By Sarah Trefethen
Frank Sciame is an architects’ builder.
Prominent among the memorabilia and mementos that fill his downtown office are not one, but two models of a tower of cube-shaped townhouses. Sciame had planned to build the Santiago Calatrava design on South Street back in 2004. The plan fell victim to the economic downturn, and it’s still unclear if the market would support such an ambitious luxury development.
But the founder, chairman and chief executive of the F.J. Sciame Construction Company — who also holds season tickets to the New York Jets — is not a man to give up on an exciting design.
“Let’s just say that it is still a possibility,” he says. “There’s been more interest in it lately.”
He pulls out a copy of Calatrava’s Complete Works, 1979-2009, and another image of the proposed 835-foot tower is revealed.
“Santiago put it on the cover of his book, so I’d say it’s still a possibility,” Sciame says.
Sciame studied architecture at City College in the 1970’s, after switching from the school’s research-oriented engineering program because he found architecture “more human.”
“I knew I was not the next Frank Lloyd Wright, but I loved great architecture,” he says. “Having a degree in architecture and speaking the same language became a great tool to find a way to cost-effectively build the great designs as a builder.”
He started his company in 1975, one year out of college and six months before his wedding to wife, Barbara, who took the risk and married him anyway.
“She’s a beautiful, classy lady, and everyone was asking her, ‘Why would you want to marry that bricklayer from Queens?’” Sciame says.
His first job was a $75 gate repair at New York University.
Today, Sciame Construction works on 12 projects a year, and past accomplishments include the SANAA-designed New Museum of Contemporary Art; Cooper Union’s new academic building, designed by Morphosis; the restoration of the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum and numerous projects for Columbia, CUNY and NYU.
“Five years ago, we were just known as the museum builder,” he says. “I realized they may do one building in a generation, so we started doing more with other institutional clients,” such as the city’s numerous and expanding universities.
In 2005, Sciame founded a development company that has completed residential and retail redevelopment projects in Manhattan, Long Island and upstate.
He diplomatically declines to name a favorite building or architect. But when it comes to the building process, what sticks in his mind are the challenges, such as rebuilding the Morgan Library and Museum in 2006.
“Excavating 55 feet into bedrock to create waterproof storage vaults for the priceless Morgan collections was a great challenge,” he says. But it was worth it, for the sake of what it accomplished above ground. “By doing this, Renzo Piano recaptured the great space on ground level.”
Sciame’s four children have joined him in the company, two sons on the construction side and two daughters working for the development company, though the youngest is on leave while she completes law school.
Sciame grew up in Little Neck in Queens. His father was a union painter who took great pride in his son’s company, he says, and would tour the company’s building sites annually until he was 95 years old. “My dad was my hero,” he says. To this day, Sciame construction sites are all union. When the two Sciame boys were in college, they worked on construction sites in the summer. “I wanted them to have an appreciation for the working man.”
But Sciame is not afraid of the future.
Computer software plays an integral role in the modern collaboration between designers and builders, and will open the way for more and more innovative designs, according to Sciame. Modular and pre-fabricated construction will have their place in this new world.
“Using this technology, you can build things precisely that will go together seamlessly at the building site,” he says. “The notion that modular or prefabricated construction is boring goes right out the window, and intricate designs that used to be cost-prohibitive can be built cost effectively.”
In spite of a joking bit of embroidery outside his office which suggests Sciame would like someone to stop him before he volunteers again, the past chairman of the New York Building Congress was recently elected chairman of the Building Foundation, the congress’ charitable arm.
He has also served as chairman of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and on different boards for The City College of New York. In 2006, Governor George E. Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Sciame to lead the effort to ensure a buildable and financially-viable World Trade Center Memorial.
“To be a builder in this great city is a great source of satisfaction, so I like giving back to the industry,” he says.