Melvyn Kaufman, Builder of ‘Vital’ Manhattan Towers, Dies at 87

Melvyn Kaufman, who helped shape New York City’s skyline and invigorated its public spaces as a leader of his family’s real estate company, has died. He was 87.

He died at his home in Mamaroneck, New York, on March 18, said his wife, Elizabeth Atwood.

With his younger brother, Robert, Kaufman ran the William Kaufman Organization, founded in 1924 by their father. The two brothers, after serving in the military in World War II, turned the company’s focus from housing and industrial complexes to office buildings, according to the company’s website.

The ground-floor public areas of office towers struck Kaufman and his brother as overlooked, under-designed spaces -- “dull, stultifying and downright inhuman” rather than “vital, stimulating and human” for tenants and visitors, Kaufman told the New York Times in 1980.

So the developers, in conjunction with architectural firm Emery Roth & Sons, designed office buildings that became known for their public spaces.

Outside 777 Third Avenue is an oversized red swing in the shape of a piano lid. Nearby, a blank wall facing 767 Third Avenue became a giant vertical chessboard, with moving pieces.

“Privately Owned Public Space,” a 2000 book, cited two other Kaufman buildings that provide “public spaces recognizable for their whimsical artwork and voluntarily furnished functional amenities.” They are 77 Water Street, with an aquatic-themed arcade, and 200 Water Street, with an oversized digital clock “that takes time to understand.”

Source: Family of Melvyn Kaufman via Bloomberg

Melvyn Kaufman, who ran the William Kaufman Organization along with his brother Robert, died at his home in Mamaroneck, New York, on March 18, 2012 said his wife, Elizabeth Atwood. Close

Melvyn Kaufman, who ran the William Kaufman Organization along with his brother Robert,... Read More

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Source: Family of Melvyn Kaufman via Bloomberg

Melvyn Kaufman, who ran the William Kaufman Organization along with his brother Robert, died at his home in Mamaroneck, New York, on March 18, 2012 said his wife, Elizabeth Atwood.

On the roof of 26-story 77 Water Street rests a replica of a World War I British biplane fighter.

‘Must Adjust’

“He was always such a creative genius,” Atwood said today in an interview. She said he absorbed ideas and styles as they traveled the globe. “Here was a man who just loved to explore, loved to see how the world worked, all over the world,” Atwood said.

She shared five pages of essays and thoughts that Kaufman had written about his craft. Among them: “Architecture fails when it asks the client to adjust. It is the architect who must adjust.” Also: “No man has ever asked an architect to build him an ugly building. What happened?”

Melvyn Kaufman was born on Aug. 3, 1924, in the Bronx, one of three sons of William and Esther Kaufman. His first exposure to construction and architecture came from working as a day laborer for his father.

He attended New York University and Long Island University. His studies were interrupted by his service as a U.S. infantryman in Europe in World War II. After the war he went to work for his father rather than completing college.

Lucky Number

The family business consisted, as it does today, of the William Kaufman Organization and Sage Realty Corp., a unit founded in 1938 as its property-management division.

The family built its first Manhattan towers, at 711 Third Avenue and 405 Park Avenue, in the early 1950s, according to a death notice in the New York Times. Other Kaufman buildings include 437 Madison Avenue, 747 Third Avenue, 127 John Street and 17 State Street. (Atwood said Esther Kaufman urged her husband and sons to include a 7, which she considered lucky, in their building addresses when possible.)

Kaufman was a guest professor at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture, both in New York. His older brother, Bennett, died in 1980. His younger brother is among his survivors.

With his first wife, Claire, who died in 1987, Kaufman had three children, Jerian Franco, Kim Kaufman and Karin Kaufman, according to the death notice. He married Atwood, a member of the board of trustees of the Central Park Conservancy, in 2000.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net

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