Interesting Lives: Lewis Rudin

Lewis Rudin, Head of Real Estate Family and a Frequent City Fiscal Savior, Dies at 74

By Charles V. Bagli

Lewis Rudin, who headed one of New York’s oldest real estate dynasties, was one of the city’s biggest boosters and became a behind-the-scenes power during the fiscal crises in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 74.

He died of complications of bladder cancer, his family said.

Mr. Rudin and his brother, Jack, presided over a family empire of 40 buildings valued at $2 billion, including more than 3,500 apartments in 22 buildings in Manhattan. Their holdings also embrace 16 office towers, from the 44-story skyscraper at 345 Park Avenue and 52nd Street to the former AT&T world headquarters at 52 Avenue of the Americas (south of Canal Street). His family almost never let go of a property once it was in their vast portfolio, and rarely ventured outside New York for real estate projects.

“A fisherman always sticks close to his last catch.” Mr. Rudin would say in explaining the family’s decision to focus on Manhattan.

But if Mr. Rudin was a simple fisherman, it was in a big pond, and he worked tirelessly to ensure its vitality. He played an instrumental role in popularizing the New York Marathon, rallying corporate executives and labor leaders to help the city during its darkest moments, moving the United States Open to Flushing, Queens, and gaining landing rights in New York for the Concorde jet.

Acting out of what he called enlightened self-interest, Mr. Rudin’s role in civic life distinguished him from other moguls who rarely stepped away from their businesses. With New York facing possible bankruptcy in 1975, he persuaded other developers and corporate leaders to prepay $600 million in property taxes, enabling the city and his friend, Mayor Abraham D. Beame, to avoid a fiscal disaster.

“We had to do something,” Mr. Rudin explained years later. “We couldn’t very well pick up our buildings and move them across the George Washington Bridge.”

A tall man, he could be blunt or affable. He was sometimes an easy touch, and always an indefatigable booster for New York City. He countered every perceived slight to the city’s reputation with a letter to the editor extolling its virtues.

In response to a 1990 newspaper column about a woman who had fled New York’s expensive, crime-ridden streets, Mr. Rudin wrote a letter imploring her to return “to the Big Apple and help us solve not only New York’s problems, but all of the social problems of this great country.”

Mr. Rudin’s easygoing manner embraced a wide range of friends; Mayors Beame and David N. Dinkins; Jack Bigel, the labor advisor; Justice Burton B. Roberts, a former chief administrative judge in the Bronx; Percy Sutton, chairman of Inner City Broadcasting; Alan Alda, the actor; and Muriel Siebert, the first woman to gain a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. His annual party at the Regency Hotel to celebrate the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, drew 250 relatives and friends.
His breadth of contacts enabled him to organize a national coalition that defeated a proposal by President Ronald Reagan to abolish deductions of state and local taxes from federal income taxes, which he and others feared would prompt corporations to fell New York in favor of the South and Southwest.
He and his brother were early supporters of the New York Marathon in the 1970’s, playing a key role in moving it out of Central Park and onto the streets of the city’s five boroughs as its popularity swelled from 127 runners in 1970 to more than 30,000 today. The two brothers sponsored the Samuel Rudin Trophy in honor of their father, a marathon runner.
Mr. Rudin, whose favorite sports, a friend said, were golf and schmoozing, was the public face of a family empire in which his more reclusive brother Jack oversaw construction and development, which he served as a rental agent filling and managing the buildings and serving on civic and charitable boards.

Mr. Rudin often described how his grandfather Louis Rudinsky came to the Lower East Side in 1883 from Poland with nothing more than the change in his pocket. Mr. Rudinsky became a grocer and in the 1920’s bought the family’s first piece of real estate, an apartment house on 54th Street, because he had heard that John D. Rockefeller owned property on that block. Years later, Mr. Rudin boasted that the family still owned that property, “although now it’s a 32-story office building.”

Mr. Rudin is survived by his wife, Rachel; brother, Jack; daughter, Beth Rudin DeWoody; son, William; daughter-in-law, Ophelia; and grandchildren Carlton and Kyle DeWoody and Samantha and Michael Rudin.

