Pei’s first built work was the remodeling of Webb & Knapp’s headquarters at 383 Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Instead of putting its president in a traditional corner office, Pei put Zeckendorf in a beautifully crafted 25-foot-wide teak-wood cylinder – a headquarters within the headquarters – around which all else revolved. “It would be ridiculous to create any environment [for Zeckendorf] other than one consisting exclusively of himself,” Pei explained. He equipped the office with small domical skylights that Zeckendorf could color by rheostat to suit the mood of his meetings. Outside the office was a small private elevator, also circular (and a little snug to ride with the oversized president). The elevator rose to an upper-level dining room and lounge where floor-to-ceiling glass walls offered commanding views of Zeckendorf’s real estate empire sprawled below.
Pei hired a small group of former students and classmates from Harvard to help with the project. From the furniture and filing systems down to the telephones and ashtrays, every aspect of the office was custom designed. The result was a sleek Miesian interior of great refinement highlighted by museum-quality works of art. Paintings borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art were complemented by Pei’s discriminating purchases from New York art galleries, including precious Ch’ien Lung vases, a Matisse bronze (strategically installed in the circular office to improve acoustics), and a large Gaston Lachaise nude. He installed the latter in the reflecting pool of an L-shaped outdoor terrace and planted a rare Japanese pine, achieving a serene balance of architecture, art, and nature – a preview of Pei’s finest work to come.
Upon completion in 1952, Fortune Magazine declared Webb & Knapp’s headquarters “one of the most extraordinary office interiors in the United States.” The project was extensively published in both professional journals and popular magazines, widely conferring on Zeckendorf a mantel of sophistication, and winning international attention for his new “Idea Man.” Although the project cost considerably more than expected, Zeckendorf insisted that he couldn’t have afforded to spend a penny less.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Principal; Henry Cobb, Ulrich Franzen, Don Page, Ira Kessler: Design Architects; Eason Leonard: representative for William Lescaze.
Webb & Knapp Real Estate Development Corp.