Chasing the Rainbow Room: Landmarks Commission Considers Iconic Eatery

The Rainbow Room, like Tavern on the Green or Chumley’s, was one of those New York institutions no one ever

Is magenta one of the rainbow colors? (Wikimedia Commons)
Ginger Rogers and Howard Hughes, two years after the Rainbow Room opened. (Getty)

The Rainbow Room, like Tavern on the Green or Chumley’s, was one of those New York institutions no one ever visited, until it was gone, at which point the lamentations became unceasing. The fate of the restaurant atop Rockafeller Center remains a mystery, since it was abruptly closed by the Ciprianis three years ago amidst a rent dispute with another of New York’s august families, the Speyers, who control Rock Center.

Whoever takes over the famous (and famously garish) catering hall in the sky, one thing that is unlikely to change is the decor. Today, the Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to consider the two-story space on the 65th floor of 30 Rock for designation as an interior landmark, one 114 in the city. (Others include the Four Seasons, the New York Public Library and, just downstairs, Radio City Music Hall.)

“This is an important calendaring—they’re all important, of course, truly,” Commissioner Robert Tierney said at meeting of the commission at the Municipal Building. “This is notable and important for obvious reasons and we look very much forward to the hearing on this.”

That hearing is scheduled for September 11, and should the Rainbow Room be designated, any alterations to the space would require the commission’s approval. This would not forbid changes, but it would make them more difficult, and it almost guarantees that the space will remain one for food and drink.

At one time, Tishman Speyer had considered turning the space into offices (so lucrative was the city’s office market), and the Ciprianis actually proposed landmarking the space themselves as a route to try and preserve their rents—it would be harder to use the space for anything else. Ultimately, the city rejected the proposal and they abandoned the restaurant anyway, but Tishman Speyer did turn the kitchen, on the 64th floor, over to Lazard, which already leased the floors below and was looking to expand.

The 65th floor would likely require renovations to accommodate a new kitchen as a result, which may explain the eagerness of the commission to protect the space. A similar action took place at the old Manufacturers of Hanover bank branch at 510 Fifth Avenue, which was landmarked then redeveloped, after some hue and cry, into a Joe Fresh clothing outlet.

Tishman Speyer has yet to say what will happen to the space or where it stands on its landmarking, though there are vague plans to do something with the space. “Tishman Speyer continues its planning process for the Rainbow Room, which is an icon loved by New Yorkers and visitors from around the world,” a spokesperson said in an email.

What is interesting about this particular landmarking is that it not only celebrates the original 1934 design by Walter Harrison (also the architect of Rock Center) but also a post-modern renovation to it in 1987, commissioned by David Rockefeller to the tune of $25 million and designed by celebrated New York architect Hugh Hardy.

According to the commission’s statement of significance presented at today’s meeting, the space remains a rare example of an early modernist interior in the city, in a style identified as Stremlined Modern: “Though much of the 65th floor was completely remodeled, similar to various earlier renovations, the Rainbow Room was treated with considerable care, and Hardy called his work a ‘true restoration.’ A rare and distinguished example of Streamlined Modern design, it retains many of its original features and characteristics, making the Rainbow Room one New York City’s highest and most elegant nightclub interiors.”

Diana Chapin, a commissioner from Queens, called it “a place of iconic memories” following the commission’s unanimous vote to calendar the Rainbow Room.

Chasing the Rainbow Room: Landmarks Commission Considers Iconic Eatery