Index of Historic Collectors and Dealers of Cubism
Harrison, Wallace K[irkman]
Worcester, Mass., 1895–New York, 1981

Wallace K. Harrison was an American architect associated with mid-century modernism in New York City. He worked on such high-profile projects as Rockefeller Center, the United Nations Headquarters, and Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in various capacities, as well as both of the 1939−40 and 1964 World’s Fairs. From the early 1930s on, Harrison’s architectural practice was closely tied to private and public projects spearheaded by the Rockefeller family. Harrison’s friendship with Fernand Léger led to a number of public and private American commissions for the artist; the architect’s private collection also included examples of Léger’s Cubist-era paintings.

Born in the New England town of Worcester, Harrison was the son of a foundry superintendent. Early exposure to the building industry through an entry-level job with a local building contractor led Harrison to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he received his initial architectural training. At the age of twenty he moved to New York, obtaining the position of draftsman at the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White while taking classes with the architect Harvey Wiley Corbett at Columbia University. Harrison served in the Navy during World War I and directly after the war’s end studied at the École des Beaux-Art in Paris for a year. After briefly working for the firm of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in New York, he received a travel scholarship in 1922.

Returning again to New York in late 1923, Harrison first worked at Goodhue’s firm, and then from 1927 to 1935 he partnered with Corbett, his former teacher. The firm Corbett Harrison and MacMurray contributed to the design of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan (1931–40). Next Harrison partnered with the architect J. André Fouilhoux on the iconic structures of Trylon and Perisphere (destroyed) for the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair.

In partnership with Max Abramowitz (Harrison and Abramowitz, 1945–76), Harrison played a leading role in such high-profile projects the United Nations Headquarters, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, also in Manhattan (1959–66) and the Nelson Rockefeller State Mall in Albany, New York (1967–71). The firm was also successful in the realm of corporate architecture and led the 1960s expansion of Rockefeller Center. From 1976 until his death in 1981 Harrison practiced without a partner.

In the 1930s, while working on Rockefeller Center, Harrison befriended the family, becoming especially close to Nelson Rockefeller. Harrison also befriended several artists, including Alexander Calder and Marc Chagall, but he was particularly close to Léger. Records do not agree on when the two met but the year was probably around 1927. Documents suggest that it was the sculptor and collector Mary Callery, who was a friend of Léger and a childhood friend of Harrison’s wife, Ellen Hunt Milton, who made the introduction during one of Harrison’s many vists to Paris. A number of collaborations between the architect and artist would soon follow: Harrison’s 1938 expansion of Rockefeller’s New York apartment included art commissions for Léger (as well as Matisse). Four years later, during his wartime exile in the United States, Léger painted living room and swimming pool decorations for Harrison’s own house in Huntington, Long Island. Harrison was also responsible for Léger’s public commissions in the United States, all designed for Harrison’s architectural projects: the 1939 unrealized “cinematic mural” for Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center (the studies for the project are part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York), the mural for the Consolidated Edison Building at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair (destroyed), and two murals for the General Assembly Building of the United Nations Headquarters, completed in 1952.

Harrison’s personal collection of works by Léger included such paintings as Composition (The Typographer) (1918−19;The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection) and The Red Disc (1919; Collection Bruce and Robbi Toll). Harrison probably acquired these two works from Mary Callery and Nelson Rockefeller, respectively, the paintings’ pior owners. The architect also owned two works on paper by Léger related to decorative projects, which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 (‘Starfish and Swimmers:’ Design for a Mosaic or Mural, ca. 1942; Six Designs for Abstract Wall Decorations, ca. 1940–55). Other artists in Harrison’s collection included Callery, Calder, and Paul Klee, for example, Untitled (1914; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Berggruen Paul Klee Collection).

Contributed by Anna Jozefacka, July 2017
For more information, see:

Goldberger, Paul. “Wallace Harrison Dead at 86; Rockefeller Center Architect.” The New York Times, Dec. 3, 1981.

Lancher, Carolyn. Fernand Léger. Exh. cat. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998.

Newhouse, Victoria. Wallace K. Harrison, Architect. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

Artwork from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection Formerly Owned By Collector/Dealer:
Composition (The Typographer)
Composition (The Typographer) Fernand Léger