FEATURE: I.M. Pei’s New York home open to offers
BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - Manhattan town house showcases architect’s signature tastes.
The low-key exterior of a four-story town house for sale in an affluent area of Manhattan offers few clues that it was the home for decades of legendary Chinese American architect I.M. Pei.
The four-bedroom East Side Sutton Place property, which boasts a grand marble entrance hall, was bought by Pei and his wife, Eileen, in 1974 from a cousin of United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The neighbourhood is also associated with many other famous names, including Marilyn Monroe, Freddie Mercury and all United Nations secretary-generals since the 1980s.
Kai Cheng, an adviser to the Pei family for the past 15 years, said the property includes a library with a wall of books where they enjoyed drinks and shared laughs, a living room that hosted many prominent guests and a bright, white-themed dining room.
Pei, whose iconic works include the glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre Museum in Paris, liked to spend time sitting on a bentwood rocking chair beside floor-to-ceiling windows. He looked out at the picturesque Sutton Square Gardens, the East River and the Queensboro Bridge, enjoying time alone to think about designs, Cheng said.
Months after Pei died on May 16 at age 102, and five years after the death of his wife, the house was put on the market for $8 million.
Cheng said of the family’s decision to sell, “We would like the world to know more about Mr. and Mrs. Pei after their passing.”
Co-executor and co-trustee of Pei’s estate, Cheng said selling the house would “let the world know that such a wonderful couple and such a wonderful, legendary figure used to live here”. He added it would also continue to promote Pei’s legacy.
Renovated by the architect, the house carries a taste of his signature modernist aesthetics, including a delicate spiral staircase winding up toward an oblong skylight.
Edward Joseph, a broker from Christie’s International Real Estate Group, which is handling the sale, said Pei also extended the rear of every floor and installed a wall of windows on the east side to “bring the garden into the home”.
“That is a wonder to me－I have never seen anything like it,” he said.
Pei had such windows in his office, the master bedroom－where he spent a lot of time in his final years－in the living room frequented by guests, and in the dining room, next to one of the few remaining private gardens in Manhattan.
Most of the art in the house was removed for auction or for preservation by the family. But several small pieces, including a small painting in a first-floor bathroom and a sketch by Pablo Picasso on the living room wall, are scattered throughout the premises, providing a glimpse of how the couple immersed themselves in art.
Cheng said the family acquired many of the pieces because the couple were friends of the artists. He said the family decided that selling many of them as collections would allow the world to learn more about the couple and “some pieces of Mr. Pei’s memory”.
Christie’s handled the sale of the pieces at auctions in New York, Hong Kong and Paris. More than $20 million was fetched at the New York auction on Nov 13, according to Cheng.
Pei was always “a lovely and down-to-earth person”, according to Cheng. The family lived modestly in the Sutton Place house, while many of the projects he worked on involved high-profile international landmarks, such as the glass pyramid in Paris and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong.
“If I have to summarise, I would say Mr. Pei was such a wonderful, wonderful individual,” Cheng said.
Pei was involved in more than 60 projects worldwide, and in 1983, he won the Pritzker Prize－widely considered the highest honour for architects.
Born into a large, wealthy family in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, he was expected to become a banker, like his father who co-founded Bank of China, or a doctor, as his father had wished. But Pei’s artist mother instilled in him an early interest in art and culture.
Pei moved to Shanghai with his parents when he was 10. The prosperous, Western-style buildings along the Bund inspired his dream of studying architecture. He once recalled that almost every day after school, he was drawn to construction of the Peace Hotel in 1929, which became the most luxurious building in the city at the time.
Shanghai is close to Suzhou, Jiangsu province, the location of the Pei family’s ancestral home. Considered one of the four richest families in Suzhou during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Peis had lived in the city for 600 years.
In 1935, the 18-year-old Pei arrived in the United States to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia.
He was enthralled by the depictions of US college life that featured in films starring Bing Crosby.
“College life in the US seemed to me to be mostly fun and games,” he said in 2000. “Since I was too young to be serious, I wanted to be part of it. Crosby’s films, in particular, had a tremendous influence on my choosing the US instead of England to pursue my education.”
