My first job in New York City was with Skidmore Owings & Merrill.
Arriving my first day I introduced myself to SOM’s two receptionists. A gentleman standing near me turned and shook my hand. He introduced himself. “Hello, I’m Gordon Wildermuth. One of the Partners here at Skidmore. I’d like to personally welcome you to the firm.”
Only recently relocated from Florida, feeling a bit sheepish standing there my first day, I shook his hand in return and thanked him. And from that moment on my life was off and running. The person who had interviewed me for my position forewarned me how people worked hard at Skidmore. His exhausted looking eyes underscored his fair warning. Once I stepped inside SOM’s front door I never slept a full night of sleep during a single week again.
The day I started was the exact same day Gordon Bunshaft, one of SOM’s most acclaimed partners, retired. That evening following my first day at work SOM gave Mr Bunshaft a farewell party that filled the eighth floor lobby. A banquet of food was displayed. In order to move to New York I’d already spent all of my money renting a midtown apartment. I was losing weight daily waiting for my first pay check. That first evening a young female architect with blond hair and bright red glass frames took pity on me. I must have looked like a frail waif. She loaded up several plates with great food from Gordon Bunshaft’s party buffet for me to take back to my empty apartment. I really owe Mr Bunshaft a heartfelt thanks. He helped me survive.
Having only recently moved up to New York from Florida, and having only recently worked out of my Siesta Key beach home in Sarasota, to now work for the largest architectural firm in the world, the firm that designs the biggest buildings in the world, that works at a pace that made my little Siesta beach home – where taking a nap on the nearby beach in the middle of the afternoon was not unusual – seem like a thousand years and a million miles away. But I loved it.
Before I even started work I thought I would try a breakfast at Wolfie’s, just to become familiar with the pace of Manhattan. I’d observed people line up early each morning outside Wolfie’s before heading off to their office. One morning I woke up early, dressed in a business suit, and stood, like everyone else, at Wolfie’s front door. Rapidly I was ushered in toward a seat, where I needed to hastily place my breakfast order. My food arrived before I knew what I wanted. It was expected that I eat fast. I could see the line of customers waiting at the door, all looking tense, each frowning at their wrist watch. I felt too guilty over the thought that I might be that single cog that delayed New York from getting things done that day to possibly enjoy my meal. I finished, paid my bill, and returned to my apartment feeling absolutely exhausted. I went back to bed, reflecting, as I fell back asleep, that I had a lot to learn if I wished to keep up with the fast pace of this energized city.
After having only worked at Skidmore a few brief months, New York City suffered a transit strike. Buses, trains, traffic all shut down. It took hours for everyone to walk to and from work each day. A major new presentation assignment was handed to us. I volunteered, thinking I’d rather stay 24/7 inside Skidmore’s four walls than to walk, for hours, to and from my apartment every day. No one else seemed to share my feelings. This assignment was mine alone.
For the next entire week I didn’t sleep – except for a very brief 45 minutes or so early each morning on a couch in a hall on the sixth floor behind a desk next to some files behind a cooler. Otherwise, I sat at my desk 23 hours plus for the next six to seven days completing what would turn out to be a beautiful 3-dimensional presentation. Everyone was happy with my work. I was pleased, but exhausted. Transit began moving again. I caught a ride home, and slept for several days. I was on a very fast learning curve regarding design, discipline and duty. But I didn’t mind. While others were counting their days until their two weeks of annual vacation, I felt that I’d already had an easy life living in Florida. Given the rare and wondrous opportunity to work at SOM I wanted to absorb all that I could. My entire time at SOM I never took a single day off for vacation. SOM became my home.
It was at Skidmore when I saw my second snow fall ever. Standing in the middle of SOM’s Park Avenue seventh floor one November afternoon I could see all around me outside every window beautiful white fluffs of cotton falling from the sky. I was mesmerized. And realized, again, how very far distant I was from everything I came from. I picked up a desk phone and called my mom in Bradenton. “Mom, it’s snowing!” She laughed, and said, “You really call me for the dumbest reasons.”
How SOM prepared their presentations for their exceedingly elite clients immeasurably impressed me. Architectural drawings were beautifully completed. They would then be printed in a warm sepia tone and mounted page after page on the conference room wall. It was quite an impressive sight.
But where SOM truly excelled was with their scale models. They were the most accurate and beautiful I’d ever seen. Macro models showing the clients new building design in a larger setting. Detail models of just the single building alone built at a much larger scale. An interior model of an entire floor revealing all of the lush fabrics and furnishings. All professionally presented.
Soon I would be placed in charge of building and overseeing many of their models.
Gone was any idea of sleep as I met SOM’s deadlines. As SOM’s clients would walk in, well dressed, expressing positive anticipation at what they were going to be shown inside SOM that day, I would be taking the elevator they’d just vacated down to the main floor, where I would hail a taxi and head home, ready to discover the wonderful softness of my bed and pillow. If SOM’s limo driver was downstairs, after having just brought a client in from the airport, he would feel sorry for me and drive me to my apartment. SOM was kind to those who worked hard for their firm.
SOM had their own inner office model shop. But SOM also used the model building services of independent model studios situated all over Manhattan, as well as the model shop that worked inside I M Pei’s firm. When deadlines were due at 9AM the next morning, I would be hailing taxis from evening till dawn, visiting every model shop and studio across Manhattan to inspect each model’s progress, make sure all questions were answered, inspire everyone to get their work done on time.
I loved doing this. It was fun. It was exciting. It was glamorous. I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else.
Following the completion of one particular project a celebratory party was held at a partner’s downtown loft, a beautiful setting. My work having been integral to the project’s success I was invited to enjoy the festive reward. While relaxing on a couch, Gordon Wildermuth, the SOM partner who originally introduced himself to me my first day, sat next to me. He shared how he’d just returned from a vacation hiking in a mountainous region in some distant part of the world. His hiking boots, that he always wore, even when he wore a suit, did look a little roughed up.
Mr Wildermuth became reflective, and shared how he believed a person must always strive to be something more, to achieve something greater. To move on.
Was he talking to me?
At that time I didn’t know it, but his lovely wife who was with him was suffering from cancer. Perhaps his sense of potential personal loss was causing him to think a little more profoundly that evening about life’s deeper meaning.
There was a grand piano near where I was sitting. I’ve played piano in public, in restaurants, bars and clubs, most of my life, since childhood. I sat at the piano and began to play. Mrs Wildermuth came next to me and leaned against the piano. Smiling as she listened to my playing. I will never forget how I made her happy that evening with my music. The wife of the man who welcomed me to SOM.
About a week later my niece accidentally tripped me as we skated in Central Park. My hand broke blocking my fall. For the next month I could not model build.
I decided to take that time to put together my portfolio.
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