Peter C. Newman
Here's what New York's super builder is hatching:
a project bigger than Rockefeller Centre
more skyscrapers and perhaps a brand-new city hall
Canada's largest shopping and industrial centre
A New York realtor with the tongue-crackling name of William Zeckendorf burst into Canadian headlines last month with his plan to upheave downtown Montreal. Few Canadians had ever heard of him before. But city dwellers across Canada will be hearing a great deal about him in the future, as his potent brand of realestate magic chisels a new face for much of urban Canada.
So far only his grandiose Montreal project has been officially announced. But he also has some startling schemes for recasting the skylines of Toronto, Vancouver, London and half a dozen other Canadian cities.
Zeckendorf, who has risen from an insignificant building salesman to become the world’s number one real-estate operator, says matterof-factly: “I’m interested in Canada right across the board.”
His office-building development on top of the tracks north of the Montreal CNR station will be Canada’s most impressive man-made landmark. Only fourteen Canadian cities have a larger population than the sixty thousand persons expected to work in or visit Zeckendorf’s Montreal buildings every day.
The final plans won't be ready until 1957, but one of Zeckendorf's ideas envisions a 621foot-high skyscraper — the world’s largest and tallest building outside the U. S. — and satellite structures that may eventually include a twentythousand-seat sports arena, a huge merchandising mart, hangar-size television studios, a twentyfive - hundred - seat theatre, and possibly a heliport.
The projected heart of the immense development, to be known as Place Ville Marie, will be the office-building mammoth, which will have a million and a half square feet of rentable space on forty floors. It will be built in the shape of a cross to provide four main entrance halls that could be used by large corporations as their separately decorated headquarters, and, incidentally, to fit ideally into predominantly Catholic Montreal.
Construction will start within a year and will take three years. The price of the superscheme for the development of the entire twentythree acres of currently unused or semi-utilized land around the CNR's railroad terminal has been pegged by CNR president Donald Gordon at more than 125 million dollars. That would make it more expensive than the hundred-million-dollar Rockefeller Centre in New York. It would cover twice the area of the famed New York cluster of skyscrapers. Drawings alone for the master plan will cost Zeckendorf a quarter of a million dollars. “This development,” says George Mooney, co-director of Montreal's Economic and Tourist Development Bureau, “will mark the turning point between Montreal being merely a big city and becoming a truly great city.”
Zeckendorf’s buildings will sit on a cellar dug thirty years ago by Sir Henry Thornton, the CNR’s first president, who dreamed of a similar scheme but was frustrated by the Depression. Thornton’s hole has suddenly become the most precious undeveloped piece of downtown real estate in the western hemisphere.
Zeckendorf’s Canadian aspirations neither begin nor end with the huge Ville Marie development. His dashing genius for bringing buyers, sellers and property together for his own profit will be felt increasingly throughout the Canadian real-estate industry:
• He has already paid eight million dollars for the massive Dominion Square Building, a Montreal office block at Peel and St. Catherine Streets—Canada’s busiest corner—and is now spending half a million dollars for renovations.
His Ville Marie “will make Montreal's Dorchester Street one of the meeting places of the world"
• He plans to revitalize the centres of half a dozen Canadian cities. He is now busy acquiring downtown land for these developments through Canadian realestate agents. “We are,” he says, considering ventures from coast to coast.”
• In midtown Toronto he is buying up properties for a large office-building redevelopment scheme. He says he may submit plans for a new Toronto city hall.
• He is active in London, Ont., and in Vancouver, where he may build Canada’s largest shopping and industrial centre.
• His biggest impact on Canadian business may not come until after he has built the large plants he is planning to lease to Canadian industry.
Since his first Canadian business visit twenty months ago, Zeckendorf has been exerting an unprecedented gravitational pull on Canadian real-estate agents. They have given him a desk drawer full of deals they can’t afford to swing themselves. “I am particularly interested,” he says, “in large developments in Canada beyond the scope of the conventional type of real-estate operation.”