Hu Shaoxue, a senior architect and professor with the Architectural Design and Research Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, recalled Pei discussing the Louvre Pyramid during a lecture at the university in 1994.
“He said people misunderstood him by relating the design to an Egyptian pyramid,” Hu said. “He said he chose a pyramid shape because it was the smallest structure he could think of that would not disrupt the historic landscape of the Louvre whilst capturing as much light as possible.”
Daniel M. Abramson, professor of the history of art and architecture at Boston University in the US, said, “In design, Pei’s signature was the use of a few large-scale geometric shapes for building masses, both in combination (the National Gallery of Art East Wing in Washington) and standing alone (the Louvre Pyramid).
“Another signature was Pei’s highly refined use of poured concrete. Both of these signatures－abstract shapes and attention to materials－made Pei a modernist architect, one interested in artistry, not standardisation,” Abramson said.
“Pei’s refined restraint with the abstract vocabulary and materials of modern architecture－not to mention his acumen with clients and the public－made modern architecture not just acceptable but truly popular in the 1970s and ‘80s for monumental cultural and civic buildings.”
Cheng, the family adviser, said: “Pei was such a well-known person, yet he was very down-to-earth. He always talked to me in a very nice way. Never for a second of my life dealing with him did I feel that he was looking down on me. He never did.”
When they first met at the Sutton Place townhouse, Cheng was impressed by Pei’s warm personality. Pei, then in his 80s, had long been a highly respected and award-winning architect, while Cheng, who was in his 30s, had been invited to visit by Pei’s children－who were also his close friends－for a family dinner.
Feeling overwhelmed and honoured, Cheng was greeted warmly by Pei.
“He said: ‘Oh Kai, I heard a lot about you from Liane (Pei’s daughter). I’m so glad you joined us for dinner here’,” Cheng recalled.
That first meeting led to Cheng’s decade-and-a-half involvement with the Peis, in which he helped with financial and legal issues and frequently joined them for breakfast and casual chats.
One time, when Cheng visited the couple after he had been away for 10 days, Pei greeted him with “Long time, no see.”
“I said, ‘No, Mr. Pei, only 10 days.’ He said, ‘No, Kai, you don’t understand. For people my age, 10 days is a very long time.’“
Many of their conversations took place in the library on the second floor, next to the spacious, bright living room that hosted prestigious guests, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
The small library, off-limits to guests, was one of Pei’s favourite places in the house. His discussions with Cheng, shared over glasses of whiskey, ranged from architecture to business, investment, politics, friendships and raising children.
When asked about his favourite project, Cheng said that Pei drew a parallel with his family, saying that he would not answer who his preferred child was.
“He always had a funny way of countering,” said Cheng, who witnessed several playful exchanges between Pei and his wife, who were married for more than 70 years.
“One time, I remember Mrs. Pei being funny. She said to her husband: ‘You are too old. You don’t remember my name now’.”
Cheng said Pei replied, “Well, I may not remember your name, but I remember I love you.”
The last photo of the couple, taken in the library in April 2014, has been kept by Cheng.
The room remains unchanged, with the brown leather sofa in front of four shelves of books stretching to the ceiling.
“The library is less-known by the world, but very important for the family and myself,” Cheng said.
Joseph, the Christie’s broker, said that since the house had been put on the market, it had attracted interest from everywhere, including people living locally and overseas who “are big fans of Mr. Pei and want to be a part of this legacy”.
Cheng said that some prospective buyers want to keep the house as it is, and would like to invite the Pei family to visit whenever they wish.
While the sale proceeds, the family is trying to ensure Pei’s legacy is respected, and is discussing ways to ensure this, including donating some his wife’s clothes to museums to “preserve her love for fashion”, he added.
A walk-in closet at the house, full of her shoes, stands as evidence of her passion for style.
The residence is one of two owned by the family in New York state, the other being a summer house 64 kilometres north of the city in Katonah.
Pei had visited many different cities worldwide, but he told Cheng that there was no place like New York.