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 and Le Corbusier worked for Zeckendorf on some of his projects.
Zeckendorf was born to a Jewish family in Paris, Illinois, the son of a hardware store manager. His family moved to 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 prominent architect Wallace Harrison and Nelson Rockefeller bought the site from him for $8.5 million (equals $104 million in 2016) and Nelson's father 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 venerable 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 Berkshire Hathaway.
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 interested.
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, they secured 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 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 him.
He was married to Irma Levy; they had two children: William Zeckendorf, Jr. and Susan Zeckendorf Nicholson. They later divorced and she remarried to the music critic and historian Irving Kolodin.
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