Easily the most flamboyant American real-estate man ever to enter the Canadian market, Zeckendorf is a deceptively cherubic-looking heavyweight (six feet by 250 pounds) who vaguely resembles a shiny-eyed version of the Hollywood actor Broderick Crawford.
The Champs Elysées of Canada
Through his control of Webb and Knapp Inc. Zeckendorf daily pulls the strings attached to nearly three hundred million dollars worth of real estate, shipping and oil wells. He owns so much property in New York City that Webb and Knapp ranks as the city’s largest realty taxpayer after the railroads and utilities. A fellow real-estate operator once described Zeckendorf as “the damnedest guy God ever made, and added: “He’s got the memory of a bull elephant, the heart of a baby and the guts of a brass monkey.” Zeckendorf’s touch is so indispensable that Webb and Knapp recently bought a $1,600,000 insurance policy on the boss’ life.
Although Zeckendorf does not excite easily, he is frankly excited about Canada. “Montreal,” he feels, “has a great void where urban reconstruction is long past due.” Montreal planning director Charles E. Campeau agrees and predicts that development of the CNR-owned site “will make Dorchester Street one of the meeting places of the world, comparable to New York’s Park Avenue and the Champs Elysées in Paris.”
“There isn’t a piece of property anywhere in the western hemisphere where you have a hole in the ground waiting for construction on the lip of the financial and shopping districts, such as occurs in Montreal,” says Vincent de Ponte, Zeckendorf’s city planner in charge of designing the Montreal scheme.
Zeckendorf’s interest in Montreal is a by-product of his meetings with Ray Lawson, a former lieutenant-governor of Ontario. In the fall of 1953, when Lawson was Canada’s consul-general in New York, he had suggested that a Canada House be built as the permanent home for the many Canadian organizations doing business in the city. Lawson recruited thirty prominent Canadians willing to put up a hundred thousand dollars each for a down payment on the building, but couldn’t find any downtown land.
“When 1 was looking for a suitable location,” Lawson recalls, “1 went to see a lot of people and everyone asked me, ‘Why don’t you go to Bill Zeckendorf?’ 1 did and he negotiated the purchase of a choice property without any charge, as a gesture of good will to Canada.” Lawson and Zeckendorf spent jjiac? hours talking about Canadian 'Tutsi ne sZ possibilities and when Zeckendorf formed his Canadian company, Lawson, whet had since retired from his diplomatic post, was named one of Webb and Knapp (Canada) Limited’s first directors.
The Canadian possibility that most attracted the New York real-estate man was Donald Gordon’s fruitless three-year search for private interests to finance an integrated real-estate project on the twenty-three largely undeveloped acres around the CNR’s Montreal terminal. The CNR had many nibbles for rights to build up the area—including one from Garfield Weston, the Canadian biscuit magnate, who wanted to build one medium-size skyscraper. But no Canadian real-estate firm had the resources to present a plan big and bold enough to suit Gordon’s ambitions. The dickering was reflected by changing real-estate values along Dorchester Street. In the past three years prices have jumped from ten to more than fifty dollars a square foot.
Zeckendorf realized that completion of the CNR’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, which is now under construction, will act as a natural magnet for the area. (The hotel won't be open until the spring of 1958, but conventions are already booked well into the 1960s.) In February 1955 Zeckendorf flew over Montreal to inspect the site and later met Mayor Jean Drapeau and CNR officials, including Donald Gordon and S. W. Fairweather, a vice-president who is in charge of the railroad’s downtown Montreal property. During the next twenty months the ground rules for an agreement with the CNR took shape.
Canadians running the show
The government-owned railroad would not sell any of its Montreal land, Zeckendorf was told, but would give him a renewable ninety-nine-year lease to build above about four and a half acres of its downtown railroad tracks, provided he submits, by next April, an acceptable master development plan for the entire twenty-three-acre Central Station area. Gordon stressed that leasing of the four and a half acres to Zeckendorf would still leave the balance of the area “open to any interested parties willing to fit their plans into the character of Webb and Knapp’s master plan,” although "Zeckendorf will have equality of opportunity in submitting proposals for the rest of the development.”
