"Great Fortune" is a history of the people, the buildings, the politics and the greatness of one of the biggest building projects in human history: Rockefeller Center. When he agreed to lease 11 acres of midtown Manhattan land from Columbia University, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (AKA "Junior") intended to build a grand opera house. He ended up building an enormous complex of 12 buildings containing 5.1 million square feet of office space, 2 theaters, restaurants, and retail shops, all financed by Junior himself during the Great Depression. Daniel Okrent takes us through the whole project, from the days of the ill-fated opera house project, demolition of 228 buildings on the site, hiring of the developer and architects, building, decorating, and leasing the buildings, 1928-1939.
Okrent balances the creative and financial details of the project with the personalities involved. Woven into the story are biographical details of many of the principle and some tangential characters. These include John D. Rockefeller, Jr., his sons Johnny and Nelson Rockefeller, who would become president of Rockefeller Center, developer John R. Todd, architects Raymond Hood, Harvey Corbett, Wallace Harrison, Reinhard, and Henry Hofmeister, the flamboyant designer of Radio City Music Hall's theater Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel, RCA president and inventor of commercial radio David Sarnoff, and more. The book is dense with detail about who did what and why, and we stories like the straight scoop on the infamous Diego Rivera mural intended for the RCA building.
Most of the book concerns the first phase of the complex, 1931-1936, but the second phase, 1936-1939, is also covered. Any later additions are not covered, but Okrent does look at Rockefeller Center through World War II, the 20th century, and its legacy into the 21st in the book's last chapters. "Great Fortune" is densely packed with details on a wide variety of issues related to conception, building and leasing, but I was amazed at Daniel Okrent's ability to make it all fluid. "Great Fortune" brings the sweeping, multifaceted story behind Rockefeller Center to a wide audience. It may be of special interest to students of urban development, as it shows the level of complexity and efficiency a project of this scale requires. The book was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for history.