 6th Avenue. That means, even in stormy weather, you can explore without needing to open an umbrella. As part of the Center’s recent campus-wide refresh, INC Architecture & Design and the Rockefeller Center Design & Construction team transformed the Rink Level with a new, more-open design that highlights the motifs, textures, and materials of the Center and preserves historical features, including original columns and skylights discovered during the renovation process.

3) Rockefeller Center’s most famous rivet

On November 1, 1939, during a ceremony broadcasted live to a nationwide radio audience, John D. Rockefeller Jr. swung a 60-pound hammer to drive the ceremonial final rivet, made from silver alloy, into the fourteenth and final building of Rockefeller Center, a complex built by 75,000 workers with 10,000,000 rivets. “It’s dramatically fitting that he should say the last word in the story by driving the last rivet,” said Nelson A. Rockefeller, while introducing his father at the ceremony, “because it was he who had the first word, the original idea.”

You can view this remarkable rivet tucked inside a column in the middle of the lobby of 1230 Avenue of the Americas. Press a button to illuminate a light and peer inside the column to see John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s name etched into the domed metal.

4) Relics of the Guild Theater

The space at 33 West 50th Street — where Anthropologie now sells their clothing and home goods — once housed a single-screen, 450-seat movie theater, as lingering architectural elements from a bygone era convey. A classic marquee remains suspended over the entrance, above the former ticket booth and turnstile, all in shining bronze. The theater opened in 1938 as an Embassy Newsreel house, one of five theaters in Manhattan and Newark. In 1949, the theater changed hands and reopened as the Guild Theater.

Even John D. Rockefeller Jr. attended a showing during its 1950s heyday. He reportedly rolled up to the cinema in an antiquated limo to watch Martin Luther, a biopic of the German priest. After its last 25-year lease expired in 1999, the Guild Theater shuttered, following its final screening: Runaway Bride, starring Julia Roberts.

5) A luxury model airplane

A gleaming sterling silver airplane, fabricated by Cartier silversmiths in Paris, sits atop a marble pedestal in the lobby of 610 Fifth Avenue. Made as a gift from the French government to Rockefeller Center in 1933, it’s an exacting, to-scale reproduction of Le Point d'Interrogation (or Question Mark), the plane French aviators Dieudonné Costes and Maurice Bellonte flew on the first nonstop, transatlantic flight from Paris to New York City in 1930 — the reverse of the historic trip Charles Lindbergh completed three years earlier.

6) Radio Park

Did you know that the rooftop of Radio City Music Hall houses a verdant oasis, called Radio Park? The sky-high park opened at the end of 2021 as an amenity for Rockefeller Center tenants, employees, and their guests. Featuring distinct “garden rooms,” including a woodland garden, a grove of white flowering cherry trees, meandering paths with enclaves, the park serves as an inviting spot for eating lunch, meeting with colleagues, and hosting events.

The idea for this rooftop garden dates back to the 1930s, as part of architect Raymond Hood’s original vision for Rockefeller Center. Early blueprints show interconnected terraces on rooftops within the complex. But the plans never materialized, and Radio City Music Hall opened in the winter of 1932 without rooftop gardens. Ninety years later, the green outdoor space in Manhattan was finally realized.

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