The Rockefeller Center in New York City is a well known and much-loved landmark.
Built in the early 1930′s it gave to the world one of the most iconic and reproduced photographs. That of Steel Workers taking lunch on a girder hundreds of feet above the crowded streets below.
Between 1933 and 1935, one of the most audacious garden projects ever to have been undertaken, up to that time, gave ‘The Rock’ one of its lesser known features.
The Gardens of the Nations
Welsh Landscape Architect, Ralph Hancock was employed by John D and Nelson A Rockefeller to design and build gardens on the 11th floor of their brand new skyscraper.
This ambitious project was to include sky bridges connecting the various buildings that made up the Rockefeller Center estate. But, they were never realised due to financial constraints.
What Hancock did build were gardens that emulated garden design from Holland, France, Spain, Italy, America, Japan and England as well as a modern geometric garden.
Three thousand tons of earth, 500 tons of bricks, 20,000 flower bulbs, 100 tons of natural stone and some 2,000 trees and shrubs were delivered by the service elevator or man-hauled using a block and tackle up the side of the building. Hancock even used turf imported from England and stone from the English Lake District within his designs.￼
On the opposite side of the roof to the English Garden was an International Rock Garden. English stone and Alpine planting were complimented by a waterfall and a running brook. This spectacle required 96,000 gallons of water which was lifted by an electric pump to the eleventh floor.
The Gardens of the Nations were opened on 15 April 1935. The event was attended by 400 guests, including the ambassadors of the countries represented by the gardens created by Hancock. Those also in attendance included prominent horticulturists and the guest of honour, Nelson A Rockefeller.
The gardens were officially opened to the public the following day, 16 April, with a fete for over 2000 friends, alumnae and students of Bryn Mawr College.
The New York Times of 17 April 1935 reported; “Bryn Mawr girls wearing the costumes of various nations were to have dispersed themselves among their national flowers, but a blustery wind drove them inside. Nevertheless, $10,000 was raised towards the college’s $1 million appeal fund”.
In their first 7 months the gardens attracted over 87,000 visitors, each paying $1 to view the spectacle. They closed at the end of 1935 and over the winter they were replanted with 50,000 bulbs. The following year the entrance fee was reduced to 40 cents.
Despite the popularity of the attraction, the “Sky Garden Tour” failed to make money and so closed in 1938. The gardens themselves remained a favourite venue for various garden and flower shows for many years.
Sadly, the Gardens of the Nations no longer exist in their original form. Some of the trees and lawns were retained. But, little remains of the hardscaping. They were destroyed sometime in the late 1970′s to make way for roof top air conditioning units and television transmitters.
On his return to the UK, Hancock was commissioned to design and build similar gardens on top of the Derry & Toms Department Store in London. Thankfully, these gardens remain virtually intact.