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Melvyn Kaufman

Sly Urban Prankster and challenger of convention

17 State Street

17 State Street

By Carter B. Horsley

The William Kaufman Organization was one of the seven major office building families in New York in the first several decades after World War II along with the Urises, the Tishmans, the Dursts, the Rudins, the Minskoffs and the Fishers.

Their buildings were hard to distinguish from one another but the Kaufman buildings stood out not in size but in humor because Melvyn Kaufman, who ran the William Kaufman Organization with his younger brother, Robert, had very strong ideas about urban design and planning.  They should not just be work-space containers but places that engage the workers and have a personality and a sense of humor.

Melvyn Kaufman, who died in March 2012 at the age of 87, was a maverick and his rivals considered him something of an oddball, but they also respected the quality of his buildings.  He had guts and took big, unconventional gambles in the public interface of his buildings that were otherwise not that much different from those of his competitors.

The first time I met him I walked into his office and he was sitting behind his desk, still, gazing across at a man in a raincoat and hat in a chair across from his desk who looked remarkably like him.  It was a very realistic sculpture of him by Duane Hanson.

Mr. Kaufman remained silent for what seemed like an eternity and when he spoke he didn't bother with pleasantries but discussed his impressions of a recent trip to Provo, Utah and its urban design.

He was a non-nonsense guy who took his job of erecting big things obscuring public vistas very seriously.

Office buildings, he would say, are a humorless matter of "panels and rails." 

His office buildings added questions and, usually, a sense of humor.

Riverbed with fish and country store at 77 Water Street

Metal fish in riverbed at 77 Water street near country store near entrance

His most famous "stunt" was the placing of a full-size sculpture of a Sopwith Camel World War I fighter plane atop the roof of 77 Water Street in 1969.  The sculpture, and its accompanying astroturf runway and "wind sock" tower, could not be seen by the man on the street, but only from people on higher floors in other buildings.  Mel cared about them and didn't think they should get bored looking at exposed watertanks and giant air-conditioning vats. 

Love seats at 77 Water Street

Love seats and sculptures at 77 Water Street

77 Water Street had plenty going on at street level where the entrance was significantly indented to provide room for a large area with large pebbles with metal fish sculptures swimming about, two large hanging sculptures of crushed and compressed metal,  a series of bright orange, circular, revolving disks that he referred to as "love-seats, and a full-size wooden mock-up of a country candy store on a platform with a "soft" plastic soda bottle dispensing machine by Claes Oldenburg.

This building proclaimed that Mr. Kaufman was a romantic, a surrealist, a purveyor of kitsch, and a genuine iconoclast and rebel.

Was he thumbing his nose at his august competitors, or was he simply a marketing genius, way ahead of his time?

Humor in architecture is very difficult because it's there the next day and the next.  That's a big gamble when you're talking about millions of construction dollars.

Fulton Street canopies at 127 John Street

Canopies at 127 John Street

Mr. Kaufman was no one-trick pony and he soon followed 77 Water Street with a much wilder office building a few blocks to the north at 127 John Street, that recently was converted by Rockrose in 1996 to a residential building now known as 200 Water Street at the main approach to the South Street Seaport.

Digital clock and neon tunnel

Digital clock and neon tunnel entrance to 127 John Street

Neon tunnel entrance at 127 John Street

Neon tunnel at 127 John Street

Like 77 Water Street, 127 John Street looked from afar like a very clean-cut, nice modern, medium-size office building.  Its entrance on Water Street, however, was through a very large corrugated metal and blue neon lit space that curved into the buildings lobby.  Furthermore, it was flanked by very tall wood toy soldiers that a visiting Queen might appreciate and a giant "digital" clock.  Instead of flashing the time in numbers on a screen, the clock would tick and briefly light up 60 different boxes for the seconds for lazy get-to-workers.  Around the corner, Kaufman put a huge jungle gym with different bright colored canvas panels and an elevated sitting area overlooking the building's plaza on Fulton Street.  Talk about festival madness!

Every Kaufman office building was a different experiment. 

In addition to Water Street, the Kaufman's invaded and took possession of Third Avenue in midtown.

711 Third Avenue

711 Third Avenue

At 711 Third Avenue in 1963 he commissioned influential architect William Lescaze to design a workable office building in the ornament-less International Style as the first post-war office building on the avenue.  Like several Kaufman buildings, its entrance has been changed unfortunately in recent years

Big red swing and grove of trees at 777 Third Avenue

Big red swing and grove of trees at 777 Third Avenue

Further north at 777 Third Avenenue, Kaufman commission a Theodore Ceraldi to design a Big Red Swing suspended on wires from a building overhang.  The angular swing could accommodate several sitters in a gentle sway.  Kaufman also decided to create a pleasant little grove of trees near the swing on the sidewalk that clearly was in violation of the city's laws on the 25-foot spacing of sidewalk trees.  Let 'em fine me $25! Kaufman roared.

Swing, grove and Pepper sculpture

"Contrappunto" sculpture by Beverly Pepper at entrance to 777 Third Avenue

Tree rails and sidewalk benches

Tree rails and sidewalk benches at 777 Third Avenue

777 Third Avenue

777 Third Avenue

747 and 777 Third Avenue on the right

747  Third Avenue

At 747 Third Avenue, Kaufman decided that the building should have undulated sidewalks and a wooden front porch where workers and pedestrians could enjoy the passing parade.  

Undulating sidewalks at 747 Third Avenue

Undulated brick sidewalks beneath canopies at 747 Third Avenue

The sidewalk's undulations were soft brick hills that sheltered sitting areas. 

747 Third Avenue entrance

If you glance quickly to your side as you go through the revolving door entrances at 747 Third you'll get a peep of a full size sculpture of a naked lady

Passing through the building's revolving door entrances one could quickly sight a glimpse of a realistic statue of a naked lady in the small space between the revolving doors which opened into a large lobby with large exposed piping.  The public plaza has recently been "modernized" and the undulations removed, but the naked lady remains.

Footprint grates and stagecoach at 767 Third Avenue

Footprint grates and stagecoach at 767 Third Avenue with its wooden ground floor window sills

Chessboard at 767 Third Avenue

Chessboard with moveable pieces at 767 Third Avenue

At 767 Third Avenue, Kaufman finally decided that curves were not all that bad and so the plan of the L-shaped building gently curves.  He also put a stagecoach in one of its trucking docks, metal footprints on his sidewalk grates, a large chess board with moveable chess pieces on a side wall near the stagecoach, and painted white sevens on the building's rear facade.

At 17 State Street, Kaufman had Richard Roth of Emery Roth & Sons, who had designed several of his other buildings, design the city's most beautiful curved facade overlooking Battery Park and the harbor.   The building may well be the most beautiful office building erected in the city after World War II.  


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