A new Chicago development opportunity for us at Tishman Realty arose, in a roundabout way, from Erwin Wolfson, one of the country’s most interesting developers. In the 1920s, after taking a college degree in philosophy, Wolfson had invested in Florida real estate, making a lot of money in Florida before losing it all in the 1929 Crash; he then returned to New York and began again as an assistant timekeeper on a construction site. By 1936, he and a partner formed the Diesel construction firm, later Morse/Diesel. With Morse/Diesel as his construction arm, Wolfson had returned to development and over the next quarter-century erected more buildings in New York City than any other firm. The crowning one was the Pan Am Building, atop Grand Central Station in New York City, completed in 1960. Pursuing similar properties in other major cities, Wolfson had acquired the air rights to construct another over-the-rails complex in Chicago. After obtaining those rights, however, Wolfson was diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis was very bad. To maximize his estate for his heirs, he sold his development air rights in that Chicago parcel to Tishman Realty.
We planned to ultimately erect four buildings within those air rights, two of them immediately, and two more to follow if the location proved desirable to tenants. The construction would have to be carried out while 100,000 commuters daily would make their way into and out of the city via the Illinois Central rail lines directly beneath our work, but by then we knew how to do such things, since we had had to construct the new Madison Square Garden over the Pennsylvania Railroad and Long Island Rail Road tracks while dealing with tens of thousands of daily commuters and “sidewalk superintendents.”
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Because of the project’s complexity, I decided that we ought to hire Chicago-based architects for the job, and called in the famed architectural firm, Skidmore Owings and Merrill. It had become a national firm with offices in many cities including New York, but still had its largest office in Chicago.
SOM was known as a “signature building” firm one used by universities, institutions, and corporations to design structures that were visually striking and that looked good on the cover of a brochure but
that did not necessarily have to be commercially viable. SOM was more design-oriented than commercially practical. I met with Bill Hartman, the head of the firm, and with Bruce Graham, the senior design partner at the Chicago office.
Bruce, who would later become known as Chicago’s premier architect, had already completed three notable buildings in the city: the Inland Steel Building, which had exterior steel columns, the Equitable Building, and the Chicago Civic Center. I wanted to have him and SOM as our architects for what would be known as Gateway Center. However, I must have sounded so tough-minded about costs that Bruce and Bill were reluctant to commit the SOM firm to our project, arguing to me, “If you hire us, it’ll probably be for only this one project and you’ll never use us again.”