Art: Cheops' Architect

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Time for a Change. In 1926, Harrison was the picture of a struggling young architect. He had saved up enough money to support a wife, a tall, 22-year-old blonde named Ellen Hunt Milton, whose brother had married John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s daughter, Abby. They were living in a small, two-room apartment in Manhattan's East 70s when Harrison's old teacher, Harvey Corbett, offered him a partnership. Harrison jumped at the chance, and for "the next four years designed a series of auditoriums and office buildings with Corbett. Architecture was almost his entire life. There was always a drawing board in his room and a pad & pencil by his bed. In the morning, his wife usually found the floor littered with scrawls and sketches.

When John D. Rockefeller Jr. was ready to build Rockefeller Center, Harrison had definitely enlisted in the camp of modern architecture and was ready to fight for it. He was sure he was on the winning side. Gothic and neoclassic skyscrapers were dying out in Manhattan; Hood had just designed the starkly simple Daily News Building and the equally simple—if startlingly pea-green—McGraw-Hill Building. Harrison and his partner Corbett were among the architects chosen by the Rockefellers to work on the designs for the most ambitious project of the century.

Past v. Present. The designs for Rockefeller Center were too modern for most people. The conservatives set up a howl.. "I don't know what people expected," says Harrison. "They must have thought it was going to be one great square, a sort of Spanish plaza or a Place de la Concorde." But John D. Rockefeller Jr. never said a word. "I never read the papers when they print disturbing things about me or my people," he told his architects. ,

The designs had taken 18 months to finish. Architect Ray Hood had wanted the R.C.A. Building to look like a slab, but with staggered setbacks; Harrison battled for a single, uninterrupted cliff of stone. Harrison found himself alone and had to give in. That was not the only fight. The managerial firm of Todd, Robertson & Todd that Rockefeller had put over the architects wanted the whole group of buildings wrapped in Byzantine or Romanesque trim. The argument got hot; so did Harrison. Finally, he exploded out of his chair and sent it spinning. "Damn it!" he shouted, "you people just can't do this!" It was worse than criminal, he cried, to spend $125 million tricking out something as clean and new as the U.S. skyscraper in any of the period styles of the past.

Rockefeller was convinced. When the Center went up, it was the simplest skyscraper group the world had ever seen. John Doe, peering up at it from the street, decided he liked it, thought maybe it was even handsome.

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