The Real Deal New York

Ken Horn on his Woolworth Building buy, growing up in Crown Heights and his chain of gelato shops

June 01, 2013
By Katherine Clarke

ken-horn

Ken Horn of Alchemy Properties

Ken Horn is president of Alchemy Properties. Founded by Horn in 1990, the company has since developed or purchased almost 2 million square feet of real estate — worth some $1 billion — in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Horn and his partners Joel Breitkopf and Gerald Davis acquired the upper portions of the iconic Woolworth Building for $68 million last year, and are now transforming the top 30 floors of the tower into 40 luxury condos. Alchemy, which has completed projects such as the Isis condominium at 303 East 77th Street, is now also marketing the 35XV condo at 35 West 15th Street.

What is your full name?

Kenneth Stuart Horn.

What’s your date of birth?

Sept. 28, 1956.

Where did you grow up?

In Crown Heights and then in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1960s and 1970s was wonderful.

What was it like?

On my street alone, there were probably 15 kids my age. We’d play football and baseball in the street. All the parents worked — my mother was a teacher and my dad was an accountant — but every single parent on the street looked after every kid. If I misbehaved, another parent would step in and drag [me] home by the ear.

Does your family still live in Brooklyn?

My dad still lives there. My mother developed brain cancer in her late thirties and passed away when she was 48. My brother passed away at 35 from AIDS. He was in the first wave of people who died in the city.

How have their deaths affected you?

I learned that no matter how bad things may get, at times there are always much worse scenarios.

Where do you live now?

I live in Scarsdale, in Westchester County, and I have a home in Manhattan, at the Isis.

Have you tried to move your dad closer to you?

He’s never moving.

Tell me about your apartment at the Isis.

[Interior designer] Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz designed it. We wanted something that was wildly lavish and colorful.… We [didn’t] want it to look like your grandmother’s house.

How long have you been married to your wife, Marjorie?

It will be 30 years in October. We got married in our early 20s. We had three kids by the time we were 31.

How did you meet?

I was an attorney at a law firm and she was a paralegal [there]. She claims she’d been flirting with me, but I was very proper and would not date anyone I worked with. Then she came to me and said, “I just got a new job. Now we can go out on a date.”

Who is the boss at home?

My wife is very good at moving me in the right direction, let’s put it that way. I never feel like I’m being bossed, but we always end up doing what Marjorie wants to do.

Tell me about your kids.

Alex is 26. He is working in commercial real estate. Katie is 24. She works at Alchemy in the PR department. My youngest, Jed, just graduated from college this month.

How did you go from real estate attorney to developer?

I had my law job for three years, at the firm now known as Bryan Cave, and then I started a gelato company. I didn’t like being a lawyer. Lawyers make the rules while other people play the game. I thought it would be more fun to play.

Where did the gelato idea come from?

I went to Italy with Margie and learned to make gelato, and then I raised the money I needed to open my first gelateria [named Gran Gelato] on Third Avenue and 90th Street. My father-in-law used to call me the Good Humor man. He was none too happy that his daughter married a Fifth Avenue lawyer who was now becoming an ice cream guy.

Was the store successful?

Within a year, we had two gelaterias in New York and two franchises in Long Island. We were written up as the best gelato in New York. I was just 26 years old.

Why did you leave the gelato business?

Someone came to us and wanted to buy us. We got all our money back and we had a note [from the seller that said] that he was going to give us additional monies, but he vanished. He ran away with a 19-year-old scooper.

What did you do next?

I interviewed at a law firm and the partner interviewing me said, “You don’t want to be a lawyer, but I’ve got a client you’d be perfect for.” His client was Steve Shalom, owner of 2,300 apartments in Queens. I worked for him for five years. He taught me the business. I followed him around like a little chicken.

When did you start Alchemy?

In 1990, when the market was terrible. We began doing workouts for banks in defaulted co-op and condominium buildings. We would come in and figure out a way for the bank to recover its money. Once we recovered the money for the banks, we [had the option of buying] those units.

Have you always wanted to own the Woolworth Building?

No, but if someone said to me 15 years ago that I would be in a position to own the upper portion of the Woolworth Building, I would have said, “What, are you crazy?” We’ve had a lot of luck. My dad, who is retired, was taking a course on the architectural history of New York City and they were discussing the Woolworth Building. The professor kept saying, “The rumors are that someone is going to be going in and potentially making it residential.” Of course, my dad knew it was us, but he couldn’t say anything.

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