Jordan Gruzen, 1934-2015

Jordan Gruzen, 1934-2015

I met Jordan in the fall of 1952, quite by accident, having jumped from a diving board and landed on him in the Lawrence Anderson–designed pool at M.I.T. We were both about to begin the five-year program in the School of Architecture under Pietro Belluschi’s deanship.

Cambridge appeared to us to be the center of the world of architecture then, and we enjoyed the relief from the cold winters and intense charrettes by often heading to northern Vermont to go skiing on weekends. He was a natural athlete and excellent skier. It was a good counter measure to the close-in detailed design work at the School of Architecture where India-ink drawing was the norm of presentation, and we often worked through the night.

After a year, as Fulbrights he went to Italy and me to France; we travelled through Spain and Morocco, and I became familiar with Jordan’s unremitting enthusiasm and positive personality. He wanted to see and do everything, even feasting with a Moroccan family where they gave us each a lamb’s eye as a delicacy that we weren’t expected to refuse.

Our friendship developed through an obvious mutual love of architecture and in spite of different personalities. He was the perennial optimist seeing his father’s firm, Kelly+Gruzen, quickly succeed, and I more the pessimist, having fled Germany with my family at the start of World War II, often worried about the future.

I joined the firm in the early 1960s when Jordan’s father, Barney, ran the office with an iron fist. Staff was often terrified of him, yet he was mindful of talent. (Lew Davis and Sam Brody first met there years earlier.) Barney was tough, often chewing on the yellow tracing paper as he reviewed designer’s sketches, but Jordan lobbied more for a collaborative atmosphere and in 1967 helped to turn it into a partnership, bringing in six new partners. While Barney unlocked the door, Jordan pushed it wide open.

That same year, we were invited in competition with a select group of architects, including Breuer, Johnson, Barnes, and Conklin+Rossant, for a new stables building in Central Park at the 86th Street transverse. We won with an underground design. However, the mention of the word Polo, by an East Side newspaper, killed the project. That just emboldened Jordan, and the firm soon found itself amending the Civic Center Master Plan, with the design of the new Police Headquarters and later the Metropolitan Correction Center and Court House Annex, by depressing existing roadways, changing the on-off ramps of the Brooklyn Bridge, and eliminating a proposed pedestrian bridge for an at-grade extension of Chambers Street. This, along with adjacent affordable residential projects including the first all-concrete Chatham Towers, signaled a triumph of the new firm, now known as Gruzen+Partners.

Jordan helped create the office atmosphere that ambitious designers needed. Over more than 40 years there were close to two-dozen new partners that came through the office to make their contribution. He enjoyed the collaboration and the excitement of large new projects making a difference.  In the ensuing years, much thanks to Jordan’s heady optimism, the firm grew and became immersed in several new building types, including correctional facilities, starting with Leesburg Prison, known as the “Glass House”; hospitality with the re-design of the old Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt, including an unusual garden room well over 42nd Street; Higher Education through the development of the East Campus Master Plan and the School of Health Science and Health Services at M.I.T. with Mitchell & Giurgola; international work with the American Embassy in Moscow with SOM as well as new towns in Tehran and Isfahan; and residential design with significant projects throughout New York State for the Urban Development Corporation, including the Schomburg Plaza Apartments at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. For many years the firm continued developing follow up work in these areas.

Each decade our office moved, finally arriving at its largest quarters with two floors on West Street directly south of the World Trade Center and a few blocks walk from Jordan and Lee’s apartment on the South Cove in Battery Park City. In less than a year after the move, September 11th struck and everything, including the very survival of the office, was placed in jeopardy. For Jordan, it was a double whammy, having to flee first the office and then his home, which temporarily acted as a refuge for our staff until they all were evacuated across the river to safety. Throughout this ordeal, Jordan rose to the occasion, convincing the authorities to let us return to our gutted office to rummage through the ruins looking for material to salvage, particularly critical computer records. Having no home or office for the next seven weeks for Jordan was a challenge and an adventure.

In less than 2 months, after splitting the staff into groups working out of ten different offices, generously provided to us by other architects, we were back in business in a new and finer space at the edge of the Meat Packing District. Over the next few years, Jordan returned to the Middle East, particularly to Dubai, for which he had great enthusiasm. He always loved the idea of taking on new challenges, just as the accomplished skier and sailor that he was. His continued interest in New Jersey with projects in Newark and Hoboken, a Ferry Terminal in Weehawken, and El Museo Del Barrio on 5th Avenue, replaced his travels.

His final and most difficult challenge was faced with the same upbeat attitude with which he lived his life. Knowing that his days were numbered, he focused on his summerhouse under construction in Amagansett. Just days before he died, he visited the house with his wife Lee and his family. He showed us around, pointed out unusual details, and expressed the delight of an architect surveying his project and envisioning the final product. The completed house he will never see, but the optimism with which he lived his life is there for all of us to take note and learn from.