Although John D. Rockefeller Jr. spent most of his life engaged in philanthropy, his single, defining business venture was the creation of the “city within a city”. Constructed during the Great Depression’s worst years, the project gainfully employed over 40,000 people.
When Rockefeller Center officially opened in May 1933, it held true to the developing team’s belief that art was an act of good citizenship. 30 Rockefeller Plaza boasted a grand lobby decorated by accomplished European artists, Frank Brangwyn and José Maria Sert.
During its first decade, the complex bustled with exciting tenants like the French bookstore, Librairie de France and the brand new publication News-Week (as it was originally called). And with a western edge devoted to entertainment, Rockefeller Center has some real bragging rights — it was the site where John Hay Whitney and David O. Selznick decided to produce Gone With the Wind and where the ever-adored Christmas Spectacular debuted.
“Don’t ‘give the people what they want,’” said S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel, the man who created Radio City Music Hall. “Give ’em something better.” Throughout the 1930s, Rockefeller Center steadily improved, including some accidental innovations like the Christmas Tree tradition in 1931 and the skating rink in 1936. By 1939, more than 125,000 people were visiting Rockefeller Center daily; on its own, it would have been the 51st largest city in the U.S.