Gordon bluntly told Zeckendorf there would be no deal at all with Webb and Knapp unless it was willing to form an affiliated Canadian company, run by Canadians with majority Canadian financial backing. Zeckendorf agreed and recruited twelve leading Canadian businessmen for his eighteen-man board. They are Lionel Forsyth, president of the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation; A. E. (Dal) Grauer, president of the British Columbia Power Corporation; Louis Celinas, president of the Montreal investment house of Geoffrion, Robert and Gélinas; J. D. Johnson, chairman of Canada Cement Ltd. and vice-president of the Royal Bank of Canada; William Arbuckle, president of the Great Britain and Canada Investment Corp.; the prominent Canadian investor, Colin Webster, president of the Canadian Import Co.; Jean Raymond, managing director of the Montreal food company, Alphonse Raymond, Limitée; hoteiman John Udd, president of National Management Ltd.; Lazarus Phillips, partner of the leading legal firm, Phillips, Bloomfield, Vineberg and Goodman; Geoffrey E. Phipps, president of the large investment house. Dominion Securities Corp.; R. D. Baker, general manager of the Winnipeg bond dealer firm, James Richardson and Sons; and Ray Lawson, now chairman of the printing company, Lawson and Jones Ltd.
“Ville Marie helped Donald Gordon recover from his fumble in naming his hotel Queen Ë
Lionel Forsyth, one af th.e directors of the new company, recently guided a visitor whcr had asked him about his impressions. of Zeckendorf to his office window and pointed at a large church: '“Zeckendorf is such a good salesman,” he quipped, “that he could sell youthat church as a dog kennel by convincing you that dogs would grow bfg enough to fit into it some day.”
Zeckendorf’s Canadian venture has pioneered a new concept of U. S. investment in Canada. Webb and Knapp (Canada) Ltd. is not a subsidiary of Webb and Knapp Inc. It is a sister company with Zeckendorf holding the largest single block but not the majority o.f shares. After arranging to float as many securities in Canada as the Canadian market would take, Zeckendorf made up the balance of the company’s non-U. S. capitalization with funds from Scotland, Prance and Switzerland. A Canadian staff is now being trained in New York. One of its members is Fred Flemming, son of the New Brunswick premier.
Teams of Zeckendorf’s engineers have already surveyed the sixty-three intersections around the CNR terminal to determine the parking plan for the project’s below-the-ground anatomy. A nineman team interviewed 1,165 drivers to plot their departure points, daytime parking habits and destinations. The findings showed that room for at least two thousand cars will have to be provided in a double-decker subterranean parking ramp. A separate truck subway was recommended to lead into a deliveries floor on the same elevation as the railway tracks, where CNR trains will move unseen and unheard fifty feet below street level. Pedestrians will be able to cross Ville Marie from just below St. Catherine Street to the station concourse on moving sidewalks along an underground shopping arcade.
Construction will be an ostentatious payoff for the hopes nurtured in the 1920s by Sir Henry Thornton, first president of the CNR. After the 1923 amalgamation of the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern systems into the CNR, the government had voted sixty million dollars for a new Montreal terminal, which was to include a grand cluster of high office buildings. At the Dorchester Street portal of the three-mile tunnel the Canadian Northern had blasted through Mount Royal in 1912, Thornton bought twenty-three acres for nearly nine million dollars. Four million cubic feet were excavated. But the Depression’s effects on railway earnings halted the project in 1932.
For the next seven years Montreal cartoonists found ample inspiration in “the world’s most expensive hole.” Construction on the railway-station part of the project resumed in 1938. The terminal was finally opened in 1943. The CNR continued its plan in 1946 by building the five-million-dollar International Aviation Building a block east of the station. Twenty million dollars is now being spent to put up the twelve-hundredroom Queen Elizabeth Hotel above the station.
To give guests a pleasant view, the CNR will build a three-acre garden in front of its hotel, bisecting the four and a half acres being leased to Zeckendorf. It will have a fountain centrepiece and will cover a three-level, 450-car parking garage.
