A 1946 proposal for the UN headquarters, the eventual fate of the dream city site. Some of these original elements appear in the UN’s final structure. Source: New York Times.
When John D. Rockefeller, Jr. planned Rockefeller Center in the early twentieth century, he meant for it to be “the grandest plaza in all of New York.” Even the Great Depression couldn’t stop this dream, as Rockefeller financed the $100 million project himself. Upon its completion in 1933, it was–and still is–the world’s largest privately owned complex. But were it not for one fateful transaction, Rockefeller Center might have lost that title to a “Dream City” by developer William Zeckendorf, Sr. just a few avenues away.
Early detailed plans for Rockefeller Center. Source: Alok Vyas.
Zeckendorf was no stranger to lofty development plans, as he was behind the proposal for the elaborate rooftop airport in Midtown we covered recently. He began buying up plots of land along the East River once occupied by slaughterhouses, and by the 1940’s he had amassed 17 acres between 42nd and 48th Streets. He later wrote, “Not since Columbia University turned over its Midtown properties for the construction of Rockefeller Center had such a great land parcel as ours become available in New York.” On this land, Zeckendorf planned to build an elaborate dream city-like complex to rival Rockefeller Center. He chose architect Wallace Harrison, who had worked on Rockefeller Center, to collaborate.
The city, dubbed “X City,” would be a center for culture, business and tourism, much like Rockefeller Center was. Plans included four 40-story office buildings, three 30-story apartment buildings, two 57-story towers for offices and a hotel. There would also be a concert hall that could be the potential home of the Metropolitan Opera, retail spaces, a parking garage, a marina, a floating nightclub and of course, the rooftop airport. Many of these features would be built on a 40-foot-high boulevard stretching 14 blocks over the city. With its own traffic and roads, the complex would be like a city within a city. Yet Zeckendorf was notorious for dreaming projects he couldn’t afford, and his debt was too great to begin construction.
Conveniently, the United Nations was looking for a headquarters and had a deadline of December 11, 1946 to do so. On December 10, Harrison and Nelson Rockefeller (John Jr.’s son) offered Zeckendorf $8.5 million for his East River property, which he accepted. The Rockefellers then donated the land for the UN headquarters.
\Construction on the headquarters began in summer 1948 and was completed four years later. The design for the UN headquarters was overseen by a committee that included Harrison and renowned architects Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier. They bypassed both the X City design and another of Zeckendorf’s proposals, which consisted of a slightly scaled-down version of his X City elevated boulevard. While Zeckendorf’s X City never materialized, in its place rose an impressive structure nonetheless that draws thousands of tourists each year.
The closest Zeckendorf came to his dream city was Los Angeles’ Century City, which began as a lot occupied by 20th Century Fox. Purchasing the land for $43 million in a partnership with aluminum company Alcoa, Zeckendorf again planned a “city within a city.” Construction began in 1961, but Zeckendorf’s ambitious plans eventually caught up to him as he sold his stake in the city in 1963 and went bankrupt two years later.
See more from our NYC That Never Was series. Get in touch with the author @catku.