This post was written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Reference Librarian for the Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections.
Tonight, thousands of people will gather to celebrate the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, a spectacle that’s been a holiday tradition in New York City for over 70 years. Though the first official ceremony was held in 1933, the tradition actually began on Christmas Eve 1931, when workers on the site put up a 20 ft balsam tree and decorated it with paper garlands, strings of cranberries, and a few ornaments. The workers then lined up to receive their paychecks, distributed by a foreman standing behind a wooden crate.
“December 24, 1931 — Our first Christmas Tree on the site of the French and British Buildings.” PR 2-456.
The construction of Rockefeller Center, begun on May 17, 1930, took place during the worst years of the Great Depression, a time when 64 percent of building trade workers in NYC were unemployed. It’s estimated that it provided employment for 40,000 to 60,000 people. It was a project of unprecedented scale which ultimately transformed the cityscape.
A photograph album in the N-YHS collections, which once belonged to Hugh Robertson, the first executive manager of Rockefeller Center, documents the change in the 22-acre site between 48th and 51st Streets and 5th and 6th Avenues. To kick off the holiday season, here are a few images from that album, with original captions. Happy Holidays!
“Before it all began . . . a few were speakeasies.” Album File, PR 2-456.
“The last full-front view of St. Patricks Cathedral. George Atwells shovels are already scooping out the foundation for the International Buildings.” Album File, PR 2-456.
“Time out for a snapshot. Raymond Hood, Wallace K. Harrison and Andrew Reinhard inspect one of the early models.” Album File, PR 2-456.
“Mussolini inspected this model for comparison between Rockefeller Center and the Pantheon (left), and the Marcus Aurelius column and statue (right).” Album File, PR 2-456.
“Placing the last piece of limestone on the topmost unit of the RCA Building where more than 14,000 tons of limestone were used.” PR 2-456.
“The skating pond was here to stay.” Album File, PR 2-456.
“The same spot a decade later . . . organ music and candles.” PR 2-456.