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Despite all the hoopla about Billionaires' Row on 57th Street, Hudson Yards, and impressive new skylines in Brooklyn and Queens, the heart of the city is still the Rockefeller Center district.
The original Rockefeller Center ("the Center") complex on the east side between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, between West 48th and 51st Streets, was an Art Deco masterpiece designed by architect Raymond Hood with soaring skyscrapers, abundant art works, and a large sunken plaza surrounded by a colorful flourish of flags at its center, dominated by a large gilded statue of Prometheus by Paul Manship.

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53 West 53rd Street
53 West 53rd Street Midtown West
Olympic Tower, 641 Fifth Avenue
Olympic Tower, 641 Fifth Avenue Midtown East
Museum Tower, 15 West 53rd Street
Museum Tower, 15 West 53rd Street Midtown West
Baccarat Hotel & Residences, 20 West 53rd Street
Baccarat Hotel & Residences, 20 West 53rd Street Midtown West
The plaza sits at the end of a sloping entrance with six landscaped pools in the "Channel Gardens," framed by two handsome mid-rise buildings across Fifth Avenue from the stately and impressive Saks Fifth Avenue department store and one block south of the very beautiful St. Patrick's Cathedral, designed by James Renwick Jr.
Rockefeller Center
The Center was started in 1932 by John D. Rockefeller Jr. when the Great Depression turned the spectacular Empire State Building at 34th Street into the "Empty State Building." Until last year, the Center was dominated by 30 Rock, the great stepped slab skyscraper that was originally the RCA Building, then the General Electric Building, and most recently the Comcast Building, whose top is a great open observatory. Last year, it received a new and taller neighbor, Jean Nouvel's 53W53, a stunning, angular apartment building at 53 West 53rd Street whose base includes a major expansion for the Museum of Modern Art.
While the Center itself consists of commercial and retail space, the area is home to several other high-end luxury residential towers like Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue at 51st Street, Museum Tower and the Baccarat Hotel & Residences, both on 53rd Street east of Fifth Avenue, and The Centria on 48th Street west of Fifth Avenue.
About a year ago, Saks Fifth Avenue revealed its extremely colorful and spectacular main floor explosively highlighted by iridescent escalators, railings, and fixtures designed by Rem Koolhaas, whose 1971 book "Delirious New York" charmed architects the world over with its cover of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building relaxing together in bed. More recently, Mr. Koolhaas created a major exhibit, "Countryside," at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue and 88th Street.
The volcanic fire of the Koolhaas people-conveyors at Saks are sensational foils to the Center's Prometheus. (The iridescent dichroic film coating on the escalators changes colors as shoppers rise and descend, making the department store's main floor a lively and lovely kaleidoscape.)
A February 6, 2019 Architectural Digest article by Timothy Latterner quoted Mr. Koolhaas as stating, "The department store's allure has always been its social aspect - even before people could shop on the internet. And escalators are great devices for people-watching, and sometimes even flirtation."
It is infinitely more fascinating than the underwear mannequins inside the nearby Victoria's Secret flagship at 640 Fifth Avenue, which now sports the largest and darkest marquee on the avenue. This surprisingly sparked no protests from preservationists hoping to be titillated by the mannequins when the Easter Parade is not in session.

People-watching, of course, is what draws crowds to the skating rink, which becomes an outdoor cafe in warm weather.
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The plaza is likely to be revamped as the owners of the Center, Tishman Speyer Properties, have sought approval in January from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to make some changes designed by Gabellini Sheppard Associates LLP. The proposal suggests removing two large bronze sculptures from the rink's entrance to either side of Prometheus, their original position, and also to change the stair configurations to the rink and repave the overlooking terraces to make them more wheelchair accessible.
According to a January 20, 2020 Archinect article by Antonio Pacheco, the "change would allow for the addition of a temporary assembly stair configuration to be added to the staircases during the summer - when the skating rink is not installed - that would make the space more hospitable and generous for its occupants. This design would help bring the stair configuration back to a state similar to what it looked like when the complex was first built."
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The article also said that several stone walls would be replaced with hedges and that the proposal would also wrap elevators in displays and billboards, possibly with advertising, "a detail preservationists have spoken out against."
The plan would also transform each of the six pools in the Channel Gardens into skylights to let strollers see through to the concourse below. It would also relocate the "Credo" monument from the plaza stairs to the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Channel Gardens.
Additionally, the city is considering making the recent holiday closure of 49th and 50th Streets permanent. A January 7, 2020 Wall Street Journal article by Alexander Cohen stated that, "Some officials are saying the recent experiment to limit the crowded block to pedestrians has been a success."
"Jerome Bath, president of the business group Fifth Avenue Association," the article continued, "said he didn't hear any negative feedback from business owners as a result of the street closures. It's certainly made the experience of the street better for the thousands of people who came and visited Fifth Avenue during this holiday season."
The three restaurants in the sunken plaza around the rink - the Sea Grill, the Rock Center Cafe, and Cucina - were closed in January when their leases expired. Brasserie Ruhlmann at 45 Rockefeller Center is closing as well and will be replaced by Frenchette, a Tribeca bistro run by Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr. The brasserie has the largest outdoor cafe in the area.
Rockefeller Center (CityRealty)

Local Listings
53-West-53rd-Street-1 53W53 via The Corcoran Group
641-Fifth-Avenue-1 Olympic Tower via Brown Harris Stevens
18-West-48th-Street-1 The Centria via Elliman
17-West-54th-Street-1 Rockefeller Apartments via The Corcoran Group
15-West-53rd-Street-1 Museum Tower via Brown Harris Stevens
20-West-53rd-Street-1 Baccarat Hotel & Residences via Sotheby's
Would you like to tour any of these properties?
Just complete the info below.
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Architecture Critic Carter Horsley Since 1997, Carter B. Horsley has been the editorial director of CityRealty. He began his journalistic career at The New York Times in 1961 where he spent 26 years as a reporter specializing in real estate & architectural news. In 1987, he became the architecture critic and real estate editor of The New York Post.