Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tree at Rockefeller Center

The Rockefeller Center Tree.
There probably isn't a more recognizable or iconic symbol of Christmas in New York City than the tree at Rockefeller Center. It has got to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city, and the crowds say it all. I went down there for the lighting ceremony once years ago, and, man, I hate to say it, but what a mistake that was. It was an early taste of how unbearably crowded these touristy places can get, and I couldn't get anywhere near the tree. As I recall, police barricades guarded the ceremony from blocks away and I could barely even see the jumbo-tron they had set up.

So I realized that the Christmas tree lighting is right up there with the ball dropping on New Year's Eve as far as events to avoid in this city go. But despite all this negativity, I've got to hand it to this city for having yet another event that is recognized and admired throughout the world. And so I took a walk down to Rockefeller Center, and as always noted how the sidewalks got increasingly more crowded as I came from the Upper East Side.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., leased the space in 1929 from Columbia University with the intention of building a new theatre for the Metropolitan Opera. However, due to the Stock Market crash, the plan fell through, and, left with only a few options, he decided to fund a new project entirely with his own money, making it the largest private building project undertaken in modern times. On the land was built a complex of fourteen office buildings. Rockefeller originally didn't want his name associated with the new development, but public-relations pioneer and prominent family advisor Ivy Lee persuaded him that it would attract more tenants.

A major controversy was avoided in the mid-30s when Lee and other advisers attempted to lease a number of buildings to German commercial interests and be dubbed the "Deutsche Haus", but strained relations with Hitler prevented that from happening. They were instead dubbed "International House North", and became the center for British in the U.S., and later Allied Intelligence during World War II.

Rockefeller Center actually kind of represented the end of an era in the history of architectural sculpture because it was one of the last major building projects in the country to sponsor a program of integrated public art. Sculpture Lee Laurie contributed twelve pieces, including the statue of Atlas across the street from the main doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Acclaimed architect Paul Manship was commissioned to create a masterwork for the central sunken plaza, and produced the gilded statue of the Titan Prometheus that is seen today. Although many sources throughout the world consider it to be the fourth most recognizable sculpture in the United States, followed by the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and the Empire State Building, it was not a work that Manship was particularly proud or fond of. Other sculptures that were at first commissioned and planned for throughout the plaza were all abandoned, and instead on Christmas Day, 1936, the ice rink opened up.

The first tree, however, was hastily and unceremoniously put up by construction workers in December, 1931. At a mere twenty feet, workers decorated the tree with strings of cranberries, paper, and even tin cans and the foil ends of blasting caps. Two years later, when 30 Rock opened, the official tradition began, and lasts to this day, with trees picked from around the tri-state area ranging from seventy to one hundred ten feet. Due to the width of the streets passing through, the tree can't exceed this height.

Plus, the star placed on top of the tree ways five hundred fifty pounds. All in all pretty extravagant, but that's New York for you I guess. Time for me to go to country for a while and get away from the hustle and bustle of this place. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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