Second Thoughts about Demolition at Rockefeller Center

Sometimes scorned as a mere bureaucracy, on occasion the Landmarks Preservation Commission can become a forum for interpretation of architectural history.  Thus the public hearing of January 12th  led to interesting revelations about Rockefeller Center.  In question were the essential design features of the sunken plaza: why, perhaps, is it not all right to demolish the north and south terraces, those high walkways with polished granite walls and water features that frame the skating rink  and the Prometheus Fountain?

Consultants argued that these terraces were not discussed in the Designation Report and so were fair game to be cut down and made into seating. But a closer look at the Report shows the Commission had no such intention:  “SUNKEN PLAZA; SKATING RINK   DESCRIPTION”  (page 173) notes “Significant features include but are not limited to: -Configuration of the sunken plaza and its staircases  -Polished granite walls…”

If looking for more than a pretext for change, the LPC bibliography points the way. In the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Winston Weisman argued in 1959 that Rockefeller Center was “The First Landscaped Skyscraper”—a progenitor of the Seagram Building and many works of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and so a huge influence on American commercial architecture later in the 20th century.

“Landscaped” is the operative word in this case, bringing forward the perception that at the center of the Center is in fact a great garden, largely sculpture, stone, and water, different in this respect from New York’s more pastoral Olmstedian landscapes, but a garden still.

Michael Gotkin, who has extensive expert knowledge of 20th century landscape architecture spoke in the public comment session about the derivation of the garden and what would be lost if the terraces were altered.  The defining element of the whole garden,  he said, is the water that courses down the Channel Gardens, splashes in the alcove fountains of the terraces and terminates in the Prometheus Fountain with its broad basin.  Designing in 1930, the architects of Rockefeller Center had Beaux Arts training, and as with many early Art Deco experiments, there are underlying Classical references; here, 16th century Italian water gardens, as exemplified by the Villa d’Este at Tivoli outside Rome.

We note that Edith Wharton discussed that celebrated garden in Italian Villas and their Gardens, published in New York in 1904 and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.  She wrote, “…it is the omnipresent rush of water that gives the d’Este gardens their peculiar character. From the [river] Anio, drawn up the hillside at incalculable cost and labour, a thousand rills gush downward, terrace by terrace…flashing in spray from the horns of sea gods and the jaws of mythical monsters…every niche in the retaining walls has its water- pouring nymph or gushing urn…The gardens of the Villa d’Este were probably begun by Pirro Ligorio, and, as Herr Gurlitt thinks, continued later by Giacomo della Porto.  It will doubtless never be known how much Ligorio owed to the taste of Orazio Livieri, the famous hydraulic engineer, who raised the Anio to the hilltop  and organized its distribution through the grounds. But it is apparent that the whole composition was planned about the central fact of the rushing Anio…”

In Rockefeller Center, Carol Krinsky refers to a second article by Winston Weisman (whose scholarship she calls foundational), “Who Designed Rockefeller Center?” The more one looks, the less obvious the answer becomes. So many prominent architects were involved, both sequentially and simultaneously, eventually on an equal footing as “associates,” but working under several very involved Rockefeller family members and advisors, and their eminence grise John R. Todd, on a project, obviously, of enormous complexity, and over a long period of time.  The resulting archives are immense, and reducing them to a narrative, a Herculean task. It is no reproach, then, that neither Professor Krinsky, nor the Landmarks Preservation Commission, nor later, Daniel Okrent, zeroed in on the role of a certain landscape architect now identified by Mr. Gotkin, and the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

When he died in 1957, Alfred Geiffert was well known. A landscape architect who was president of the Municipal Art Society in 1937, he was active in civic life, leading initiatives frequently noticed in the New York Times, a member of the Century Association, elected to the National Academy of Design, and professionally, designer to the Rockefellers and the Mellons in both private and public projects.  His prominently placed obituary was headlined, “ALFRED GEIFFERT, GARDEN DESIGNER; Landscape Architect Dies; Worked on Rockefeller Center, National Gallery,” (August 27, 1957).  A few decades later, he seems to have been forgotten. Nevertheless it is now documented that he worked with Raymond Hood at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, creating a very successful water garden for American Radiator, and that Hood brought him into Associated Architects to advise on Rockefeller Center’s now much admired public spaces.

The sunken plaza terraces designed by Associated Architects are not, in the words of William Whyte, “Just a nice place to sit,” and they should not become that. They are integral to a very sophisticated garden design that is retrospective, with precedents going back to 16th century Italy, while maintaining a 20th century style and character that influenced the design of other subsequent landmarks.  Those terraces should be retained at their original height with their polished granite walls and fountain niches. The character of Rockefeller Center would be vitiated without them.

We are indebted to Mr. Gotkin for his new information and  his analysis of significant historic features of the garden which had escaped us earlier.

[Gurlitt? In the typographically sophisticated first edition of Italian Villas and their Gardens, Edith Wharton scarcely used footnotes. The “List of books mentioned” at the end includes “Cornelius Gurlitt, Geschichte des Barockstiles in Italien, 1887.”  A different Cornelius Gurlitt, his grandson, was the subject of the New York Times report, “Nazi-Looted Trove Puts Art World in an Uproar,” November 4, 2013.]

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