At the bottom of an excavation on 64th Street, east of Fifth Avenue, two rust-brown plastic pipes with orange caps stick out of the ground, one near the front of the big lot and one near the back. They are not your basic Drano-ready plumbing: Each drops more than a quarter-mile straight down, traveling 1,500 feet through the high-grade metamorphic rock Manhattan was built on, to a place where the temperature never changes.
The pipes were laid as the articulation of Theodore Kheel’s, right, unfulfilled dream of a geothermal climate-control system. But they may be destined to neither heat nor cool, but just to become the world’s deepest-laid conversation pieces.
“After two years of work and $6.2 million, it’s incredibly frustrating,” said Leslie Hoffman, the executive coordinator for Mr. Kheel’s Foundation House. “We had gone quite far,” said Mr. Kheel from his Park Avenue law office, hung with works by his client Robert Rauschenberg. “I had really fascinating plans for the house,” which was about 35 percent done. “It would have been great … Bob Rauschenberg was going to do a mural on art and technology in the lobby.”
The renowned labor lawyer, now 83, had decided to incorporate the system into his Foundation House project, which was to house the various environmentalist, conflict-resolution and art-promoting organizations with which he was involved in the planned seven-story, 19,000-square-foot building. It was to be Mr. Kheel’s statement-either his monument or magnificent folly-a rusticated limestone eco-legacy designed in the rote classicism that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission seems to mandate in prime historic districts.
It’s not the first example of utopia unplugged in the city: General Motors heir Stewart Mott planned an ecologically opulent East 57th Street penthouse in the mid-1970’s with terraces on which he planned to raise vegetables and feed a cow; there was the sloping Citicorp Center roof designed for solar panels. Neither worked out. Nor was it the first time Mr. Kheel had built a house that would save the world. In 1968, in response to widespread labor movement panic about advancing technology, he established Automation House on East 68th Street to figure out how workers could take advantage of automation; as Foundation House’s Web site describes it, “a symbol and demonstration of man’s wish to shape his future in a world of bewildering change.”
And now Mr. Kheel has announced that that 20-foot-deep, concrete-lined hole is as far as his is going to get, too. He’s put the 35-foot-wide pit on the market for $10 million, which is “far and away” the highest asking price for a lot without a house in Manhattan, according to town house broker Jed Garfield.
Mr. Kheel negotiated an end to every near-disastrous newspaper strike of the last 40 years in the city, including the New York Post conflagration in 1988 and the 1989-90 ordeal that ended up putting the Daily News in Mortimer Zuckerman’s hands. He first arbitrated disputes between the city and its transit unions in 1949, and later went on to represent the National Football League owners association against the players. In the process, he made enemies of Rupert Murdoch, Edward Koch and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and he was called on by Presidents, governors and mayors to make peace in various intractable labor situations.
In 1996, Mr. Kheel decided that the foundations he supported-the Foundation for Prevention and Early Resolution of Conflict, the Earth Pledge Foundation, the Business Coalition for Sustainable Cities and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation-would be well served on a block full of Ivana Trump, Gianni Versace, Alec Wildenstein and Edgar Bronfman Jr. He bought two disconcertingly suburban 1960’s-era town houses that record mogul David Geffen had intended to tear down and replace with a mansion.
Given Mr. Geffen’s choice of architects-Gwathmey Seagal (the Guggenheim Museum extension) and Richard Meier (the crisp, white new Getty Center in Los Angeles)-he’d have had a hell of a time getting it by the blue-haired esthetic guardians of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District, anyway.
On April 24, 1996, Mr. Kheel’s Task Foundation bought the 35-foot by 100-foot lot from Mr. Geffen for $4 million. Construction was supposed to begin on Nov. 1, 1996, and the building was to be done just over a year later.
You can read all about it on the Web. Foundation House had an extensive, branching site (www.foundationhouse.org) that included cute animations of the house in winter, smiling after an infusion of warm
It was around the time of the last photo that the real problems started with the building. Versace’s and Mr. Wildenstein’s mansions had to be shored up.
But the real problem was Mr. Kheel’s restlessness. By his own admission, he kept changing the plans for his building after it was announced. Originally, it was going to be half offices for the nonprofits and half apartments. But Mr. Kheel also realized that because of a zoning loophole, if the building was all not-for-profit, it could be built bigger on the lot. “So I decided to go whole hog,” said Mr. Kheel. And the facade was quashed by the landmarks commission’s context centurions. “The landmarks people are very fussy about the facade,” he said. “They said you can have any kind of facade that you want as long as we approve it.” As a result, “We didn’t make any great effort to do something original,” and apparently it worked: The commission granted the design a “Certificate of Appropriateness.”
Con Edison put Mr. Kheel on to Carl Orio, who runs a New Hampshire company called
Mr. Kheel worried about changing architects; he had fallen for Mr. Meier and his white modernism. But the architect would only come aboard if he could do it all himself. With a new facade, he’d have to start over with the landmarks commission, too. And there were other, less drastic, stylistic asides that were holding things up. In addition to video-conferencing facilities and faucets in which the
“What do you want, a really great house or an extraordinary one?” Mr. Kheel remembers the architects asking. “And I’d say, an extraordinary one.”
But the costs were increasing-the hole had already run $2 million-on top of the $4 million that Mr. Geffen received. And the fast-track construction Mr. Kheel had been hoping for had gotten bogged down.
The final straw came on Nov. 15, the beginning of the New York City Department of Transportation’s annual holiday season “construction embargo.” The next step for Foundation House was to have been constructing steel girders. The cranes needed for this construction would have required closing the block for several weeks-which the department forbids between 14th Street and 70th Street this time of year. Mr. Kheel said it was his impression that he wouldn’t be able to continue construction until Feb. 1. (Actually, the department said, the date was Jan. 4.)
At that point, Mr. Kheel said, “I started to do some hard thinking.” He decided his nonprofit organizations would do better with a $10 million sale of the hole in the ground than waiting another year for the millennial Taj Mahal. He’s now looking for more conventional office space for his expanding foundations.
As for the holes, they’re still there, the world’s deepest conversation pieces. Roger Erickson, the broker at William B. May Company who sold David Geffen the property and then sold it again to Mr. Kheel, said of the $10 million price that “the market is such that sometimes prices are achieved on Fifth Avenue which are extraordinary.” He also sold the house two doors down to Mr. Bronfman for $4.375 million in 1994, and even as the Seagram Company’s chief executive is busy gutting it, “we’ve actually had unsolicited offers for dramatically more than he paid.” It should be noted that as of Dec. 2, Mr. Erickson is selling the lot for Mr. Kheel.
Mr. Kheel admits that “there’s a limited market for this site … maybe 100 people in the world.” Kirk Hankgalls, who runs the private brokerage division of Stribling & Associates, agreed. “Frankly, for a premium property like that, anything is possible. But clearly, that’s an ambitious price. It would be a record, I would only assume.”
“We just might get it,” said Mr. Kheel, and laughed.