According to Bruce Graham, Jerry Wolman had a handshake deal with the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company to construct an “icon” building in their name on a very large site on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Originally the building was to be eighty stories tall, but Bruce Graham had talked Jerry into building it taller into making it 100 stories, which would then be the world’s tallest. This was going to be a multiple-use building, commercial shopping and offices in the lower half, apartments in the top half, and perhaps it was the compel-
Beyond the two key facts the 100 stories and the mixed use the building had yet to be designed. That unfinished status was more than fine with me; we preferred being in on the design phase of all projects that we were to construct. The design phase is the period during which a project’s design and practicality can be most affected positively or ruined. At Bruce’s invitation, I went to a meeting in his office within SOM’s New York headquarters. Bruce Graham, Jerry Wolman and I, just the three of us, met for about a half hour and before I left I had a handshake agreement to build the project.
The first and only 100-story building in the world! This was a wonderful assignment, and I looked forward to it, though not without some misgivings. Having listened to Jerry Wolman’s admissions of not knowing much about real estate development, financing, or construction, I wondered whether the project would ever get off the ground. But a key fact emerged from our discussion: he had secured financing for the construction from the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company. This had been done with a somewhat complicated arrangement wherein Hancock put up $6 million to buy the site, then leased it back to Wolman. A shrewd and sophisticated transaction, it gave me some assurance that the costs of construction would be met.
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But I still had some doubts about the seriousness of this Wolman project, which were heightened by the results of a meeting that Jerry had asked me to set up in my office to go over the details of our relationship and his firm’s relationship with Hancock. He, his lawyer, and another colleague, Jerry informed me, would be coming to New York from Philadelphia, and he stressed that we needed to be prompt, as they had other meetings scheduled for later in the day. I was there at ten, and so were his lawyer and his colleague, having taken a train from Philadelphia. But Jerry was nowhere to be found these were the days before mobile phones. Jerry arrived after eleven. He had actually come to New York the night before, and on his way to my office from the Plaza Hotel six blocks up Fifth Avenue, at the edge of Central Park he had seen a lineup of horses and carriages and had decided he would take a short carriage ride. The driver, thinking he wanted the standard sightseeing trip, took him for a several-mile circuit around the Park before delivering him to 666 Fifth Avenue.
I became even more nervous when I learned, through the rumor mill, that despite our handshake deal, Jerry was now talking to our competitor, Turner Construction, about the Hancock tower. Bruce Graham was trying to head that off, and had convinced Jerry to at least speak with me again in person before reneging on our deal.
Around that time, I was the chairman of a charity fund-raising din-ner my title was more an honorific than an actual executive one and we had a fund-raiser at which the entertainment was provided by a double-talker, the famous Professor Irwin Corey. He spoke so rapidly, and with such conviction, that he could easily convince you he knew what he was talking about, yet what he was actually saying was gibberish. Corey was fantastic. I laughed my head off. A few days later, when I learned that Jerry Wolman was thinking about reneging, I decided to set up a verbal sting operation. I asked Wolman if he would drop by my office when he was next in New York, and when the date was set I hired Professor Corey.