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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 671

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This is the grave of Melvyn Kaufman.

Born in New York in 1924, Kaufman grew up in the city and on Long Island. He was a rich kid but a mediocre student who flunked out of several universities. Then he joined the Army and fought in Europe in World War II. Kaufman’s father created the William Kaufman Organization, which today is a commercial real estate property management company. So when he returned from the war, he went to work for daddy, overseeing the design of buildings. And while Kaufman was never quite famous, he did become reasonably well-known for his oddball tendencies in building design, as one can guess from this somewhat bizarre grave design. In fact, I had never heard of the guy before when I took this picture. I was looking for someone else and took this picture based on the gravestone, thinking there was quite possibly an interesting story behind it.

Kaufman would have erected about a half-dozen Midtown skyscrapers in his career. He wasn’t an architect, but he did have a particular design building so he influenced the building as much as the architects who technically designed them. To quote the New York Times obituary, because I sure can’t do better than this, “The result was a singular combination of sleek modernism and Disneyesque ornamentation that might be described as International Style Fever Dream.” What does this mean? Again, from the obituary:

Consider 777 Third Avenue, a Kaufman building designed by the architect William Lescaze and opened in 1963. Its entrance plaza, between 48th and 49th Streets, 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 Gaudí.

Mr. Kaufman’s least lobbyesque lobby was at 127 John Street (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, Mr. 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 Avenue (Fox & Fowle, 1980), the board is visible to tenants in the rear, as well as to passers-by 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.

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, 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.

By most accounts, Kaufman was also a giant jerk, a Trump-like figure who loved to sue people and was always in court. He was charged with perjury in 1969 for lying about a bribery attempt done by one of his associates on his behalf. When the city mandated that he pay for asbestos removal in his building, he sued the city and lost. When a woman in his community allowed her mother to live with her, he sued her for violating the homeowners association guidelines. That then led him to suing his neighbors for all sorts of routine things, such as not cutting their shrubs to his liking. Yeah, that’s Trumpian alright.

I suppose the guy deserves some credit for making office buildings less horribly boring. He died in 2012, at the age of 87.

Melvyn Kaufman is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.

If would like this series to visit other developers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Fred Trump is in Queens and you all know what fun that grave post would be. William Levitt is in East Farmingdale, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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