julia foulkes

New York Arts Center: 1953

Mecca Temple, 135 55th St., 1929 (later City Center). New York Historical Society.

The Rockefeller brothers, long committed to philanthropy, began batting around ideas for a cultural center in New York in 1953. The grandiosity of the idea may have been possible only in the minds of people like the Rockefellers, or Robert Moses. When they joined forces, it was inevitable.

In 1953, though, it was the Rockefeller brothers with the dream. They scoped out where: not near the United Nations, whose land was donated to the project by their father. It was too far east, removed from the circulation and energy that would feed such a center. They gravitated to near the Museum of Modern Art, on 53rd Street near 6th Avenue, another Rockefeller-funded enterprise. There was a public library nearby as well as the headquarters of the Theater Guild; Rockefeller Center was just a few short blocks south, where these conversations took place. And the center of the island of Manhattan itself seemed the optimal location.

The brothers considered the players. Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic both needed larger, more modern theaters. There were rumors that Juilliard wanted to move south from its location near Columbia University to be closer to performance spaces. NYU was said to be considering a grand plan as well, putting together the performing arts with radio and television as well. Advisors suggested the importance of bringing unions on board in any scheme. It would be necessary to give them a stake in whatever occurred, so as to prevent backlash and continual fighting and negotiation.

One player they first neglected was City Center, the Mecca Temple turned city-subsidized low-priced center of the arts on 55th Street – an already-existing model of an arts center in the preferred location. It hosted opera, ballet, and occasional theater, with a top ticket price of $3.60. In the long game of persuasion fundamental to Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan and Philharmonic would prove to be easy catches. City Center, on the other hand, teased and flirted, promised and then retreated. It would be over twenty years of negotiations before City Center agreed to be a constituent, with the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera moving to Lincoln Center.

Unlike the early conversations in the Rockefeller family offices, the debate was not about where, who, or how such a dream could be realized. The debate with City Center tracked the larger question at stake: who are the arts for?