Gehry helps out in Chicago

Fortunately, it’s not like the furniture is going to leak

It’s not every day that Frank Gehry designs lobby furniture for an office building.

But Gehry made an exception for the Inland Steel Building, a Chicago landmark, because he owns a part of it.

The story of how the architect became an accidental real estate developer began in the early 1960s, when Gehry (who grew up in Toronto) first encountered the Inland Steel Building. Designed by Walter Netsch and Bruce Graham of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it was completed in 1958. Gehry said he admired their decision to clad the building in steel without hiding that material’s imperfections.

Nearly half a century later, at a party, Gehry found himself talking to a retired real estate developer, Perry Herst Jr., about their shared love for the building. Rumors were going around that the building was falling apart, and that its current owner — St. Paul Travelers Cos. — was looking to sell it.

After a couple of vodkas, Gehry recalled, he urged Herst, the former chairman of the Tishman West Cos., to put together a group of investors to rescue the building. Herst got in touch with his cousin Alfred D’Ancona, a Chicago investor, who then reached out to Harvey Camins, the chief executive of Camins Tomasz Kritt, a real estate brokerage.

Camins then phoned St. Paul Travelers. “St. Paul had no desire to sell the building, which,” he added, “was not in disrepair.”

But that changed, he said, “when I mentioned Frank’s name.” A few months later, he said, Gehry flew to Chicago. They were joined by the St. Paul people, and had “a nice little meeting” at which Gehry talked about wanting to preserve the building. “It was critical that Frank was involved,” he said. “That really helped solidify the deal.”

In 2005, a partnership led by Camins and D’Ancona paid $44.5 million for the building and gave Gehry a 2.5 percent stake.

“He didn’t have to write a check,” Camins said. “We made him a partner because he brought the deal to us.”

But if the deal was lucrative for Gehry, it also led to disappointment. Instead of bringing in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to update the entire building, as Gehry had proposed, the Camins group began a piecemeal renovation. Gehry said he believed the superficial changes made the building — and him — look bad.

“I complained. I was nasty to them,” Gehry said. Camins said: “Frank was not happy, and rightfully so. None of us was happy.”

He added: “We started the renovation work; we did some of the bathrooms and updated the lobby. But when the market softened and we couldn’t get the rent we needed, the renovation plan got put on hold. There was only so much we could do.”

“When the lobby is completed, Cohen said, ”It will still be SOM’s Inland Steel — but Frank will be there.“