Rockefeller Roof Gardens

After the last paying visitor left and the doors finally closed on the Gardens of the Nations in 1938, the gardens themselves remained virtually in tact for a number of years. Even as late as the 1960’s the English Garden looked remarkably untouched as this photograph from 1961 shows.

Rockefeller Center Hostesses within the English Garden.

It is understood that during the 1970’s or 1980’s much of what remained was removed to make way for utility buildings, machinery and air conditioning, very little of what Ralph had created was left. 

When Ralph’s  granddaughter and her husband visited the eleventh floor gardens in 2007, they were met by scant remnants of what had once been there. A dry stone wall. A tree. A lawn and the remains of the river and International Rock Garden. The gardens on top of the British Empire Building and La Maison Francaise, also designed by Ralph, fared better and, even today, remain as Ralph had intended, both having been fully restored in 1987.

The eleventh floor gardens, or what was left of them, were not available to visit. Only the lucky few or maintenance staff had access. But in late 2017, that was about to change.

NBCUniversal set out ambitious plans to reopen the gardens to employees and their guests. And, after months of construction, which included adding new paths, planting trees and using many of the same flowers from Ralph’s original design, the gardens reopened in the summer of 2018.

As part of his research for a visual display to illustrate the history of the gardens, William Bartlett PhD, the staff historian for NBC contacted this website for background information about the original ideas and plans which both architect Raymond Hood and Ralph Hancock had developed. Dr Bartlett also spoke with Christine Roussel, the archivist for the Rockefeller Center.

The result of his research is a wonderful display of photographs, letters and other historical documents illustrating the development of the Gardens of the Nations. It also included information about Ralph Hancock, his Royal patronage and his achievements. The display can be seen in the image below.

The display by Dr Bartlett

The yellow plaque reads:
After months of planning and construction NBCUniversal will reopen the rooftop Gardens later this summer for all employees and their guests to enjoy. Although the addition of utility buildings over the years has altered the footprint, the new design evokes the serenity and beauty of the original, using many of the same trees and flowers chosen by Hancock, along with the ancient sundial that featured in the English Gardens.

December 2018 - visit by Ralph’s granddaughter and her husband

In December 2018, at the invitation of Dr William Bartlett, Ralph Hancock’s granddaughter, Dr Belinda Dure-Smith accompanied by her husband, Dr Andrew Hull, visited the newly opened gardens and employee area. Dr Dure-Smith is seen here, left, with her husband Dr Hull by the International Rock Garden.

They were fortunate enough to be shown the incredible work undertaken by NBCUniversal in bringing these once neglected gardens back from the brink. The gardens now have a purpose and a new lease on life. It would have been impossible to recreate them exactly as they were in 1935. Much of the footprint of the original “eighth wonder of the world” had been consumed by development and none of the original features exist apart from some of the Cotswold stone walls, red brick herringbone pathways and a few items of wrought ironwork.

From the photographs on this website, taken during their visit in December 2018, we can the new features installed by NBCUniversal. Paved areas of flagstones in what appear to be a complimentary colour to the original yellow Cotswold paths. Handrails and new lighting have also been put in place, making what could be a slippery area safe in inclement weather. 

New handrails and lighting

The sundial, far right, was once to be found in Ralph’s private garden on the eleventh floor

The remains of the International Rock Garden and river

Readers will see from the photograph above, even on a relatively mild New York December day, ice had already formed on the truncated river within the International Rock Garden. St Patrick’s Cathedral can be seen in the distance.

The lawn, herringbone paths and Cotswold stone walls are all that remain of what was The English Garden. 

Ralph had his own private garden within the English Garden, the remnants of which can be seen above. His office overlooked a water feature which was removed along with other features during the 1970’s or 1980’s. The sundial too, which is now placed within a small garden surrounded by a low Cotswold stone wall also came from Ralph’s private garden.

Herringbone brick pathways and wrought iron installed by Ralph in 1935, still in place.

Cotswold stone wall and herringbone path installed by Ralph in 1935 with new lighting

Other areas within what was the Gardens of the Nations have been opened up for employees and their visitors to enjoy. In the next two images we can see the newly installed flagstones and plants. The water feature was not part of the Gardens of the Nations and appears to be a later addition?

In this image (above) against the far wall, we can see an espaliered fruit tree, which is likely to be an original from Ralph’s time. The red brick wall to the left of the picture is also almost most likely to be from Hancock’s tenure.

The following images are of features from The Gardens of the Nations that have remained in situ since 1935. It is not clear if these areas are available for employees to visit?

Herringbone brick pathway and Cotswold stone walls

This area was hidden behind a false facade in the English Garden 


An area that was once part of the Gardens of the Nations with an original wrought iron gate

Cotswold stone walls and flagstones with newly planted trees and shrubs

In addition to the newly refurbished roof garden, NBCUniversal employees can now access the space through newly opened offices which also have great views of the gardens themselves.

Newly opened employee access to the rooftop gardens 

The newly opened outside space for NBC employees in what was The Gardens of the Nations

The layout of the reopened gardens, very little of Ralph’s work remains

Dr William Bartlett PhD 

A special thanks go to William Bartlett PhD, NBC Staff Historian for arranging the visit for Belinda and Andrew in December 2018. He has been an enthusiastic advocate of Ralph Hancock and his work on the Rockefeller Center. Dr Bartlett was also instrumental in discovering another lost Hancock garden. The one-time home of five-and-dime magnate JJ Newberry in Ridgewood, New Jersey was recently found to have the remains of a once spectacular Hancock designed garden. Details of that find can be found here: 95 Wildwood Road