Shortly before he died, a cancer-ridden Erwin Wolfson inspected the progress of construction on his greatest project by flying over the site of the Pan Am Building in a helicopter.
The prolific builder was deeply involved in the details of his massive creation. He worked out a unique foreign financing deal with British investors when he couldn’t get a U.S. bank to loan him enough money to build what was then the world’s largest commercial office building.And he personally negotiated the lease for 15 floors with the now-defunct airline whose name the building wore for two decades, saving $1 million or more in commissions in the process. A group led by Tishman Speyer bought the building in 2005 for $1.72 billion, a record price at the time for an office building.
The Pan Am Building, which he didn’t survive to see debut, was only one of the dozens of Manhattan office buildings, apartments and other structures Wolfson left as his legacy.
He got his start in real estate when he bought two lots in Florida while vacationing in the mid-1920s. On one, he spent $6,500 to build a house he then sold for $20,000. He went on to earn a small fortune building residential and commercial properties, but lost it when a Florida land bubble burst just a few years later.
Wolfson then moved to New York and took a low-level construction crew job. Not 10 years later, he was directing construction at upwards of 20 office-building projects for the Adelson Real Estate company.
Then in 1936, he co- founded the Diesel Electric Company to install power plants in buildings. A year later, the firm changed course and began constructing its own buildings.
Diesel led construction of multiple towers, including massive block-filling office buildings like the 20-story 100 Church Street, designed by Emery Roth; 30 Broadway; 579 and 589 Fifth Avenue, and the Bankers Trust Building at 529 Fifth Avenue.
At the same time, Wolfson had a parallel career as an investment builder, putting up buildings he held a financial interest in. His New York Times obituary credited him with independently putting up 6 million square feet of office buildings in the city. He was also an active builder in Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis and Denver.