(Between 48th & 49th Streets)

Developer: McGraw-Hill Inc. & Rockefeller Center

Architect: Harrison, Abramovitz & Harris

Erected: 1972

The "new" McGraw-Hill Building on the Avenue of the Americas

By Carter B. Horsley

This is the best of the three similar towers created by Wallace Harrison's firm for Rockefeller Center in a major expansion across the Avenue of the Americas in the late 1960's and early 1970's.

While unquestionably banal, this trio of monumental faded pin-stripe buildings is overpowering and proof that good intentions do not necessarily result in good design.

The grayish colors and the verticality of the facade treatments of these buildings were meant to complement the limestone and design motifs of the original Rockefeller Center. Furthermore, the sunken plaza of the middle building, this one, presumably harkens to the great sunken plaza in front of 30 Rockefeller Center, the centerpiece of the famous enclave.

However, the closeness of the thin windows, and, moreover, the lack of rich ornamentation, nay, even plain ornamentation, completely miss the mark as far as context is concerned and results in a pallid ensemble whose asymmetrical siting and heights result in a meaningless grouping of no subtlety.

As derided as these giant buildings are, however, there are hints of what merit might have been developed. The light-colored facades were obviously intended the minimize the bulk of these behemoths - about 2 million square feet of office space each - and while the thousands of windows are dizzily fussy most of the time, in the right light and from the right vantage point their combined reflectivity almost begins to overcome the massive structures.

Each building, however, is a little different in its configuration and materials, an odd design decision that probably came about because of a need to express "individuality" for each of the main tenants after whom the buildings were initially named. The building to the south was initially called the Celanese Building, but later became the New York headquarters of Ruppert Murdoch's News Corporation. The northern building, the largest, became the Exxon Building. The former has a stubby wing at 47th Street that frames the south end of plazas' of these buildings. The latter has an enormous pool with simple fountains that occupies most of its landscaped plaza, rendering it rather useless in such a congested area, although it has a very nice waterfall with a circular walk-through in a plaza at the rear of the tower.

Sunken plaza at the "new" McGraw-Hill Building

The sunken plaza at the McGraw-Hill Building, shown above, is actually very well done and quite attractive, thanks to its very spectacular, 50-foot-high, stainless steel sculpture, entitled "Sun Triangle," by Athelstan Spilhaus, that demonstrates the relationship between the sun and earth at the solstices, with each "leg," or side, of the sculpture pointing to the sun's position at solar noon in New York at the solstices. The angled thrust of the sculpture adds a much-needed dynamic to this ensemble, to say nothing of its bold and abstract modernity. This plaza also has the solar system depicted in smaller sculptural forms and for many years was the entrance to a rather spectacular movie and exhibition hall about New York that was in the building's basement. Its two staircases, in addition, are nicely handled and inviting and a directory and clock stanchion is also well done.

The notion of setting the McGraw-Hill Building back the furthest of this group of Rockefeller West buildings makes sense in terms of opening up more space as well as framing it. Clearly, the plazas of Exxon and the News Corp. buildings need to be improved. At the very least, the Exxon pool needs to be made smaller and given a great, sculptural fountain.

The real problem is the blandness of the facades and the only reasonable solution would be the creation of some spectacular stainless steel sculptures up, considerably up, on the facades. Such new wall sculptures might be exciting but negotiations with tenants whose views might be partially or fully obstructed might also be exacerbating. Then, of course, Deconstructivist rooftop sculptures might prove too trendy, but perhaps the three towers should have their roofs ringed with international flags, or, maybe just the flags of the Americas, in keeping with the formal name of the avenue on which they front.

McGraw-Hill's former headquarters, of course, is the marvelous "Green Giant," Art Deco skyscraper designed by Raymond Hood on 42nd Street west of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

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