During the period when the oil embargo was still affecting road travel, delaying the EPCOT construction, and the U.S. economy was in the doldrums, in order to keep our firm busy I looked for other construction assignments. It was obviously my task to find work for myself and my colleagues. That led, in a roundabout way, to a period during which, more than once as I put it to friends “I ran to Iran.”
At about the same time, directly across the street from our headquarters building, on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, there was a site ripe for construction, and one day Congressman John Murphy, who happened to be a West Point graduate, accompanied by an Iranian gentleman, came to see me about it. The Pahlevi Foundation, an entity formed by the then-Shah of Iran, had decided to underwrite the construction of an office building on that site, and their American architect, John Carl Warnecke, thought it would be a good idea for them to ask us to provide an estimate of what the construction would cost.
For the Pahlevi Foundation, we examined and priced out the plans for the building across the street from our headquarters, and came up with an estimate on the construction of $23 million. I told this to the inquirers; they professed surprise, and asked me to travel to Iran and explain our budget estimate to the president of the Iranian senate, the second most powerful man in the country after the shah. I agreed to do so because we had recently opened an office in Tehran, as had many other construction companies in an attempt to find work during a slow period in the United States. I flew over on Pan Am, whose parent company also owned the Intercontinental Hotel. The airline had a regular round-the-world flight, their #1, that went from New York to Tehran and then across Asia and the Pacific before returning to New York.
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As I had expected, I spent a lot of time in the lobby of the Intercontinental, awaiting calls to go see someone. In the lobbies of the Hilton and the Intercontinental were many other construction and development executives from other companies, several of whom I knew. Only later would we all learn that we were mostly chasing the same projects and had been promised the moon by the same architects and middlemen who, of course, claimed to have locks on their projects.
While in the lobby one day, I was paged. The pager was the representative ofJafar Sharif-Emani, then the prime minister of Iran, president of the Iranian senate and president of the Pahlavi Foundation. He wanted to see me right away, and had sent a limousine to take me to his office building. This was quite a prestigious thing to happen in Tehran, and in the lobby, heads turned. Reaching the office building, I was ushered into Sharif-Emani’s massive and well-appointed room, in which he sat at a desk at the far end. As I approached the desk, I saw out of the corner of my eye a door opening a crack, and someone peering out from behind it.
I sat down in a chair in front of the desk, and was asked by Sharif-Emani for my estimate, which I provided. He expressed extreme surprise that it was so low. He told me that the architect and “others” had estimated the construction cost at $32 million. How could I be so certain that my $23 million estimate was correct? Because, I explained, we were New York-based, very experienced, and had regularly constructed office buildings on Fifth Avenue and therefore knew that our figures were current and accurate.