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Downsizing, the Rockefellers are leaving their skyscraper

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NEW YORK » Ever since it opened in 1933, a 70-story limestone skyscraper has towered over mid-Manhattan as a symbol of global capitalism and of a prolific American family that remains synonymous with prodigious wealth.

The family patriarch, John D. Rockefeller, was America’s first billionaire, and it was his son, John Jr., who dauntlessly broke ground for 30 Rockefeller Plaza in the midst of the Great Depression. Through it all, into what is now the seventh generation, the Rockefellers’ vast financial and personal empire has been managed by as many as 200 employees from a lofty command post adorned with priceless impressionist and modern artwork.

A magnet for pilgrimages by luminaries like Frank Sinatra and Nelson Mandela, the suites once filled three entire floors (the equivalent of about 1.5 football fields). Collectively, they were always known humbly and simply as "Room 5600."

But in 2000, the Rockefellers sold off 30 Rock and nine other landmark Rockefeller Center office buildings in the 22-acre Art Deco complex to Jerry I. Speyer and the Lester Crown family of Chicago, although they retained their presence in the building by keeping one floor as a rented space.

Now, they have decided to leave the building entirely. By this time next year, they will have vacated the 56th-floor aerie they have occupied since 1933 and moved to somewhat less rarefied headquarters across 49th Street.

One of the country’s great dynastic families is downsizing.

Forbes estimates the entire family is worth $10 billion, which would rank it 24th among the nation’s richest families. And while there was one John D., there are now hundreds of Rockefellers.

So in a sizzling real estate market, even the Rockefeller family must worry about the rent.

But like any discreet tenant, David Rockefeller Jr., John D.’s great-grandson, would say only, "We got a deal we are not at liberty to speak about."

Speyer, the chairman of Tishman Speyer, which co-owns Rockefeller Center, also declined to discuss any details. But, he said, "I would be surprised if they weren’t worried about rent. I think sensible people respect money."

The Rockefellers are by no means pleading poverty. As public-spirited philanthropists, they have endured pretty much intact longer than most American oligarchies that originated in the late 19th-century Gilded Age.

"What’s different is there are nearly 300 of us now," David Jr. said.

And many of them no longer feel beholden to a paternalistic family office that since 1882 has managed the Rockefellers’ financial and personal affairs, including taxes and accounting, insurance, investments, philanthropy, art, speechmaking and publicity.

"The family office used to mean everything, the whole shebang," said David Jr., 73, a member of the fourth generation.

John D.’s bust and portrait still grace the otherwise anonymous reception area on the 56th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. (To put the founder’s wealth in perspective, the $1 billion that he had accumulated by 1916 would be worth $30 billion today, adjusted for inflation. When he died in 1937, his assets equaled 1.5 percent of the nation’s economic output – the equivalent of $340 billion today, or more than four times Bill Gates’ worth, Forbes estimated.)

About 44 staff members will work for the Rockefellers when they move to a 19,000-square-foot space at 1 Rockefeller Plaza around the middle of next year. Rockefeller & Co., which manages the investments of the Rockefellers and other wealthy families, has opened shop separately at 10 Rockefeller Plaza.

"We decided to start again at 1 Rock," David Jr. said. "This is the first time this generation has gotten to say what their needs are."

He will move into an office in the 34-story building that faces the skating rink.

"Some people think higher is better," he said. "I like the human connection."

Room 5600 was so lofty, The New Yorker once wrote, that because of the Earth’s rotation, its occupants would travel "more than a mile farther each day than the man in the street."

After visiting the 56th floor in 1935 (not long after the lobby briefly featured a problematic fresco of Lenin), Le Corbusier, the architect, observed, "The great masters of economic destiny are up there, like eagles, in the silence of their eminences."

No one was underwhelmed.

"It was staggering, like walking into a private MoMA with a Gauguin, Mirs and other remarkable works of art and views of New York City that knocked your socks off," recalled Heather P. Ewing, an art historian who visited several years ago.

Richard Norton Smith, the author of a new biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, remembers an earlier first impression: "I assumed Room 5600 was just that, a room, or, at most, a suite of rooms. That it filled two floors then was surprising, but no more so than the hierarchy of minions and assistant minions on hand to greet and guide visitors through this Emerald City in the sky."

To conspiracy theorists, Room 5600 had an Orwellian ring. Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote in "The Rockefellers" that its mystique made it "the mysterium tremendum of the Rockefeller Dynasty," the place where "the Brothers gathered with their illuminati of friends and advisers to make the decisions that would shake the world."

While the family has dispersed geographically, many of the Rockefellers will convene next June at their Pocantico Hills estate in Westchester County to celebrate the 100th birthday of David Sr., who is the only surviving sibling of the "Brothers" generation, John D.’s grandchildren.

Although they sat on Rockefeller Center’s board, the sons of John D. Jr. still needed his permission after World War II when they wanted to remodel a portion of the 56th floor into identical 20-by-16-foot offices for each of them.

"Isn’t this impressive," Nelson Rockefeller prompted his father, after the renovations were completed.

To which John D. Jr. supposedly replied, "Nelson, whom are we trying to impress?"

Although no sign identifies Room 5600 and the glass doors that separate it from the elevator bank are blank, plenty of presidential candidates and other notables found their way there (Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine to see Laurance; Mandela, Richard Gere and Bono to visit David).

Except for the original art (David Sr.’s office includes a Gauguin, a circular Mondrian and a Signac), the modern offices are largely understated (the baronial 16th-century furnishings that John D. Jr. transported from Standard Oil headquarters at 26 Broadway were long since dismantled and transported to Pocantico). Plans to decorate the new offices are incomplete.

"Many of us have the interest of Nelson and Dad," David Jr. said. "I don’t know if we have the eye or the pocketbook."

With one brother still alive, the dynastic office is being preserved, but in a different form and, soon, in another place. Perhaps the allegorical bas-relief over the entrance to 1 Rockefeller Plaza epitomizes the family’s own metamorphosis. It is titled "Progress."

Sam Roberts, New York Times

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