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‘American Progress’

Golden age of aviation mural

Every day tourists visit Rockefeller Center in midtown New York City, to tour the studios of Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show, or to spend their vacation dollars in the vast souvenir shop.

Let those common folks do that, but pilots should head for the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center, on the side facing Rockefeller Plaza, and look up. You’ll be rewarded with the view of a stunning art deco ceiling mural featuring the golden age of aviation. 

The Rockefellers commissioned Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican muralist, to decorate the lobby of the RCA Building (now “30 Rock”), the central skyscraper of Rockefeller Center. They approved the concept of a mural contrasting capitalism and communism, titled “Man at the Crossroads.” However, Rivera, an avowed Communist, included an image of Lenin, and the Rockefellers requested it be removed. When Rivera refused, he was fired, and the mural destroyed in 1934. 

Another prominent muralist of the time, Spaniard José Maria Sert, was hired to complete the lobby decoration with a central 16-foot by 41-foot mural that he called, “American Progress,” and associated paintings on the ceilings and walls. “American Progress”—on the wall behind the lobby desk—depicts the development of America, with workmen hefting stone blocks to build skyscrapers reminiscent of Rockefeller Center itself. However, art-loving pilots should turn their gaze upward to the ceiling, where Sert painted a dozen men working on a 1930s high-wing monoplane, reminiscent of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. On the left side, four men are installing a tire, while eight men on the right, with two reaching down from on top of the wing, seem to be loading the aircraft with bags, most likely full of mail. Two other men stand above the engine, installing the top cowling. Their gazes are drawn skyward to 70 (by my count) airplanes roaring overhead. Many are trailing smoke, or contrails, which form into a swirling torrent (and looks like an upside-down tornado), bringing to mind Renaissance paintings of the angels ascending into Heaven. 

“American Progress” and its associated paintings on the ceiling and hallways remain a masterpiece of the building’s decorative art and architecture, but for pilots the lobby ceiling is the highest art.

Dennis K. Johnson

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and pilot living in New York City.

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