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Master builder - journalist at heart

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 1984


THE dynamite blast goes off outside the blue-and-white striped tent, and there is nervous laughter from the crowd gathered to watch Mortimer Zuckerman dedicate his latest multimillion-dollar hole in the ground.

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As if on cue, he appears - a slight man in a gray glen-plaid suit, who walks with his hands behind him like Prince Charles reviewing the troops. Behind Mr. Zuckerman, who is the new owner of U.S. News and World Report, stretches the block-long excavation for his new Park Hyatt Hotel. It is part of the $200 million enclave he is building around U.S. News in Washington's West End. He takes the mike and jokes that he used to be just the landlord for U.S. News.

But in truth he is an empire builder. He has built a real-estate empire as chairman of Boston Properties, whose buildings stand in 15 cities from Boston to Los Angeles. And he is building a publishing empire as the new chairman of U.S. News, with its 2.1 million circulation and 10.4 million readers, and as chairman of the Atlantic magazine and of Atlantic Monthly Press, which publishes books.

In fact, there is something Napoleonic about his bold face with its dark, darting eyes as he smiles and works the tent crowd like a politician. After the speeches he leads the crowd of investors, reporters, and politicians to a party across the street in the orange-brick and glass U.S. News headquarters he built. They are following one of the 400 richest men in America, worth an estimated $ 210 million, a former Montreal kid who earned his first million before he was 30 .

Inside the headquarter's lobby, tables are piled with fresh lobster, crab, pate; a string quartet on the balcony, surrounded by U.S. News balloons, plays Zuckerman's favorite Vivaldi. Over hors d'oeuvres, Zuckerman's real estate partner, Ed Linde, describes him as brilliant and admits that Zuckerman is interested in politics ''but not in political power.'' Hyatt Hotels executive Nicholas Prizger calls him ''a compulsive doer and a closer'' as well as a visionary and dreamer.

As they talk, Zuckerman moves like mercury through the party and then suddenly, somewhere between the stuffed pheasant and baby orchids, he disappears. It's as though he's been airlifted out, probably back to one of the three other cities he has homes in: Boston, New York, Easthampton, L.I. He also has 53 other buildings across the US, representing 10 million square feet of space.

Zuckerman is making his imprint not just on publishing and politics. He is also putting his print on major US cities with buildings designed by top architects, from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's U.S. News headquarters, which won an American Institute of Architects award, to the glassy spires of Edward Larabee Barnes designed for 599 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

He talks about it all one morning over a sunrise breakfast at his unobtrusive , red-brick town house in Washington's Georgetown district. ''The only part (of real estate) I'm interested in,'' he murmurs, ''is building buildings, putting together what it takes. I don't buy buildings, I don't do anything other than build buildings.'' As a former city planning professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, he admits, ''I am an urban alcoholic.'' His own Georgetown home looks like a layout from House Beautiful, with its airy Palladian windows, mocha rooms decorated in suede and chrome, and a modern art collection that ranges from Frank Stella to Modigliani.

''I get carried away describing my buildings,'' Zuckerman sighs. But there are those who are more curious about Zuckerman as news baron than master builder. Zuckerman backed Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Gary Hart as presidential candidates; the conservative Washington Times brands him too flamboyant and liberal to publish U.S. News. But Zuckerman denies it, describes his own views as ''fairly conservative.'' He says he supports a strong national defense and conservative fiscal policy and opposes massive social programs. ''All of these are not liberal views,'' he points out quietly.