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By financing the construction of Rockefeller Center during the worst years of the Great Depression, John D Rockefeller Jr was not just embarking on what would become the defining business venture of his career, he was creating employment. Forty thousand people worked on the project, not least the 11 construction workers famously photographed sitting eating lunch on a girder 800ft above ground.
But if the idea behind the creation of the whole 19-building complex, which fills three blocks of midtown Manhattan between 48th and 51st streets, was in part altruistic, the creation of the nightclub on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza was altogether more strategic. When it opened in 1934, the Rainbow Room, as it was called, promised not only “the world’s highest high life”, it was also the most expensive (according to a piece in Fortune magazine in March 1936, an evening there required “heroic spending”), the most exclusive (even the telephonists were on the Social Register) and arguably the most beautiful venue in the city: a self-styled “dining and dancing rendezvous without parallel in the history of the New York entertainment world”.
Prohibition was over and although Rockefeller himself remained teetotal, the good times were back. Noël Coward sang here, Duke Ellington had a series of residencies and Ginger Rogers danced with Howard Hughes on its revolving dance floor. For the rest of the century, the Rainbow Room remained synonymous with glamour but it was closed in 2009 as recession began to bite.
On Sunday, however, two days after the 80th anniversary of its original inauguration, it reopens to the public following a refit even more lavish than the $20m renovation it underwent in the 1980s.
Certainly it’s a space to wow even the most jaded eye. As though the view of New York glittering at your feet yielded insufficient sparkle, the old fabric curtains have been replaced with light-catching crystal ones, suspended from the top of the 24 double-height floor-to-ceiling windows, covering just the top two-thirds of the glass so as not to interfere with the view.
Look into the room, and the gold leaf of the dome above the dance floor has been reapplied so that it gleams anew, as do the wall sconces and great central chandelier – all multi-faceted prisms, balls and stars, to allude to the night sky. The dance floor’s compass-rose parquet has been restored by a grandson of Otto Berk, who installed the original floor, and polished to a mirror-like shine. And its mechanics once again allow it to rotate, turning through 360 degrees in about five minutes. “So it’s a slow spin,” said Keith Douglas, a managing director at Tishman Speyer, co-owner of Rockefeller Center, as he gave me preview last month. So closely under wraps were the designs that not only was photography forbidden, he had asked me not to talk about it until last week’s opening party.
Not that the room has changed beyond recognition since its original “streamlined modern” design (back then, the term art deco was not yet current). Rather it has been improved and updated. Gone are the old carpet and wall coverings but, rather than restore the “dull green” carpet and “rich brown” wall silk chosen by its original team of decorators – one of whom was Vincente Minelli before he became a Hollywood director – designers Gabellini Sheppard Associates have opted for an unshowy palette of greyish mauves, very much in keeping with the original idea that the “people [would] furnish the colours” with the fine clothes they wore. As one contemporary magazine put it, this was a scheme that “bowed to the ladies and gave gowns their chance”. Sadly, the dress code has been downgraded to “business casual”.
The tables are still arranged on tiers, so that all 220 diners have a clear view of the dance floor and stage (as though it could compete with Manhattan at night). Disappointingly, Mondays are the only night of the week it will be open to the public for dinner, which will be cooked under the supervision of British chef Jonathan Wright, who lists Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in England and Sandy Lane in Barbados on his CV. (The venue will also be open to the public for brunch on Sundays but they’re planning to put the buffet on the dance floor.) Otherwise, the Rainbow Room remains the preserve of private events and weddings.
That said, a new cocktail lounge called SixtyFive is also opening next door at the western end of the 65th floor. It will be open from 5pm Monday to Friday, and enjoys similarly peerless views. Its interior may not have the heritage of the Rainbow Room but is no less fabulous, with its multi-faceted silver leaf ceiling, silvery mother-of-pearl table tops, curved rosewood panelling and polished black terrazzo floor, inscribed with threads of bronze. My instinct is it cannot fail to become a fixture on the New York bar scene.
Prix fixe dinners at the Rainbow Room (rainbowroom.com) cost from $175 a head excluding drinks. Claire Wrathall was a guest of The London NYC hotel (thelondonnyc.com) and the city tourist board NYC & Company (nycgo.com)