Naming of this plaza helped Donald Gordon recover from his previous fumble of calling the new hotel the Queen Elizabeth—a choice that had made him the butt of criticism throughout French Canada. Mayor Drapeau and Cordon agreed that the shrub-lined avenue would be called Place Ville Marie, after ing name of Montreal.
Two other buildings will b into Ville Marie’s landscape: million-dollar, twenty-eight-st quarters CNR plans to build between its new hotel and the /\.. Building, and a thirteen-story office s ture recently erected behind the a tion headquarters by private Mont interests. These buildings will completely hide the railroad terminal, justifying Thornton’s purposely plain exterior design.
A likely prototype for the face of the cross-shaped skyscraper Zeckendorf wants to see sparkling in Montreal’s skyline is his recently completed Mile High Centre office building in Denver. Its exterior is a ribbing of dark-grey anodized cast aluminum and tan porcelain enameled steel. The luxurious eight-million-dollar structure, which rests on free-standing columns dipping into chilled pools filled with trout, is actually only one twentieth of a mile high, but Zeckendorf isn’t bothered by the slight misnomer. The top of the twenty-three-story building, he explains, is exactly a mile above sea level. A solar thermostat mounted on top of the structure anticipates movements of the sun, activating the cooling system on the appropriate side of the building just before the sun hits it.
While digging the Denver excavations construction crews hit a small gold vein. Zeckendorf loves to tell the story, pull up his coat sleeves and brandish Z-shaped cuff links made from the Denver gold strike.
This kind of showmanship, some luck and his inexhaustible enterprise have earned Zeckendorf a personal fortune, estimated at forty million dollars. His salary as head of Webb and Knapp Inc. is $140,000 a year, plus a Zeckendorfsize expense account. He also shares in the company’s profits, which in 1955 amounted to more than five million dollars.
As well as his Webb and Knapp affiliations, Zeckendorf is real-estate consultant to the Israeli government, the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society and the Rockefeller family. He backed and owns part of the Broadway hit, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and in 1950 bid a million dollars for, but did not get, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
His perpetual rush from one milliondollar deal to the next prompts the obvious speculation that he suffersfrom ulcers. But Zeckendorf scorns such mortal symptoms. “I am not,” he says, "“the type that gets ulcers. I’m the type that gives ’em.”
“Time,” he says, “is my most valuable asset.” He wastes little of it. He appraises most properties by checking factors like the ratio of real-estate taxes to the gross rental potential and usually considers a personal inspection of the premises unnecessary. “But if I’m feeling ultra conservative,” he admits, “I may shift down from high gear to second when I drive past a building to make a comparatively thorough study of it.” A few years ago a real-estate dealer, trying !.o sell him a large New York warehouse, attempted to substantiate his high asking price by insisting that Zeckendorf tour the property. He did and learned so much about the building that he later convinced the stunned realtor that it was worth even less than he had been willing to pay for it.
In spite of his vaulting self-confidence Zeckendorf leans heavily for advice on his nineteen vice-presidents. ‘"Bill conducts the orchestra,” one of them told me, “but he’d have a hell of a time if there were no orchestra to conduct.” Showman Billy Rose is a Webb and Knapp vice-president and former U. S. Army General James A. Van Fleet is a director.
Zeckendorf runs his fast-moving operation with an incongruous touch of superstition. The name of each subsidiary—a new one is formed for every major Webb and Knapp venture — embodies the number thirteen or one of its multiples. “The 52026 Corporation” —4002 times thirteen—was one of the most recent incorporations.
He governs his complex affairs from a twenty-five-foot windowless teakwood silo on top of Webb and Knapp’s New York Madison Avenue headquarters building. The hat-box-like office is furnished with a curved glass desk and a bronze Matisse nude nicknamed "Bessie.”
To counteract the cylinder’s natural tendency to bounce sound into the centre of the office, protruding wall panels direct conversation behind Zeckendorf’s desk. Because of the many deals they have echoed, these coffin-shaped vertical panels are known as “the standing graves of Webb and Knapp’s competitors.”
