William Zeckendorf Jr., 84, Dies; Developer Put Stamp on Skyline
William Zeckendorf Jr., the son of a celebrated developer who himself transformed New York City by making big bets on big projects that helped refashion neighborhoods from the Upper West Side to Union Square, died on Wednesday in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 84.
The cause was complications of respiratory failure, his family said.
In 1986, The New York Times said Mr. Zeckendorf was Manhattan’s “most active real-estate developer,” noting that he was a partner in 20 developments worth well over $1 billion.
After Lincoln Center opened in 1962, developers built housing in the immediate vicinity, but few ventured north of 72nd Street into what the real-estate industry called “the wild, wild west.” But in 1981, Mr. Zeckendorf broke ground on a 35-story building called the Columbia at Broadway and 96th Street for “luxury condominiums” in what had been a community garden.
“Here come the crooks,” protesters shouted over the roar of bulldozers.
But when the condos went on sale in 1983, most of them were snapped up by people who lived in the area. The units soon doubled in value.
“The Columbia was pivotal because it stabilized the West Side,” Mr. Zeckendorf told The Times in 1986. “Until then, there had been an uncertainty about where the area was going. The Columbia proved there was a demand for quality construction.”
Mr. Zeckendorf named his full-block development at 1 Irving Place at 14th Street in honor of his father, who had assembled the parcel on which the United Nations rose and built the Roosevelt Field shopping center on Long Island and Century City in Los Angeles. Completed in 1987, Zeckendorf Towers replaced many run-down low-rise buildings, and is credited with anchoring the resurgence of Park Avenue South and the Flatiron district.
In 1989, Mr. Zeckendorf finished One Worldwide Plaza on the site of the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. Major developers had hesitated to go that far west. Mayor Edward I. Koch called the development, in what had been a tattered area, “a tremendously important part of the ongoing renaissance of New York City.”
Mr. Zeckendorf also bought, renovated and sold the Mayfair, Delmonico, Statler and McAlpin hotels. He built the Park Belvedere, Bellaire, Vanderbilt and Central Park Place luxury apartment buildings. Other major projects included the Four Seasons Hotel and 4 Columbus Circle in Manhattan, and the Ronald Reagan Building and the International Trade Center in Washington.
In the 1990s, Mr. Zeckendorf’s luck ran out. He had overreached financially and was swamped in debt. One creditor persuaded a judge to allow a safecracker accompanied by lawyers and a city marshal to break into Mr. Zeckendorf’s apartment and try to recover millions in jewels and other valuables. They could not find a safe, but took pictures of valuable works of art including a Modigliani painting and a Degas sculpture.
“Why would they do this to me?” Mr. Zeckendorf said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2000. “They’ve ruined my name.”
Eventually, he was able to borrow money to repay the creditor.
William Zeckendorf Jr. was born on Oct. 31, 1929, in Manhattan. He graduated from the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J., near Princeton, and attended the University of Arizona for two years before enlisting in the Army, where he was in intelligence officer during the Korean War.
After his discharge in 1953, he joined his father’s company, Webb and Knapp. He left before the company went bankrupt in 1965 to work on his own projects, which at first were mainly renovations. In the mid-1970s, he returned to the sort of major developments his father handled, although he recruited more partners to spread the risk. He kept his public profile low, in contrast to his father’s flamboyance.
The elder Mr. Zeckendorf was known for hiring star architects like I. M Pei and Le Corbusier, and his son inherited a feeling for good design. He figured that the architecture and décor of apartments accounted for 90 percent of their selling points.
“Any time I see someone putting up an ugly building I get upset,” he told The Times.
The Journal reported that part of the younger Mr. Zeckendorf’s financial problems in the latter part of his career occurred because he personally guaranteed debts, and wanted to please outside investors by giving them a greater share of profits than is customary.
“The idea of building and creating was more important to him than earning a lot of money from these buildings,” Herbert Sturz, a former chairman of New York City’s Planning Commission, told The Journal.
Mr. Zeckendorf lived the last 15 years of his life in Santa Fe. His sons, Arthur and William, started their own business and developed two of Manhattan’s most luxurious buildings, 15 Central Park West and 515 Park Avenue.
Mr. Zeckendorf was a trustee of Long Island University for 25 years, and served as chairman during the 1980s. His philanthropy in Santa Fe included transforming a quaint 1930s movie house into the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
Mr. Zeckendorf’s marriage to Guri Lie, daughter of Trygve Lie, the first secretary general of the United Nations, ended in divorce. In addition to his sons, he is survived by his wife, the former Nancy King, a former ballerina; his sister, Susan Zeckendorf Nicholson; and two grandchildren.