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GREAT FORTUNE by Daniel Okrent


The Epic of Rockfeller Center

by Daniel Okrent

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-670-03169-0
Publisher: Viking

A suitably grand, and suitably complex, history of the skyscraper that remains a symbol of all that is wondrous about New York City.

It being New York, there was nothing straightforward about the planning, design, or construction of what was once called Radio City. As former Time executive Daniel Okrent writes, the project began as an opera house, shifted locations and key backers and eventually purposes, and fell into the hands of the illustrious and magnificently moneyed Rockefeller family, some of whose members had, in the 1920s, lately shifted their public stance from avaricious acquirers of fortune to servants of the public good. After tough negotiations with the president and trustees of Columbia University (who would realize a fortune from their lease of the immensely valuable real estate, if decades later), the Rockefellers and their architects broadened their notion of the project to make it even grander; it would become, Okrent writes, not a destination in the city but, “organically, the city itself—a city where the privately maintained sidewalks were spotless, where the ramp-relieved cross streets were free of delivery trucks” and other impediments. Yet, for all the deep pockets of the builders, the construction fell on every imaginable difficulty, from labor difficulties to the onset of the Depression. Peopling his narrative with a vast array of characters—among them, sometimes in cameo, Benito Mussolini, Diego Rivera (whose assistant had to implore construction workers not to pee on the master’s murals), V.I. Lenin, Henry Luce, and, of course, John D. Rockefeller, then the wealthiest man in the world, and his son Nelson, whose oversight turned out to be of critical importance—Okrent takes readers on an improbably wild ride that, in the end, will leave them wondering how the vaulting skyscraper ever got built, but glad that it did.

A dexterous work of urban and architectural history, and a passionate tribute to the grand buildings of old New York.