By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Fairfield, CT – Riverside Church in Manhattan. The Albany State Mall. The Museum of Modern Art. What do these landmarks all have in common? Their development was funded in part or in total by Rockefeller family money.
And these were but a few of the many projects the Rockefellers supported as author Suzanne Loebl explained Sunday afternoon May 1 to a full house in the McManus Room at the Westport Public Library, 20 Jesup Road. Her remarks were part of a presentation related to her book “America’s Medicis; The Rockefellers and their Astounding Cultural Legacy,” released last November by Harper Collins.
Loebl, a Brooklyn, NY resident, spoke about how she was inspired to pursue the topic. “I wrote another book previously called “American Art Museum” and became interested in art collectors,” she said. “The Rockefellers figured very prominently as collectors. I looked into their story. No book summarized their donations. My book covers that, as well as their big building projects.”
Besides the aforementioned sites, these projects also include Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, The Cloisters, the Asia Society, the Palisades, Acadia National Park in Maine and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
“The Rockefellers are one of the wealthiest and most influential families our country has ever known,” said Loebl. “People either love them or hate them. John D. Sr. made all the money establishing his Standard Oil fortune; John D. Jr. decided he didn’t need to make more and focused on distributing the money. He put a new face on American philanthropy.”
“Riverside Church was John D. Jr.’s first venture and was modeled on Chartres Cathedral in France,” Loebl said. “Soon after, in 1928, the Metropolitan Opera decided it needed a new opera house and approached him. He signed a lease for land in mid-Manhattan owned by Columbia University. Unfortunately, the stock market forced the Met to pull out. Stuck with the lease, Junior decided to build Rockefeller Center. It took 10 years to construct and the architectural community complained about how ugly and big the structure was. When it was finished, they changed their minds. Today it’s one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.”
Rock Center was built during the Great Depression and John D. Jr. commissioned 96 artworks to ornament it, which provided many jobs. “An art critic commented, ‘He’s wonderful, like Lorenzo di Medici,’” Loebl said. “Now, the art there is certainly competent but not like Michelangelo. That’s what inspired my book title.”
John D. Jr. took over the Cloisters space on New York’s upper West Side as a next venture, erecting in 1938 a museum dedicated to medieval history, in Tyne Park. It housed the Unicorn Tapestries, which date back to the period 1495-1505.
“John D. was prone to embrace the dreams of other men,” said Loebl. “An example was Colonial Williamsburg, which was the vision of a pastor there.”
John D’s wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, shared her husband’s love of art history, collecting Japanese prints and folk art. However, she was chiefly interested in artists of modern times and hired Alfred Burr, Jr. to put together the Museum of Modern Art, which began in an office building.
“Abby transmitted her love of art to her sons Nelson and David,” Loebl said. “Nelson founded the Museum of Primitive Art in Manhattan and the Empire State Plaza in Albany. It’s rumored the egg-shaped structure there was inspired by a grapefruit he was enjoying at lunch one day.”
John D. Rockefeller III carried on the tradition, becoming chairman of Lincoln Center. He was influential in preserving American art, collecting 125 significant pieces.
Audience members were intrigued by both the author and the subject matter. “I’m a history buff and lifelong learner,” said Ron Malone, Westport’s former police chief. “My interest is in well-known authors from the region. With regard to Rockefeller history, I know some but wanted to learn more.”
Westporter Charles Lamb had a more immediate connection. “The Rockefellers had a mansion on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland where my wife and I once lived,” he said. “That’s where Standard Oil started.”
Lamb’s wife Alberta added, “The houses on Euclid were huge Victorians. By the time I went to art school there in 1949, the houses were falling down and became the residences of artists. It’s some of that background that brought us here today.”