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Nelson Rockefeller's Big Ideas

University campuses, affordable housing, and absurdly grand state building complexes define the liberal legacy of the former New York Republican.

The Egg, a performing arts center located along Rockefeller's Empire State Plaza. (Mark Byrnes)

This post is part of a CityLab series on power—the political kind, the stuff inside batteries and gas tanks, and the transformative might of mass movements.

Like the ruins of Rome and Athens, Albany’s Empire State Plaza may attract tourists of the distant future looking for the most dramatic relics of long-faded power.

Drawn up on a napkin by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and faithfully executed by architect Wallace Harrison*, the megaproject—which includes a vast public plaza, four identical office towers, one extra tall tower, a legislative office building, a justice building, a State museum, and a performing arts center known as “The Egg”—is as close as to Brasilia as you’ll find in the United States.

Built over an unglamorous but active neighborhood and not exactly embraced by Albany’s mayor, the $2 billion Empire State Plaza already represented outdated modernist planning ideas by the time it opened in 1976, three years after Rockefeller had left office.

Scenes from around the Empire State Plaza. (Mark Byrnes)

Rockefeller served as New York governor from 1959 to 1973 before becoming Gerald Ford’s vice president. He left a slew of public buildings across the state that reflect his policies as governor, places driven by an interest in creating equitable societies. Perhaps best described by Samuel Bleeker in his book, The Politics of Architecture, these final products were often still “thick with compromise.”

A now-extinct breed of liberal Republican, Rockefeller never fulfilled his dream of being president. But he treated his State House post with the same kind of ambition and sense of responsibility expected out of the White House. Programs that declared a government commitment to affordable housing and higher education were executed through state agencies he created as a way to bypass an impenetrable bureaucracy in Albany as well as conservative voters unwilling to O.K. big spending initiatives.

His Urban Development Corporation (UDC) barely became law on the night of Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968, pushed by Rockefeller as a way to pay more than lip service to the Civil Rights Movement leader whose assassination sparked rioting across the country.

Scenes from around Roosevelt Island, arguably the UDC’s most successful project. (Mark Byrnes)

Rockefeller appointed Ed Logue, already established as a relentless builder in Boston and New Haven, to head the agency. Before it succumbed to federal cuts and unpaid debts, UDC created more than 30,000 units of low-cost homes from Buffalo to the Bronx. Their designs rejected the “towers in the park” model associated with some of the country’s worst municipal housing, embracing a low-rise, high-density model instead. Many of these developments, created by some of the most well-regarded architects of the 20th century (Paul Rudolph, Richard Meier, Josep Lluis Sert and Charles Gwathmey), still stand today.

The governor inherited an impotent public university system (SUNY) and turned it into one of the nation’s best. By creating the State University Construction Fund, Rockefeller was able to create a streamlined design and construction process that relied on some of the world’s best architects, including Henry Cobb, Ed Durell Stone, Harry Weese, and Ulrich Franzen. By 1980, approximately 390 projects had been completed for the system and nearly $2.5 billion spent.

As optimistic—even naive—as he was about human nature, Rockefeller had a paranoid side, too. He lobbied the state legislature to appropriate $100 million for a fallout shelter program out of his fear of nuclear catastrophe. More significantly, his frustrations with a national drug epidemic—and perhaps with the way an increasingly conservative Republican party viewed him—led to aggressive and ultimately destructive drug laws that set a national model and sent prison populations soaring while ripping apart the lives of mostly poor people of color.

New York has since rolled back Rockefeller’s drug laws; some of his fallout shelters have been converted into slightly more useful spaces by their owners. Meanwhile, UDC projects and SUNY campuses face increasing financial need just to maintain themselves in a political climate that ranges from unwilling to unable to help.

(Left to right) Monumental architecture from three different SUNY campuses, including Albany , Purchase, and Buffalo. (Mark Byrnes)

Talk to nearly any architect or engineer working with a New York state agency today, and they’ll tell you about a stubborn bureaucracy that makes even simple work arduous—a sad irony as some of these agencies were created to avoid this very problem. Current governor Andrew Cuomo has also taken on a fair share of eye-catching projects while in office, although many have been received as suspect, modest, or even unhelpful.

Back at Empire State Plaza, cracks are forming on The Egg’s concrete shell. Painfully outdated exhibits dominate the New York State Museum, and a enviable modern art collection donated by Rockefeller fights for attention with more recently posted advertising in a hallway underneath the reflective pool.

As time passes, so many of the buildings that represent Rockefeller’s biggest ideas take on a patina of inertia. Built as the groundwork for a better future, it’s hard not to see them now as monuments to one person’s ability to extract big ideas from a system that typically keeps them at bay.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the architect of Empire State Plaza.

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