by Carly Gelfond
For years, every morning on my way to work, as I hurried along the white marble pathway leading from the driveway to the buildings on the North end of The Rockefeller University’s campus, I stared uncomprehendingly at the exterior of the long, low building, formally known as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Hall. What an eyesore, I would think as I passed. I knew I should be more open-minded, but I just didn’t get it, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the person who designed it—a person with aesthetic taste so strikingly different from my own that he could consider something like this beautiful. Who was this guy? One day I finally decided to look him up.
Wallace K. Harrison, who died in 1981 (and whose funeral was in Caspary Hall on the Rockefeller campus), was a world-renowned architect with an impressive body of work to show for himself. Besides the Abby, he was responsible for the United Nations (UN) headquarters, the Time-Life Building, and much of Lincoln Center, including the Metropolitan Opera House, among many other landmarks. But it was the major role he played in the designing of Rockefeller Center in the 1930s that put him on the map as an architect—a project that resulted in his forming a lifelong friendship with Nelson Rockefeller, who had been assigned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Nelson’s father) to work with the Center’s planning team. This was the beginning of a long association with the Rockefeller family that would bring Harrison commissions ranging from the Rockefellers’ private homes to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Mall in Albany to—you guessed it—additions to The Rockefeller University. In a nutshell, Harrison became the Rockefeller family’s house architect.
Nelson Rockefeller grew to greatly admire Harrison during their long friendship, calling him “the person who, next to my mother, had the greatest impact on my life in terms of understanding the relationship between the cultural creations of our times and the environment from which they spring.” But Harrison had his share of critics too, who often argued that his work was overly conservative.
I was intrigued when I read of the criticism that one of his buildings was met with—a structure sheathed entirely in white marble, which, as was the case with many of his works, had a futuristic air. It was this very air, however, that some said underscored its conservatism, in that it gave the project the appearance of a place inspired by 20s or 30s predictions of cities of the future.
Most of Harrison’s larger buildings, like the UN, adhered to what was called the “International Style,” a Modernist movement that first appeared in Europe in the 1920s and was seen in the US shortly thereafter. The most common characteristics of this style were a radical simplification of form, a rejection of ornamentation, the use of glass, steel, and concrete, and the transparency of buildings, a Modernist tactic for integrating interior and exterior space. Anybody seen the Abby lately? It looks an awful lot like this.
But Harrison apparently had another side, too, and many of his smaller buildings and private residences have been described as more “lyrical,” including the use of round spaces, loose, flowing forms, and romantic curves—which starkly contrasted with many of his bigger Industrial Style works. Fortunately, these design elements are also part of Harrison’s architectural oeuvre at Rockefeller, embodied by the President’s House and the dome-shaped Caspary Auditorium—which, I learned, when first completed, was covered entirely in blue mosaic tile.
You can learn a lot about a person, obviously, when you see where he lives, and this is true fivefold for an architect who designs his own home. Harrison indeed designed his own home, and The Harrison Estate, as it’s known today, in Huntington, New York is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a stunning house—white, with a flat roof, floor to ceiling windows and sliding glass doors, and an emphasis on horizontal lines and simplified details. There are circles used everywhere—in the living room, dining room, studio, pool, and even in the concrete paving stones in the walkways; in the coming years, the circle would be omnipresent in Modern architecture.
Rockefeller scientists might be interested to know that Harrison saw his home as a laboratory for his ideas. He would later use many of these ideas in his commissions, and some of them would be picked up by other architects working in the Industrial or other Modern styles. The house was also a common gathering place for many of the key figures of the twentieth century, where, besides Nelson Rockefeller, the architects Robert Moses and LeCorbusier, and the artists Marc Chagall and Fernand Léger, often visited. Léger, in particular, spent most of the years during the Second World War in residence at The Harrison Estate, where he painted large murals in the main house living room and at the bottom of the circular swimming pool.
I’m glad I made the effort to gain an appreciation for the man behind Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Hall. Harrison truly brought his work home when he made his estate a testing ground for new ideas fresh off the boat from Europe. These ideas gained an entry to the US via Harrison’s property, and some of them made their way to the Rockefeller campus. As I pass the Abby in the morning now, that is something I appreciate.