I recently came across the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress, and thought it was a new vein I could mine for blog posts. The criteria I use are (1) interesting views of buildings or other structures and (2) pictures that are in the public domain, and the G-S collection meets both. Unfortunately, as seen above, most of the images are very low resolution. The kind of analysis I’m doing on old photos requires that they be clear enough to make out details, otherwise the parlor tricks don’t work.
The picture above shows the limits of how far you can go with low-res images. The title tells the main story: “Rockefeller Center. RCA Building, from 515 Madison Ave.” In other words, we’re looking west-southwest towards the Rockefeller development. The featured tower is 30 Rockefeller Place, AKA the GE Building, AKA the RCA Building, and coincidently, my favorite old skyscraper. The British Empire Building and La Maison Francaise are visible at the lower left, along with St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The lack of competing tall buildings jumps out at you – this part of midtown is now a forest of tall buildings – as does the big hole in the ground.
If the hole isn’t obvious, look at 50th Street, running diagonally lower left to upper right, just our side of 30 Rock. It looks like the street is on a viaduct. It’s not – this part of midtown is fairly flat. The 20 or 30 feet of elevation we’re seeing at the street is the edge of a huge foundation pit. Based on the location, this is the beginning of the International Building at Rockefeller Center (where my childhood dentist was located, along with a few other offices), which means this photo is from 1933 or 34. Just because that building is forty stories tall doesn’t mean it needed such a deep foundation, but part of the underground space is the concourse that connects all of the Rock Center buildings. Because the picture is so low res, we can’t tell if we’re seeing the cut face of bedrock, or some temporary walls to close off the concourse already constructed under the neighboring buildings.
I’ll look through the collection to see if there are any other usable photos, but I suspect there are few.