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Book Review : Profiles Catch Flavor of Major Realty Deals

January 11, 1987|DAVID M. KINCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Long before there was a Donald Trump, there was his dad, Fred, building houses in Queens and making it possible for his superstar son to be interviewed on "60 Minutes."

Jim Powell writes engagingly about both Trumps and a couple of dozen other big-stakes realty, design and construction figures in "Risk, Ruin & Riches: Inside the World of Big-Time Real Estate" (MacMillan, 376 pages, $22.50).

The cast of characters includes Trammell Crow, the Dallas accountant who went on to become one of the nation's biggest commercial developers; Harry Helmsley, whose fame is rivaled or even exceeded by that of his publicity-conscious wife Leona; the Reichmann brothers of Canada's Olympia & York, who saw opportunities in New York City when everyone was telling the town to drop dead; Houston megadeveloper Gerald Hines, who should have some kind of lock on the use of the word "Galleria," and Atlanta architect and developer John Portman, whose Sea Island, Ga., "cottage" is garnering him more publicity than even he expected.

Structural Disasters

Powell profiles other architects--among them I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson and Cesar Pelli--whose egos are as big as their buildings. Pei's problems with windows popping out of Boston's John Hancock Tower are recalled. (I happened to be visiting in Boston in the early 1970s when the tower was temporarily sheathed with enough plywood to cover thousands of houses, a wondrous site indeed!)

Powell deals at great length with the 1981 collapse of the skybridges of the Crown Center Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo. There is enough blame for everyone in that structural disaster that left 113 dead and 239 injured, Powell concludes, although--based on court records of the inquiry into the disaster--the structural engineers for the hotel probably are the most at fault.

My favorite profile subject was Milton Gerstman of Tishman Realty & Construction Co. Inc. Gerstman was the construction boss on such jobs as Detroit's Renaissance Center, Manhattan's World Trade Center, Trump's Castle Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City and EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla.

Prefers 'Emperor'

Powell captures the flavor of this tough ramrod, the kind of man who can command respect both from the guys with the battered hard hats and the well-tailored boardroom types and not take any guff from either.

When Gerstman corrected a subcontractor who had misspelled his name, the sub shot back "Oh, I thought you spelled it G-O-D."

Gerstman laughed when he told the author this anecdote, saying that he preferred the lower but still lofty title "emperor."

"I take that as a compliment, because they want somebody strong, a father figure in charge who knows what he wants," Gerstman explained.

He managed to meet the Oct. 1, 1982 deadline to complete the majority of the 600-acre EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) project, despite a variety of hurdles that would fell a lesser man. His reward from the Disney people: An engraved Mickey Mouse watch, which he proudly wears.

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