The Rockefellers’ NYC: How One of the Richest Families Made Their Mark on the City

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Let’s play the word association game. When I say “Rockefeller,” what do you think of? The annual Christmas tree lighting? Swimming pools of money? The robber barons of the late 19th century? These are all things you can rightfully associate with the Rockefellers, but there is way more to family name than that, especially within New York City. For a family with Cleveland, Ohio, roots, the Rockefellers have made quite a mark on NYC. Keep reading and you’ll have a lot more words (and places) to associate with the name “Rockefeller.” Here are seven places that make up the Rockefellers’ NYC.

Rockefellers' NYC Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center

Yes, Rockefeller Center is the most obvious site, but it’s also the best place to start because there is so much to be said. This 19-building, 22-acre campus is home to TV studios, designer boutiques and international brands, restaurants, an ice skating rink, an observatory, a performing arts theater, and hundreds of offices. All it needs is some overpriced apartments and it’ll be a complete microcosm of New York City. But Rockefeller Center is more than a wonderland for tourists and office workers: built during the Great Depression, the complex’s very existence is a testament to the power of perseverance and hope in the midst of suffering and ruin. For such a meaningful place to New York and America at large, it’s surprising that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was reluctant to attach the family name to the project.

Rockefellers' NYC The Met Cloisters

The Met Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park

The Cloisters and the surrounding Fort Tryon Park showed off both John D. Rockefeller, Jr.,’s taste as an art collector and his conservationist values. In 1917, Jr. purchased a portion of land in upper Manhattan from another wealthy New Yorker. According to the Bowery Boys, as a boy, Rockefeller, Jr., used to ride horses in the area with his father. But Jr. didn’t buy the rocky forests of Fort Tryon to relive his fond childhood memories; he intended to create a public park. This park not only would get visitors as close to nature as you can get in NYC; it would have unparalleled views of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. Rockefeller Jr. even went as far as to purchase some of the land across the river from the park so that the view would never be ruined by development. If you think that’s crazy, wait till you hear this: Rockefeller, Jr. wanted to donate Fort Tryon Park to NYC, but the city kept turning him down, perhaps out of fear that they wouldn’t have enough funds to upkeep the park. Finally in 1931, the City embraced Jr.’s gift.

As for the Cloisters, even though it’s within Fort Tryon Park, this medieval art museum is property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Made up of a combination of Jr.’s and his friend/art dealer George Grey Bernard’s medieval art collections, Jr. donated this unique museum to the Met in 1931. Believe me, it is worth the hike through Fort Tryon Park to get to NYC’s bona fide medieval castle.

MoMA Rockefellers' NYC
Image by jrmrt from Pixabay


John D. Rockefeller Jr. didn’t really “get” modern art. But his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, did. In fact, she was so passionate about it that she and two friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, founded the Museum of Modern Art, the first of its kind in the world. Abby Rockefeller did more than put up funds for this one-of-a-kind museum: she donated several pieces from her personal collection to the museum, and if that wasn’t personal enough, she allowed the Rockefeller family townhouse on 4 West 54th Street to be used as museum space. The next time you browse the galleries of MoMA, take a second to ponder whether you’re standing in the Rockefellers’ living room or their bathroom.

Asia Society Rockefellers' NYC
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Asia Society

It seems that the knack for museum-founding was also passed on to the third generation of Rockefellers: in 1956, John D. Rockefeller III started Asia Society, an Asian art museum. According to Asia Society’s webpage, Rockefeller III was first captivated with the Asian continent during a post-college visit in 1929. Nearly thirty years later he still believed in the importance of developing a deeper understanding between the US and Asia through the sharing of art and culture. And like his mother, he was willing to donate his personal art collection in order to achieve that end.

Riverside Church Rockefellers' NYC
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Riverside Church

For a family of cutthroat businessmen, the Rockefellers were quite the devout Baptists. Over the years, members of the family had served as trustees and had donated significant sums of money to the couple of Midtown churches they attended. But John D. Rockefeller, Jr. learned the hard way that money could not always buy him influence over a church. The story goes that Junior donated $500,000 towards the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in an effort to persuade the church to take on more progressive views. That didn’t work, so Jr. decided to fund an entirely new church in Morningside Heights — Riverside Church. This church may be more modern in views, but in terms of looks, it’s old-school gothic, taking several cues from the Chartres Cathedral in France.

The United Nations Rockefellers' NYC

The United Nations

With all their money and influence, is it at all surprising that the Rockefellers played a role in the establishment of the United Nations headquarters in New York? In 1946, as other U.S. cities competed for the honor to be the home of the UN, Nelson Rockefeller, backed by his daddy John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s money, made a deal with developer/rival William Zekendorf to buy a plot of land in Turtle Bay. Nelson then gifted the land to the city, who in turn offered it to the UN, who couldn’t resist the idea of a Manhattan address. I mean, who could?

Standard Oil Building 26 Broadway
Gryffindor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Standard Oil Building (26 Broadway)

Ah, the building that started it all! Built in 1884, the Standard Oil Building heralded the original John D. Rockefeller’s arrival to New York. By moving his company’s headquarters from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City, this was a signal to everyone that Rockefeller and Standard Oil were a big deal and expected to be treated as such, although unlike it is today, the original Standard Oil building was not that impressive. When it opened in 1885, it was a mere nine stories tall, dwarfed by the other buildings that surrounded it. Over the years, that changed considerably, as though Rockefeller was reflecting his success and power through the structure of his building. These days, the Standard Oil Building is far from the only imposing structure in lower Manhattan, but this beefed-up building still holds its own in the area, just as the Rockefeller family still holds their own in history as a family with legendary riches and influence.

Did you enjoy this tour of the Rockefellers’ NYC? Which place’s association with the Rockefeller family surprised you the most? Share it in the comment section. And if you like what I do here at Shiloh in the City, sign up for my email list so you’ll be notified every time I publish a new post about NYC. Thanks for reading!

One response to “The Rockefellers’ NYC: How One of the Richest Families Made Their Mark on the City”

  1. Underrated Places in Upper Manhattan That You’re Missing Out On | Shiloh in the City

    […] a masterpiece. While you’re in the area, take some time to explore Fort Tryon Park with its Rockefeller-worthy views of the Hudson River and New Jersey […]

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