The Rockefeller Center’s vanished sky gardens
Don’t you just love tucked-away city rooftop gardens?
New York’s Rockefeller Center boasts several, but unfortunately, they’re rarely accessible to the public.
Numbering five (yes, five!) in total, the most impressive are located atop La Maison Française and the British Empire Building, and can be only be glimpsed from lofty vantage points. With their lush lawns and turquoise-blue pools they form a gorgeous - if tantalisingly inaccessible - oasis hidden above the city streets.
But in fact, these beautiful green spaces - designed in the early 1930s by Welsh landscape architect Ralph Hancock – were just the prelude to a far more ambitious project: a rooftop garden extravaganza which the public was more than welcome to visit.
The so-called ‘Gardens of the Nations’ were located on the 11th floor of the (former) RCA building, and featured garden designs typical of Spain, Italy, Holland, France, Japan and England alongside an ‘American wild garden’, an ‘international’ rock garden and even a bird sanctuary.
Construction began in 1934 with Hancock once again at the helm. Thousands of tons of soil were hauled up to the RCA’s 11th floor along with 200,000 flower bulbs (an incredible 20,000 tulips were planted in the Dutch garden alone), 2000 shrubs and trees, and vast quantities of cement, bricks, rock and ornamental stonework.
No expense was spared, or detail overlooked. The Spanish garden featured an ancient well-head imported from Grenada, while the English garden boasted a lawn of specially imported English turf.
Now that’s what I call real authenticity.
Water features formed an important element of the impressive spectacle, and 96,000 gallons were pumped into the gardens daily to operate the many waterfalls, trickling streams and ornamental fountains.
Here we have the Japanese garden looking almost psychedelic ….
And look! It’s the rather spectacular cascade complete with babbling brook that really did wind its way through the International Rock Garden.
The Gardens of the Nations received a gala inauguration on 15 April 1935, and were opened to the public the following day. In their first 7 months they attracted over 87,000 visitors, each paying a dollar to tour the magnificent park in the sky.
If you wish you could have been there - well I do, too. But the amazing bird’s-eye view below and images snaffled from the oh-so-quaintly-worded promotional brochure are almost as good as the real thing.
The Rock Garden and its stream can be seen bottom left; part of the English garden is visible at top left, with the Japanese garden squeezed in between. A flight of steps leads to the other gardens on a higher level.
Despite their popularity, the gardens were expensive to maintain and reputedly lost the Rockefellers $45,000 a year in operating costs.
The complex – and pricey - maintenance standards Hancock had outlined before returning to the UK were not fully met, and in 1938 the ‘Sky Gardens’ were closed to the general public.
For several years they remained a popular venue for garden and flower shows, and even as late as 1942 a major alteration to the landscaping took place. With Japan now at war with the United States, the Japanese garden was dismantled and replaced with the next best thing, a Chinese garden.
Some time in the 1970s, however, the gardens were almost entirely swept away, apparently to make room for – prepare yourselves - air conditioning units and TV transmitters.
One or two parts of the original layout remain – the image below, for example, shows what’s left of the Rock Garden – but in general, the Rockefeller’s magnificent ‘Gardens of the Nations’ exist solely as a tantalising example of something torn out of the heart of New York that we all really, really wish we could still visit.