William Zeckendorf Jr., one of the nation’s foremost real estate developers in the 1970s and 80s, died February 12, 2014 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 84.
Invariably self-effacing, Zeckendorf insisted that his buildings merited the attention, not himself. Nevertheless, he was the motivating force and key player behind a broad range of outstanding real estate projects, primarily in New York City. Among his most recognizable and celebrated are Worldwide Plaza, Zeckendorf Towers (named for his father), the Four Seasons Hotel, and the Ronald Reagan Office Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. Other projects include the renovation and sale of five major New York hotels, among them the Delmonico and the Mayfair, and the construction of luxury high-rises such as The Park Belvedere, Central Park Place, The Belaire, and The Vanderbilt, which, along with the Columbia and others, brought the city more than 4,000 new condominiums and rental apartments.
Working on a smaller scale better suited to the Southwest, Zeckendorf also developed noteworthy projects for Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he later settled. Like his great-grandfather and namesake, who immigrated to Santa Fe from Germany in the 1860s to do business here, Zeckendorf was an impressive, revitalizing force.
Bill Zeckendorf was born to the trade. Early on his father, William “Big Bill” Zeckendorf Sr., was the real estate industry’s shining star, with skill, vision, and daring raising the firm of Webb & Knapp to unparalleled heights. Zeckendorf Jr., a graduate of the Lawrenceville School in Princeton, New Jersey, studied at the University of Arizona and served with commendation in the U.S Army in Korea before joining his father’s firm fulltime in 1950. At Webb & Knapp he was well schooled in the planning, financing, and development of large-scale properties, proving himself as canny, creative, and tenacious at brokering deals as his father.
Beginning in the mid-60s, the company underwent two restructurings—first as General Property Corporation, then as Zeckendorf Company—becoming New York City’s most active developers of luxury hotels, upscale condominium apartments, office towers, and mixed-use projects, in the process redefining the city’s face and skyline. Bill Zeckendorf Jr. was also president of the Federal Triangle Corporation, the firm responsible for developing the Ronald Reagan Office Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., the largest federal building to rise in the capital since the Pentagon.
At the height of the Zeckendorf Company’s expansion in the 1980s, Zeckendorf was joined by his two sons—William Lie and Arthur—from his first marriage to Guri Lie, daughter of Trygve Lie, the UN’s first Secretary-General. During the next decade, the company’s portfolio was the 12th largest in the country.
At the same time, Zeckendorf was busy with an entirely different portfolio, concentrated on Santa Fe and its surrounding hills. In conjunction with his second wife, Nancy—a former prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and an ardent supporter of the arts—Zeckendorf became a significant presence in the area. He developed the Eldorado Hotel, the award-winning Los Miradores condominium complex, the prestigious community of Sierra del Norte, and one of his most gratifying projects, the Lensic Performing Arts Center, transforming a quaint 1930s movie house into the cultural axis of Northern New Mexico.
While in New York, Zeckendorf was a trustee of Long Island University and served as its board chairman for 10 years. As his focus turned increasingly toward Santa Fe, he joined the boards of the Christus St. Vincent Hospital, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the College of Santa Fe, and the Lensic Performing Arts Center. From the outset, he was an energizing force behind the Lensic and the preeminent guide to closing the deal on the property and getting the project off the ground.
Zeckendorf’s passion throughout his adult life was fine wines, with an emphasis on the wines of Burgundy. For more than 50 years he was a member of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, serving for nine of those years as New York City’s Grand Senechal. During his term as president of the Tastevin Foundation, he created a Laureate Program for American students earning a degree in wine-making from the University of California, Davis, that offered them a semester’s study at French wineries.
William Zeckendorf Jr. is survived by his wife, Nancy; his sister, Susan Zeckendorf Nicholson; his son William Lie and daughter-in-law Laura; his son Arthur; and his two grandchildren, Arthur III and Jennifer Zeckendorf.
The family wishes to express their deepest thanks to those who helped care for Mr. Zeckendorf with such professionalism and unstinting kindness. They are Connie Ross, who has been with the family for 12 years, Sammi Hendrix, Eric Chambers, Robert Cather, Jason Wright, John Santos, and Egis Care and Support; doctors Tom Kravitz, Vivian Lee, Poseidon Varvitsiotis, and Michael Palestine; hospital nurse Tony Engelman; and the staff of Christus St. Vincent.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 West San Francisco Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501.