EVER WONDER HOW THE Rockefellers got to be the Rockefellers? Just look at how they've come out ahead with fabled Rockefeller Center. Current patriarch David Rockefeller is putting up a mere $20 million for a 5% stake in the Manhattan landmark they once owned outright. It has been in bankruptcy court since May because of the soft office-rental market.

His deal, in partnership with Goldman Sachs, keeps the family involved in the Midtown office complex, from which they've extracted $1.9 billion over the past 10 years. The process began in 1985, when a real estate investment trust, Rockefeller Center Properties Inc., was created to hold a $1.3 billion mortgage on 12 Rock Center buildings. The family got about $300 million when the REIT went public. Later that year, a family holding company owning Rockefeller Center pocketed an estimated $244 million by selling another Center tower, the Exxon Building, to Mitsui Fudosan. The biggest paydays came from Mitsubishi Estate: In 1989, the Japanese concern paid $846 million for 51% of the family holding company. In 1991, Mitsubishi handed over another $527 million to up its stake to 80%.

The board of the REIT, the creditor in bankruptcy, has O.K.'d the Goldman Sachs-led deal. Next step: a REIT shareholder vote next year. Peter Johnson, an aide to David Rockefeller, says that the Center didn't earn a cent for the family from 1928 (when the project started) until the 1980s.

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