Feature

Melvyn Kaufman, 1924–2012

The ‘oddball’ whose buildings shaped New York

Manhattan developer Melvyn Kaufman’s quirky sense of humor was evident in the playful installations he half-hid in the office towers he built. A sculpture of a nude woman, for example, graces a slim space between twin revolving doors at the entrance to 747 Third Avenue, visible only to those entering or leaving. His rivals considered Kaufman “something of an oddball,” said architecture writer Carter B. Horsley, “but they also respected the quality of his buildings.”

Kaufman grew up in New York City and Long Island, said the Mamaroneck, N.Y., Daily Mamaroneck, and got his first taste of building as a day laborer for his father’s property management firm. He and his brother, Robert, took over the business after World War II, developing shopping malls before turning “their sights to bigger things” in Manhattan.

The dozen skyscrapers they built in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s “helped shape New York City’s skyline, and invigorated its public spaces,” said Bloomberg​.com. Kaufman had one architect place a giant chessboard on the wall of 767 Third Avenue, and you can view a replica of a Sopwith Camel biplane on the roof of 77 Water Street—but only from a window above it.

Kaufman’s “most outsize creation” was his “quixotic, unabashedly contentious” self, said The New York Times. He was frequently in court, unsuccessfully suing New York City in the 1980s over asbestos removal and Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the late 1990s over the placement of pedestrian barriers. “Architecture fails when it asks the client to adjust,” the uncompromising developer once wrote. “It is the architect who must adjust.”

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