Rockefeller Center is built on land formerly owned by Columbia University since it was given a land grant from New York State in 1814. A fashionable residential district in the 1860s, this area lost much of its appeal by the 1920s due to the presence of the 6th Avenue 'El.' Concerned with revitalizing the district around his family home on 54th Street, John D. Rockefeller leased the site from Columbia University in 1928. Rockefeller envisioned a new commercial and civic center containing three office towers and an opera house grouped around a plaza. The opera house was to be built for the Metropolitan Opera, which had been looking for a new site since the early 1920's.
Plans were developed by an architectural advisory board which was supervised by the pragmatic real estate and management firm of John R. Todd. When the Opera withdrew from the project, Rockefeller Center was transformed into a massive speculative commercial and entertainment development, first called Radio City. The architectural scheme was adapted to reflect the profit-driven nature of the new complex.
A final scheme, designed by committee but largely shaped by the aesthetic vision of Raymond Hood, was unveiled in 1931. Work progressed throughout the early years of the Depression, supported by the Rockefeller's investment and aggressive marketing strategies. Later renamed Rockefeller Center, this complex was the only major private construction project underway in New York during the Depression. The original 14 buildings of the Center were complete by 1939 and reached full occupancy by 1941. Partly inspired by the success of Grand Central Station's "Terminal City," Rockefeller Center was conceived as a "City within a City"-- the first real estate development in the world to include offices, retail, entertainment, and restaurants in one complex. While the overall plan has the hierarchy, symmetry and axiality of a Beaux Arts design, the individual buildings have the pronounced, streamlined verticality, set backs and massing characteristic of Art Deco architecture.
In order to successfully market the project to potential tenants, the project accommodated both business and leisure activities, facilitated by a well thought out pedestrian and vehicular circulation system, and complemented by extensive landscaping and public art programs. The Channel Gardens slope gently from the modestly scaled 5th Avenue frontage towards the center of the complex, encouraging pedestrians to follow their path. Following the complex-wide theme of humanity's progress towards new frontiers, Paul Manship's Prometheus  and Lee Lawrie and Rene Chmbellan's Atlas  are among more than 100 works by over 30 artists that grace the Center's plazas and buildings. Amenities included a sunken plaza ringed with restaurants and shops, a movie and vaudeville theater (Radio City Music Hall), as well as observation decks and private dining rooms within the buildings. The Center's appeal was enhanced by a subterranean shopping concourse that linked the buildings, and provided direct access to mass transit (the IND subway line).
A pioneering underground parking lot and an off-street freight delivery system made doing business at Rockefeller Center particularly convenient. Additionally, the complex was endowed with many of the latest technical refinements including high speed elevators, air conditioning and on-site steam and electricity plants. With direct access to mass transit, an off-street delivery system, numerous amenities and multi-level circulation, Rockefeller Center anticipated the critical needs of today's urban centers, becoming a prototype for malls, office parks and multi-use projects.