William Zeckendorf, Sr. (June 30, 1905 – September 30, 1976) was a
prominent American real estate developer. Through his development
company Webb and Knapp—for which he began working in 1938 and which
he purchased in 1949—he developed a significant portion of the New
York City urban landscape. Architects
I. M. Pei
I. M. Pei and Le Corbusier
worked for Zeckendorf on some of his projects.
1 Early life
3 Deal with Spyros Skouras
5 Personal life
7 See also
Zeckendorf was born to a Jewish family in Paris, Illinois, the son
of a hardware store manager. His family moved to
New York City
New York City when
he was three years old. He attended New York University but dropped
out to work at the real estate company of his uncle, Sam Borchard.
He soon left his uncle's firm to work for Webb & Knapp, a small
New York building manager and brokerage.
Zeckendorf's most notable property acquisition, and potential
development of a "dream city" to rival Rockefeller Center, was a
17-acre (69,000 m2) site along the
East River between 42nd Street
and 48th Street. In a now celebrated transaction in December 1946, the
Wallace Harrison and
Nelson Rockefeller bought the
site from him for $8.5 million (equals $107 million in 2017) and
John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. subsequently donated this
land for the building of the
United Nations Headquarters.
Zeckendorf also owned New York's famous
Chrysler Building and the
Hotel Astor in Times Square. He purchased Chicago's famous
Robie House in 1958 before transferring ownership to the University of
Chicago. He developed two of I. M. Pei's early skyscrapers—the Mile
High Center (now part of Wells Fargo Center) in downtown Denver, and
Place Ville-Marie in downtown Montreal.
Zeckendorf also partnered with Chicago real estate titan Arthur
Rubloff to develop a stretch of Michigan Avenue into what Rubloff
dubbed the Magnificent Mile. The
Rubloff Company was eventually
acquired by Prudential and subsequently has become a division of
Deal with Spyros Skouras
In December 1958, Zeckendorf entered into a deal with Spyros Skouras,
head of 20th Century-Fox, to purchase Fox's project to develop 176
acres (0.71 km2) of its historic backlot in Los Angeles,
California, into a proposed $400 million Century City. The studio had
suffered a string of expensive flops, culminating in the box-office
disaster Cleopatra (1963) and was in dire need of money. The project,
conceived under the direction of Edmund Herrscher, the studio's
director of property development, had been announced the first week of
1958, with construction said to begin in July 1958.
However, construction did not start as promised, and rumors, later
confirmed, circulated that developer Zeckendorf would take over the
project by purchasing 20th's interest in the project for $53 million.
The following March it was announced that construction would begin
that month on the new headquarters for architect Welton Becket, chief
architect on the project That did not occur either. Zeckendorf
hired New York public relations executive
Tex McCrary to lend new life
and visibility to the project. McCrary, in turn contracted with Los
Angeles publicist Charles A. Pomerantz, well known in the
entertainment industry, to come up with a campaign and execute it.
Pomerantz turned to a young publicist he had hired, Worley Thorne, the
only other publicist in the small firm, for suggestions. Thorne said
he'd call friends in the press to assess their attitudes. Thorne
learned that there was deep skepticism that the project would ever be
built. 20th did not have the money, which is why they brought in
Zeckendorf, but apparently Zeckendorf was unable to deliver even the
$53-million purchase price, let alone $400 million. The California
papers had already given a lot of publicity to Century City and, for
them, any more coverage would just be re-hash in which they were not
Thorne reported to Pomerantz his opinion that the only way to restore
credibility to the project was to actually "begin" construction, and
Pomerantz went for the plan. Thorne called Herrscher and asked if
there was some small building they could demolish with a bulldozer, to
begin to "break ground" for the Becket building. Herrscher said there
was a tin shack that was expendable and he'd make it available, as
well as the bulldozer. McCrary and William Zeckendorf, Jr.,
vice-president of Webb & Knapp, also approved. Thorne said that it
should be a large affair with the mayors of Los Angeles, Beverly
Hills, and Santa Monica, plus politicians and other dignitaries,
invited, as well as all the
Southern California press. He and
Pomerantz would find a star to "launch" the project by breaking a
bottle of champagne on the shack prior to its being demolished. Later,
Mary Pickford for that task. It was all purely symbolic,
since construction did not actually begin, but no one stated that
openly, it was dramatic, and very successful. The Los Angeles Times
devoted almost three full pages to its coverage of the event.
Still lacking sufficient money, Zeckendorf was forced to make $1000
per day penalty payments to Fox. In 1960, Zeckendorf solved his
problem by partnering with
Alcoa in a joint-venture relationship to
finally build Century City, which by now had escalated to a $500
million project. The new owners embraced the studio's conception of
Century City as "a city within a city" with the arc-shaped, 19-story
Century Plaza Hotel
Century Plaza Hotel to be the centerpiece. This joint-venture marked
an increasing interest by large corporations with land "surplus" in
order to create housing communities, industrial parks and office
buildings; marking the first movement from traditional industry into
real estate investing.
Before his company's bankruptcy in 1965, Zeckendorf became the
embodiment of glamorous real-estate dealmaking, which included
developing Roosevelt Airfield, where
Charles Lindbergh began his
transatlantic flight, and helping to advance and develop Long Island
University. From the start of his career Zeckendorf had been able to
use his dealmaking skills to acquire or build projects for which he
lacked the funds, but in time the under-funding caught up with
Zeckendorf was married three times. His first wife was Irma Levy; they
had two children:
William Zeckendorf, Jr.
William Zeckendorf, Jr. and Susan Zeckendorf
Nicholson. They later divorced and she remarried to the music critic
and historian Irving Kolodin. His second wife was Marion Griffin
who died in 1968. In 1972, he married Alice Odenheimer Bache, widow
of Harold L. Bache.
Zeckendorf, William (1970). Zeckendorf: An Autobiography. New York:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 978-0030844942.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
^ The Toronto Star: "Paul Reichmann: The genius who reshaped the
world’s skylines" By David Olive October 26, 2013 "The brash Bill
Zeckendorf, a New Yorker, somehow managed the feat of erecting
Montreal’s inspiring Place Ville Marie as a collaboration between a
Jew (himself); a tradition-bound Scottish skinflint lead tenant, James
Muir, then-CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada; and a fiercely
nationalistic Québécois mayor, Jean Drapeau."
^ a b c d The Real Deal: "Zeckendorf: Revisiting the legacy of a
master builder" By Alison Gregor November 04, 2007
^ Amon, Rhoda. "Legacy: William Zeckendorf: Planner, Dreamer".
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times Jan. 8, 1958
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times Mar 5, 1959
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times May 26, 1959
^ Santa Fe New Mexican: "
William Zeckendorf Jr., 1929-2014: Developer,
philanthropist left mark on Santa Fe" By Howard Houghton February 12,
^ New York Times: "SUSAN NICHOLSON Obituary" October 24, 2014
^ a b New York Times: "Mrs. Bache Is Married To William Zeckendorf"
December 22, 1972