In the Cold Light of Day

When Rockefeller Center’s design was unveiled in 1931, New Yorker architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote that it followed ”the canons of Cloudcuckooland.”

Dec. 23, 1933 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Today we know 30 Rock as one of the most iconic and beloved places in Manhattan, but after Mumford saw the plans for this future “Radio City” he went into exile in upstate New York, upset over the “weakly conceived, reckless, romantic chaos” of the project. Mumford wasn’t alone in his opinion; indeed it was his commentary that helped fuel negative reactions from citizens and newspapers alike.

No doubt the scale of the project bothered a lot of people, as it was slated to replace four- and five-story brownstones and other smaller buildings with a series of massive structures (for Mumford, it was rare that any skyscraper found his favor—to him they were oversized symbols of corporate tyranny).

IMMODEST PROPOSAL…In the fall of 1928 John D. Rockefeller leased this property from Columbia University for the future site of Rockefeller Center. The project covered nearly all of the area in the three square blocks bordered by Fifth Avenue, Sixth Avenue, and 48th and 51st Streets. (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

As the Rockefeller Center towers rose, some softened their criticisms, including E.B. White—in the Dec. 9 issue he said he would eat his words after viewing the floodlit 30 Rock by night: “the whole thing swims up tremendously into the blue roxyspheres of the sky.”

Two weeks later, in his Dec. 23 “Sky Line” column, Mumford agreed that the floodlit buildings looked impressive, recalling Hugh Ferriss’ romantic, futuristic visions of the city; however, the darkness also concealed a decorative scheme that was ”bad with an almost juvenile badness.” 

NIGHT VISION…In his 1929 book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferriss published the image at left of an imaginary city of the future. At right, photo by Paul J. Woolf of the RCA tower at Rockefeller Center shortly after its completion. Ferriss was an architect, illustrator, and poet who explored the psychological condition of urban life, and was known for his conte crayon drawings of skyscrapers—nighttime scenes from a futuristic Babylon that are influential in popular culture (e.g. Tim Burton’s vision for Gotham in 1989’s Batman). (archive.org/mutualart.com)
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE…Lewis Mumford thought the RCA tower looked “scrawny” when viewed in broad daylight between the British and French empire buildings. (smarthistory.com/Pinterest)

Having finished his excoriation of the buildings’ scale and placement, Mumford proceeded to carve up the ornamental features, including the sunken plaza (today an iconic site for ice skating), which he thought looked “a little silly” in relation to the mass of the RCA building. 

TRAINED EYE…Lewis Mumford believed the work of the great Gaston Lachaise was diminished in the Rockefeller Center concept, noting that the Lachaise sculptures on Sixth Avenue (top and right photos) were only visible from the “L” station (Mumford doesn’t mention that the elevated placement of the sculptures was deliberate—they were put there so train riders on the “L” could see them); below, Mumford found the sunken plaza to be out of scale with the RCA tower—for decades it has been one of Manhattan’s most iconic sites. (Wikipedia/Vincent Tullo for The New York Times)

Revisiting Rockefeller Center in his May 4, 1940 “Sky Line” column, Mumford wouldn’t exactly eat his words, but he did admit that the collection of structures formed “a composition in which unity and coherence have to a considerable degree diminished the fault of overemphasis. In other words, they get by.” Mumford still believed 30 Rock was too tall—he would have preferred 32 stories, less than half its actual size: “Good architecture is designed for the human beings who use or view the buildings, not for publicity men or photographers.”

I have to disagree. Every time I look up at 30 Rock I feel my heart soar.

 * * *

Yule Like This

The Dec. 23 issue marked the return of Frank Sullivan’s annual holiday poem, “Greetings, Friends!” Sullivan published his first holiday poem in 1932 and faithfully continued the tradition until 1974; after his death in 1976, New Yorker editor William Shawn asked the late Roger Angell to take on the poem. In 2012 Angell passed the duty along to Ian Frazier, the magazine’s current Yuletide bard (Frazier’s latest poem can be found in the Dec. 26, 2022 issue).

 * * *

Success, In Spite of it All

“The Talk of the Town” looked in on singer Ethel Waters, who apparently wasn’t brooding over the difficulties of her past life, given that she was seeing so much success as a recording artist and as a Broadway star in As Thousands Cheer. Although her material life was better, she still faced racism wherever she went, including on stage—although she received equal billing, she was segregated from her co-stars in As Thousands Cheer.

BORN INTO THE BLUES…Raised in crushing poverty, Ethel Waters became a major singing star in the 1930s. She was one of the first singers to confront racism in a popular 1933 song, “Suppertime.” (Facebook)

 * * *

Enigma

Geoffrey T. Hellman examined the life of American entrepreneur Armand Hammer in a profile titled “Innocents Abroad.” Hammer’s business interests around the world helped him cultivate a wide network of friends and associates. Called “Lenin’s chosen capitalist” by the press, Hammer (1898-1990) started a pencil factory in the Soviet Union in 1926 and later became head of Occidental Petroleum. Throughout his career he maintained close ties with Soviet leaders—which raised many suspicions in the West—but Hammer also served as a citizen diplomat for the U.S., an important go-between during the Cold War. An excerpt:

PROLETARIAN PENCILS…Clockwise, from top left: A 1928 Soviet advertising poster for “A. Hammer” pencils. The factory began work in Moscow in April 1926 as a private American industrial concession; Armand Hammer in the 1920s; Hammer (at right) shares a laugh with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. Hammer is also the great-grandfather of American actor Armie Hammer. (crwflags.com/New York Times)

 * * *

From Our Advertisers

With Prohibition over, New Yorkers were looking forward to celebrating the holidays with Richard Himber and his orchestra at the Ritz-Carlton or enjoying a cocktail at the new Continental Grill and Bacchante Bar at the Hotel St. Moritz…

…and no less of an authority than Santa was advising shoppers to give tobacco products to their loved ones this holiday season…

…or perhaps you could be persuaded by elegant holiday wishes from the owners of Lucky Strike, who included their cigarettes among “the best of good things”…

…good living, apparently, could also be found in a bottle of Bud…

…or in American-distilled “London Dry Gin”…or in a pint of Guinness…

…our cartoons begin with Gardner Rea, and a course in mixology…

Otto Soglow’s Little King found a surprise in his Christmas stockings…

Helen Hokinson offered some passing holiday cheer… 

Mary Petty gave us this unusual Christmas seal…

…and from James Thurber, this earnest prayer…

…and we close with another prayer-themed cartoon from Jan. 4, 1982—Lee Lorenz, who died Dec. 8 at age 90, joined the New Yorker staff in 1958, the same year his first cartoon appeared in the magazine’s pages. He also served as art editor (1973–1993) and cartoon editor (1993–1997) for the New Yorker. Michael Maslin penned an appreciation on his Ink Spill site.

…Happy Holidays one and all, as we end with this GIF from Disney’s 1933 short, The Night Before Christmas

…and this scene from December 1933, when Rockefeller Center decided to make the Christmas Tree an annual tradition and held the very first tree lighting ceremony…

At left, image from December 1933—the very first tree lighting ceremony at 30 Rock, when the Christmas Tree became an annual tradition; at right, the tree on the Plaza in 1934, before ice skaters occupied the space. (rockefellercenter.com/MCNY)

Next Time: Happy New Year, 1934…

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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