Melvyn Kaufman, developer noted for whimsical designs

NEW YORK - The Sopwith Camel at 77 Water St. was in customary repose on the roof last week, and the naked lady at 747 Third Ave. held court in her usual place in the lobby.

Besides architectural anomaly, what the buildings share is a builder, Melvyn Kaufman. Mr. Kaufman, a quixotic, unabashedly contentious developer who helped shape Manhattan’s postwar streetscape and is credited with injecting his personal brand of whimsy into the city’s office towers, died March 18. He was 87.

His death, at his home in Mamaroneck, N.Y., was confirmed by his family.


A longtime executive of the William Kaufman Organization, one of the city’s most prominent family-owned development concerns, Mr. Kaufman erected half a dozen skyscrapers in Midtown (most along a stretch of Third Avenue from 44th Street to 49th Street), as well as several in the financial district.

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Though he was not an architect, his buildings were generally acknowledged to have sprung as much from his own vision as from the architect of record’s - a vision Mr. Kaufman realized with the aid of designers like Pamela Waters and Rudolph de Harak.

The result was a singular combination of sleek modernism and Disney-esque ornamentation that might be described as International Style Fever Dream. Whether it was visionary or gimcrack was a question that long divided architecture critics.

“Kaufman was a romantic, a surrealist, a purveyor of kitsch, and a genuine iconoclast and rebel,’’ Carter B. Horsley, a former writer on architecture for The New York Times and The New York Post, said in a telephone interview Friday.

Mr. Kaufman had a lifelong fascination with office buildings as public spaces with which tenants and passersby could engage. If one was going to erect a leviathan, his design philosophy seemed to go, at least make it a leviathan with levity.


He deplored lobbies, the sine qua non of office buildings since the dawn of recorded history. “Marble and travertine mausoleums are bad for the living and terrific for the dead,’’ Mr. Kaufman told the Times in 1971.

Many of his buildings did away with traditional lobbies, employing setback entrances from which wide public spaces extended to the street. These spaces were no mere plazas, but fields on which some of the buildings’ most conspicuous design elements were played out.

Consider 777 Third Ave., a Kaufman building designed by architect William Lescaze and opened in 1963. Its entrance plaza features a huge, interactive pop-art sculpture by Theodore Ceraldi called “Big Red Swing.’’ Roughly the size and shape of a grand piano lid, it can be sat upon, picnicked on, and gently rocked, and on any fine day, amid the bustle of the avenue, there are people doing just that.

In front of 747 Third (Emery Roth & Sons, 1972), the plaza, between 46th and 47th streets, erupts into a series of brickwork hillocks. Topped with public benches, they suggest termite mounds as filtered through the surrealist vision of Antoni Gaudi.

Mr. Kaufman’s least lobbyesque lobby was at 127 John St. (Emery Roth, 1971) in Lower Manhattan. There, visitors entered through a long tunnel of corrugated steel, banded along its interior with hoops of bluish neon. Standing guard at the tunnel’s entrance were two immense toy soldiers - a tableau, Horsley said, “that a visiting queen might appreciate.’’


Nor did Mr. Kaufman neglect the backs of buildings, as his chessboard, a three-story-high affair with movable pieces, boldly attests. Mounted on a wall outside 767 Third Ave. (Fox & Fowle, 1980), the board is visible to tenants in the rear, as well as to passersby on East 48th Street. On it, games - often re-creations of historic matches - are played out in slow sequence, with pieces moved weekly by a worker in a cherry picker.

‘Kaufman was a romantic, a surrealist . . . and a genuine iconoclast and rebel.’

Carter B. Horsley former writer on architecture

Other design elements were more covert - unorthodox Easter eggs that Mr. Kaufman placed in his buildings for the benefit of those in the know. There is the nude woman at 747 Third Avenue, a sculpture tucked so discreetly into a space between the entranceway’s two revolving doors that she can be glimpsed, fleetingly, only in midrevolution as one enters or leaves.

The Sopwith Camel is invisible from the street. A World War I biplane, it sits - or, more precisely, a life-size model of one sits - atop 77 Water St. (Emery Roth, 1970), one of Mr. Kaufman’s downtown buildings. He put it there, parked on a “runway’’ that lights up at night, he said, to spare tenants in surrounding office towers from having to look down upon water tanks and air-conditioning systems.

Mr. Kaufman’s first wife, the former Claire White, died in 1987. He leaves their three daughters; his brother Robert; his second wife, Elizabeth H. Atwood; two stepchildren; four grandchildren; and three stepgrandchildren.