He switches lights to his mood
Zeckendorfs office does not have the same impact on all visitors. Those who have sold him property claim it's a melancholy, dimly lit cavern which so depressed them that they dropped their asking price to the level of Zeckendorf’s offer. Others, invited in as potential customers, swear this isn’t true. They report the office is happily lighted and that its sportive atmosphere prompted them to accept Zeckendorf’s asking price, even though it was a little more than they had intended to pay.
Actually, both are right. From a desk panel that resembles the dashboard of a small aircraft, Zeckendorf can alter the intensity and color of his office lighting to encourage the mood he wishes to induce in his visitors. The cautious buyer enters an office illuminated in sprightly pink. The exuberant salesman finds himself in a dispiriting dark-blue haze.
When he wants to relax Zcckendorf takes a tubular stainless-steel elevator (which he calls “the Rocket”) to the round crow’s nest above his office. There he has a bathroom, dining room and bar magnificently furnished in black satin with fluffy polar-bear rugs, overlooking a rooftop garden around an exotically twisted fifteen-foot Japanese pine tree. An unobstructed circular wall of glass allows Zeckendorf a full panorama of New York’s skyline.
Zcckendorf can be abrupt with visitors when he doesn’t want to answer their questions and frustrates all his callers by carrying on at least two simultaneous conversations, one in the office, the other on one of his three telephones. On a four-week 1954 holiday in Europe he spent $2,700 calling New York. His air-conditioned 1955 Cadillac (license number WZ) has a built-in telephone so that he can dictate letters on his way to work. There are three phones with fifteen-foot extensions at strategic locations in each of his two homes.
His town residence is a five-room apartment atop a Manhattan skyscraper that he gave his wife as a weddinganniversary present. In his spare time he trims the olive trees of his penthouse garden, but more often he’s at his fortyacre waterfront estate near Greenwich, Connecticut, where he has moved a million cubic yards of earth to build a private fresh-water lake. This is stocked with bass. He recently bought a neighboring villa for $27,000 to house his servants.
He likes to take every fourth month off to go deep-sea fishing with his wife Marion and a toy Doberman pinscher, which occasionally accompanies the Zeckendorfs to formal functions dressed in a leather wing collar and silk bow tie.
Zeckendorf has played championship bridge as Oswald Jacoby’s partner, but probably his favorite hobby is eating. He’s a crotchety gourmet and claims he gets all his good ideas from indigestion. Once a year he diets to take off thirty pounds. He has a dozen suits for his lean period, but during the slimming process his clothes simply don’t fij Instead of smoking he continually che’ Sen Sen from a carton on his desk.
Zeckendorfs present way of life coi trasts sharply with his background. F was born in 1905 at Paris, Illinois, wheii his father operated a general store, ani he ended an uneventful boyhood witf three years at New York University. H left without a degree. During the nex thirteen years he was an unspectacula New York real-estate and rental agent
In 1938 he was offered a job at nint thousand a year with Webb and Knapp then a conservative real-estate consulting firm. When the wealthy Vincent Astor chose the company to manage his family’s fifty-million-dollar estate during his naval hitch, Zeckendorf’s financial skill added assets worth five million dollars to the holdings in four years. Commodore Astor rewarded Zeckendorf’s zeal with a $400,000 commission cheque tucked into a bouquet of roses.
In 1946 Zeckendorf’s instinct for the redevelopment of substandard properties prompted him to buy up seventeen gritty acres on New York’s East River, where the stench of slaughterhouses was depressing land values. He planned a $ 150-million development, including a floating night club and the world’s largest convention hall. But when he heard that the United Nations was being forced to settle in Philadelphia because it couldn’t find an appropriate headquarters site in New York, he offered to sell the land “at any price the UN is willing to pay.” John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought the property for eight and a half million dollars and donated it to the United Nations.
The deal netted Zeckendorf only two million dollars, instead of the thirty million he estimates he might eventually have realized if he had built up the area himself, but it gained him enough prestige to borrow six million dollars with which he acquired stock control of Webb and Knapp Inc.
