NYC – Rockefeller Center: Atlas and GE Building
Image by wallyg
This massive seven-ton, 15-foot tall cast bronze statue of the colossal Titan Atlas has stood at the 630 Fifth Avenue main entrance frontcourt to Rockefeller Plaza since it was installed in January, 1937. Conceived and designed by Lee Lawrie, and modeled by Rene Chambellan, it depicts the story of Atlas from Greek mythology. The largest sculptural work in Rockefeller Center, it embodies both the Center’s mythical and heroic theme as well as its Art Deco style.
Atlas, brother of Prometheus, was a Titan–one of the race of half-god half-man giants who warred against Zeus and the Olympic gods. After their defeat, Atlas was condemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders for his role in the uprising. The world is represented by an armillary spehere with the north-south axis poitning to the North Star. Affixed to one of the sphere’s rings are symbols for twelve constellations through which the Sun passes during the year. Laid across his shoulders is a wide, curved beam that displays a frieze of the traditional symbols for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Adjacent to Earth (over Atlas’s right forearm) is a small crescent symbolizing the Moon. Atlas is depicted with exaggerated musculature and a stylized body, characteristic of Art Deco style. His face, deeply furrowed, Atlas stands perched atop a simple 9-foot granite pedestal–knees bent, with one leg overhanging, emphasizing the great burden he was made to carry. The warm brown patina not only draws attention, but contrasts against the white limestone of its background buildings. The pedestal is uniquely placed so that its corner faces off against Fifth Avenue to give the illusion of flow and space.
German-born Lee Lawrie was well known as an architectural sculptor. His work can be found at St. Thomas Church and throughout Rockefeller Center: Wisdom, flanked on the left by Light and on the right by Sound at 30 Rockefeller Plaza; Winged Mercury and Heraldic Lions at the British Empire Building; Fleur-de-lis and Seeds of Good Citizenship at La Maison Française; Progress at One Rockefeller Plaza; The Story of Mankind, Saint Francis of Assisi, Swords into Plowshares, Columbia Greeting a Woman, Boatman, Fourteen coats of Arms, and Corncucopia of Plenty at the International building.
Rene Paul Chambellan, an architectural modeler and sculptor, was born in 1893 in West Hoboken. He was one of the foremost practitioners of what was then called the French Modern Style and has subsequently been labeled Zig-Zag Moderne, or Art Deco. His sculpture adorns landmarks like the American Radiator Building, the Chicago Tribune Building, the New York Life Insurance Building, Carew Tower, the Chanin Building, Beekman Tower and the Daily News Building. His other pieces around Rockefeller Center include the decorative drain covers and fountainhead sculptures in the Channel Gardens, the Motifs from the Coats of Arms of the British Isles and Pageant of French History.
The GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, an 860-foot, 70-story Art Deco skyscraper, was completed in 1933 as the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center. Originally named the RCA Building for its main tenant, the Radio Corporation of America, formed in 1919 by General Electric, it is famous as the headquarters and New York studios of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), also owned by GE. After RCA was reacquired (and split up) by GE in 1986, the building was renamed two years later.
The building looks dramatically different when viewing its narrow and wide facades. From 5th Avenue it is an elegant, narrow shaft while looking down 6th Avenue it forms an enormous slab. The vertical and Gothic-inspired detailing of the austere Art Deco facade is integrated with a slim, functionally expressive form. Granite covers the building base to a height of 4 ft, and the shaft has a refined facade of Indiana limestone with aluminum spandrel panels. Unlike most other tall Art-Deco buildings constructed in the 1930s, the GE Building has no spire on its roof. The present exterior is recognized for the big GE letters at the building’s top. The open lobby was the first of its time and rich materials, reduced black and beige ornamental scheme is enhanced by dramatic lighting.
Below the building is a shopping concourse that was accessible from the lobby by the first elevators grouped in the central core of a building. The top floor of the building is an event room and restaurant named the Rainbow Room. The observation deck atop the skyscraper, "Top of the Rock," had been closed since 1986 to accomodate the renovation of the Rainbow Room and reopened to the public in 2005. The deck, which is built to resemble the deck of an ocean liner, offers sightseers a bird’s eye view of the city, and has been co-opted for NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
The Art Deco decoration of the building follows heroic and mythical themes glorfying modernity. In the niche above the main entrance is Lee Lawrie’s sculptural group, consisting of Wisdom, flanked on the left by Light and on the right by Sound. Over the 45th Street entrance is Leo Freidhandler’s Television.
While under construction in 1932, the GE Building is where the famous photo "Lunchtime atop a skyscraper" was taken by Charles C. Ebbets. The photo shows 11 construction workers eating whilst sitting on a steel beam seemingly suspended in mid-air.
Rockefeller Center was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1985.
In 2007, Rockefeller Center was ranked #56 on the AIA 150 America’s Favorite Architecture list.
Rockefeller Center National Register #87002591
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