Lewis Rudin was born in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx on April 4, 1927. The son of Samuel and May Rudin, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and the New York University School of Commerce after serving as a sergeant in the Army during World War II.

It was Mr. Rudin’s father, Samuel, who founded Rudin Management in 1924, when he built his first apartment house, a six-story tenement in the Bronx that still stands. After World War II, Lewis and Jack joined the family firm and the Rudins became known for their modern apartment towers on the Upper East Side, with insulated plumbing, air-conditioning and storefronts.

In 1955, the Rudins built their first office building, at 415 Madison Avenue (48th Street), followed by 1 Battery Park Plaza and 345 Park Avenue, which became the headquarters of Bristol-Myers.

Like other landlords, Mr. Rudin often railed against the city’s rent regulations, saying low rents were a brake on new housing construction. The family built its last residential building, 211 East 70th Street, in 1976. But they continued building office towers in the 80’s and 90’s at a slow, determined pace. Mr. Rudin said he preferred to follow his instincts rather than market studies.

“We don’t need marketing studies,” he once said. “When the time is right we build.”
Mr. Rudin became a major force in the civic arena in 1971, when he formed the Association for a Better New York with Howard J. Rubenstein as well as Preston Robert Tisch, Alan V. Tishman and other Midtown property owners.
Mr. Rudin and the others felt that New York’s power brokers had never tried to help the city by lobbying or promoting its attractions. The group held breakfast forums on the issues of the day, treating, at Mr. Rudin’s insistence, Democrats and Republicans with equal deference. The group also handed out Polished Apple Awards to the worthy and Rotten Apple Awards to the laggards, like shop owners who failed to pick up debris outside their storefronts.

In 1974, Mayor Beame confided to Mr. Rudin that the city was in dire straits because the federal government had just turned down the city’s request for a loan. In the next months, Mr. Rudin rounded up other property owners and executives from Con Edison, New York Telephone and Rockefeller Center, who pledged to pay their real estate taxes early to keep the city afloat.

“Everybody pulled together in ’76,” Mr. Tisch said. “Other people went on to do other things, but Lew continued with it single-handedly, making it one of the most important organizations in the city.”

As the fiscal crisis persisted, Mr. Rudin helped organize informal, private meetings with Felix G. Royatyn, the financier; Mr. Bigel, the union adviser; and Barry Feinstein, a powerful Teamster official, to discuss problems.
In what seemed to be yet another blow to the city’s civic pride in the late 1970’s, the United States Tennis Association was close to abandoning Forest Hills and moving the United States Open to another city. Working with Mayor Beame, Mr. Rudin intervened in 1977, persuading the association to move instead to its current home in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
Mr. Rudin played a similar role in the early 1990’s when the city seemed overwhelmed by the crack epidemic, a sagging economy and a rising crime rate. Although the Rudin company often benefited from his easy access to City Hall and the state’s most powerful government officials, he said he never asked for special favors. On more than one occasion, however, he did send one transgressor or another a small pillow with an embroidered message: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

“The secret of my relationship with the political world is, I never ask them for anything,” he said. “So I owe them nothing. Most of the time, they owe me something.”
And in explaining his support for city Meals on Wheels, New York University or North General Hospital in Harlem, he said “My father loved New York and wanted to reward New York for what it did for our family. It was as simple as that.”
The family was caught short during the recession in the early 1990’s, which left its 30-story office building at 55 Broad Street empty for several years. Still, the Rudins gambled. After reading an article about a technology company that was considering a move to Manhattan, Mr. Rudin spent up to $40 million transforming the asbestos-ridden building in the financial district into what he called the Information Technology Center. The project, which received generous tax incentives from the city and state, was a success, attracting tenants like Sun Microsystems.

In 1993, Mr. Rudin’s son, William, became president of Rudin Management Company and spearheaded the family’s latest project, the Reuters tower in Times Square.

Mr. Rudin often mulled over the past and the future for his family at his office at 345 Park Avenue, which was filled with photographs of children, grandchildren, presidents and mayors. He pointed out that the headquarters was build on the site of the grade school attended by his father at the turn of the last century.

“Owning the land here is going to be very good for my children,” he once told a reporter. “I would say we got a very good deal.”