When he became executive vice-president of Webb and Knapp in June 1942, the company’s net assets were minus $127,000. By the end of 1955 net assets totaled approximately $107 million with controlling leverage on holdings in the U. S., Canada, Mexico, Italy and Cuba worth $272 million.
Luminous trains cut crashes
In and around New York, Webb and Knapp owns thirty-four large buildings, many of them skyscrapers, as well as eight shopping centres. Zeckendorf’s U. S. real-estate portfolio is spread over fourteen states and includes airports, golf courses, libraries, jails, office buildings, factories and vast holdings of undeveloped land, including until recently 62,244 wild acres of Florida’s everglades. Among the properties that have passed through'his hands were Charlie Chaplin’s former Hollywood studio and the Monte Carlo night club in New York.
Zeckendorf also owns five deep-sea tankers; five Liberty ships (through PanOceanic Navigation Corporation); thirtythree thousand acres of land including oil fields in Louisiana; and a ten-mile railroad in Hoboken, N.J., whose locomotives he had painted with zig-zags of luminous green and yellow, as a way to cut grade-crossing accidents.
One of his pet projects is trying to develop an efficient vertical parking lot. A team of Webb and Knapp engineers has built a one-ton model of a revolutionary twenty-story garage that will file away automobiles like IBM cards. Its hoisting system will probably use a ferris-wheel-like chain of platforms and overhead cranes, activated by one switchboard operator.
Businessmen familiar with his techniques say Zeckendorf’s decision to form a Canadian sister company will quicken the pace of Canada’s real-estate industry. Unlike the conventional real-estate operator who buys a property, holds it for a while, then resells in a favorable market, Zeckendorf acquires only holdings that he thinks his imagination can change, increasing their values regardless of market fluctuations.
He describes this property-improvement technique as “turning peanuts into bananas” or “making grapefruits out of lemons.” Such mutation invariably means retenanting, refinancing and rebuilding. When he bought a rundown warehouse building in New York consisting of a labyrinth of odd-shaped storage rooms, Zeckendorf knocked out the partitions, painted the walls white, shone spotlights on the building at night and sold it as a quality storage depot for nearly twice his investment. In St. Louis he reburied two thousand coffins and built a factory on top of a former cemetery.
On the airfield where Lindberg hopped a Zeckendorf shopping centre now grosses $80 million a y
Occasionally he adds nothing to a property but an idea. In 1949 he bought an unused riding academy near New York’s Central Park for seven hundred thousand dollars. He rented out its hundred and fifty horses at a four-thousanddollar-a-month loss until he visualized the columnless, forty-five-foot-high show ring as a television studio and sold it to the American Broadcasting Company for $1,300,000. ABC was so grateful to get downtown New York studio space it named Zeckendorf to its board of directors.
“If I’m a maverick in my business,” he says, “it’s because other people work only with money. I employ imagination.” A good demonstration of Zeckendorf’s imagination was his 1951 purchase of Roosevelt Field near New York—a 350acre air strip best known as the takingoff point for Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic hop. It had been condemned because housing developments had closed in on it. Zeckendorf visualized the reason for its abandonment as an opportunity for servicing surrounding communities by building the world’s largest shopping centre. The first year sales of the centre’s hundred and ten stores are expected to top eighty million dollars.
“What I like to do,” says Zeckendorf, “is to recognize a great piece of land and conceive a suitable edifice for it.” To capitalize on the continual two-way How of shoppers, he decided to put up an arcade building on the block between New York’s department-store giants, Macy’s and Gimbel Brothers. He eventually acquired al! of the land except an old fire hall which the city flatly refused to sell. Zeckendorf built a new fire station three blocks away complete with a fancy solarium and offered to trade it for the old fire hall. The city accepted and this year Zeckendorf opened his twelvemillion-dollar arcade featuring the world’s largest Woohvorth’s, which will pay him eight percent of sales as rental.
