Paris’ forgotten mogul


Throughout the existence of Paris many have been born here. Some move on and are forgotten, but others stamp their names into the history books. One such person started life in Paris and rode a roller coaster to the top of the world before it came crashing down. This person was William Zeckendorf.

Zeckendorf was born June 30, 1905, into the Jewish family of Arthur and Bertie Zeckendorf. His father was the manager of a hardware store in Paris. Three years after his birth the family packed up and moved to New York City.

Growing up, education seemed important to young Zeckendorf as attended New York University, but he dropped out of college to join his uncle’s real estate company. That job did not last long either as Zeckendorf jumped ship in 1938 and went to work for Webb and Knapp, which was a small brokerage and building management company. He purchased the company in 1949.

Zeckendorf made a name for himself at Webb and Knapp through hard work and determination. His largest notable land acquisition happened when Zeckendorf purchased a 17-acre site between 42nd and 48th streets along the East River. His dream was a development to rival Rockefeller Center.

In December 1946, that dream took a step closer to reality when Nelson Rockefeller along with architect Wallace Harrison purchased the property for $8.5 million or in today’s world an astounding $109 million. This piece of land was donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. as the site of the United Nations Headquarters.

Many other notable points occurred during Zeckendorf’s career. At one time, he owned the famed Chrysler Building in downtown New York as well as the Astor Hotel in Times Square.

New York could not contain this real estate mogul. Zeckendorf stretched his reach into Chicago and bought the famed Robbie House in 1958. He also helped in the development of two of I. M. Pei’s early skyscrapers, the Mile High Center in Denver and the Place Ville-Marie in Montreal. Along with these achievements, Zeckendorf also partnered with famed Chicago real estate man Arthur Rubloff in developing a stretch of Michigan Avenue that was later dubbed the Magnificent Mile bu Rubloff.

Sadly, Zeckendorf’s downfall also began in 1958. He entered into a deal with Spyros Skouras, the head of 20th Century Fox to purchase Fox’s development of $400 million Century City. This development was 176 acres of Fox’s historic backlot in Los Angeles, California.

Fox stated construction was to start in July 1958 however that date came and went with nothing new happening. Later that year the story arose that due to a number of box office flops, Zeckendorf was purchasing the development $53 million. Construction was to start in March 1959, and that day came and went with nothing new as well.

Rumors spread quickly that Century City would never be built. Fox did not have the money and apparently Zeckendorf did not have the $53 million to pay Fox, let alone the $400 million to build the city.

Eventually Zeckendorf had to pay a $1,000 daily penalty to Fox for not completing the deal. Finally in 1960, Zeckendorf and Fox saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Zeckendorf partnered with Alcoa and finally built the Century City, which included the arc shaped 19-story Century Hotel. The final number for the development reached $500 million.

Zeckendorf’s decline continued until 1965 when he finally declared bankruptcy. In his prime, he was the total embodiment of glamorous real estate development and deal making. Later in life it was said that due to his dealmaking skills Zeckendorf was able to acquire or build developments which his company did not have the funds to finance.

William Zeckendorf, from small town USA, crashed his company in a spectacular bankruptcy and passed away Sept. 30, 1976, in New York City.