Zeckendorf’s fifty-three-million-dollar acquisition in 1953 of the Chrysler Building (the world’s second tallest) and two neighboring properties was the biggest real-estate transaction in New York history, approached only by Roger Stevens’ 1951 purchase of the Empire State Building. The negotiations involved fortyfive lawyers and thirty bankers in a three-day session with almost a ton of documents. To celebrate the final signing Stevens invited Zeckendorf to his Empire State Building for a party. A press conference was arranged and models of the world’s two tallest built. brought in as appropriate backgro&na? for photographs.
Zeckendorf noticed how puny fcis newly acquired seventy - seven - story Chrysler Building looked beside the dred-and-two-floor Empire State Bí ing. When the picture-taking session gan he picked up the Chrysler Buil and raised its spire above that of Empire State Building model. “But,” he later complained, “the damn-fool photographers muffed it.”
Such antics reflect Zeckendorf’s serious determination to build the world’s tallest building. His 1955 scheme for mounting the world’s largest office building on top of the Pennsylvania Railroad Terminal in New York had to be abandoned because the station’s seven hundred daily train movements made the required reconstruction of foundations uneconomical.
The most ambitious Zeekendorf dream was the victim of its own Gargantuan proportions. In 1946 he wanted to build an airport covering a hundred and fortyfour blocks of western Manhattan. The three-billion-dollar landing field, designed to handle sixty-eight planes an hour, was to be the rooftop of a twelvestory tangle of stores and offices. City planners found no basic faults with the scheme, but turned it down as being too colossal.
As a substitute for these defunct dreams, Zeekendorf now intends to reshape New York’s silhouette by putting up a hundred-million-dollar skyscraper over the Grand Central Railroad Terminal. Glass elevators would shoot up through an open latticework tower to the highest man-made platform in the world. He also wants to build a half-billiondollar development on top of a fortyacre western Manhattan freight yard. It would house a permanent world’s fair and feature a 1,750-foot steel-and-glass shaft twice the height of the Paris Eiffel Tower. Buildings would be connected by sidewalks that not only move, but also turn hot and cold with the seasons.
Zeekendorf claims that this scheme is so close to realization that New York has already assessed it for future taxes (at sixteen million dollars a year), but he won’t name any likely starting date. "We are dead serious in everything we propose,” he says, "but these things take time.” Zeckendorf’s most important current urban redevelopment scheme is a half-billion-dollar plan to rebuild four hundred and fifty acres of substandard properties flanking the Potomac River in the southwest section of downtown Washington, D.C.
Many of Webb and Knapp’s futuristic projects are designed by Ieoh Ming Pei, a brilliant Chinese who was Harvard University’s youngest professor of architecture and now works for Zeekendorf. Pei’s most revolutionary creation is the HELIX, a round, twentytwo-story apartment building Zeekendorf plans to mount on an east-side New York lot.
The unique, corridorless structure would consist of a concentric series of concrete bands. Wedge-shaped apartments would radiate from a central trunk, which would contain the plumbing and elevators. Kitchens and bathrooms would be backed up to this utilities core. Spacious living, dining and sleeping rooms would be set between the kitchens and eight-foot-wide balconies. Floors would be divided into eight wedges arranged in a spiral, so that each wedge is half a floor (five feet) higher than its neighbor. Tenants would be able to rent extra wedges as their family or budget increases.
Frank Lloyd Wright, the dean of modern American architecture, once attacked the HELIX as being “nothing original and nothing interesting either.” Zeekendorf hit back, accusing Wright of living in an impractical dream world. “I think what Brother Zeekendorf means when he says practical, is expedient,” Wright retorted.
Wright and Zeekendorf also disagree about the future of the city. Wright describes city life as “the inhuman trampling of the herd” and predicts metropolitan areas will gradually give way to countryside skyscrapers, standing as trees that escape the forest.
Zeekendorf is convinced the urban way of life will triumph as long as cities like Montreal allow their central areas to be reshaped by firms like Webb and Knapp. “We’ll pull Montreal together,” he vows, “sending it further along the road as the great cosmopolitan metropolis of Canada.”
Real-estate experts who have noted his preoccupation with Canadian urban redevelopment predict that many of our other cities will soon bear the impress of Zeckendorf’s astonishing heart surgery. *