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The Real Deal New York

Frank John Sciame Jr.

By E.B. Solomont

Sciame founded his eponymous construction company in 1975 and to date has completed more than 1,000 projects in NYC. The firm, which currently has more than $1.5 billion worth of projects underway, has handled a slew of high-profile developments, including the exterior restoration of the Guggenheim Museum, part of the High Line and Edward Minskoff’s 400,000-square-foot angular, glass office tower at 51 Astor Place. Current projects include the Culture Shed, a visual and performing arts center that will be located on city-owned land within the Hudson Yards area. In 2014, the firm ventured out of NYC and launched Palm Beach-based Sciame Homes, which builds spec houses.

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What were you like as a kid?

Pretty much the same as I am now: impatient. I loved to build model cars and planes, go-carts, forts, even a boat. It kept me busy and out of trouble. My nickname was Ricky. I was named after my dad, but my mom hated the name. “I Love Lucy” was on and people said, “He looks like little Ricky Ricardo.” I didn’t know my name was Frank until I went to school.

What did your parents do?

My mom was a housewife and my dad was a union painter — a real craftsman. He taught me that you have to give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

You are an architect by trade. What happened?

I started off as an engineering major [at the City College of New York] but then found the School of Architecture. I recognized early that I was not the next Frank Lloyd Wright, but I loved to build. After I got my degree, I went to work for a masonry subcontractor.

Who gave you your first big break?

We did a job for Sotheby’s, a skylight at 980 Madison Avenue. Nobody [else] was naïve enough to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll put your skylight in, you can keep your priceless art under it.” At that time, the early 1980s, there was talk of [Sotheby’s] also doing a big job at 1440 York Avenue. The facilities manager said to me, “Frank, have you ever built an $8 million job?” I said, “No, I’ve done $500,000 jobs.” He said, “Do you think you could do it?” “Absolutely!” I said. That’s exactly how it happened, an across-the-desk interview. [Afterward] everyone assumed Sotheby’s must have done an exhaustive interview process, so the job really put us on the map.

Where do you live?

Our main house is in Locust Valley, Long Island, where we raised our family. We have a place in Connecticut and [one in] Palm Beach, where I used to keep my boat — which is very modest compared to Larry Silverstein’s boat.

Your Connecticut home in Old Saybrook once belonged to Katharine Hepburn. How did you come to buy her former estate? 

Some people collect art; we collect projects. When [Hepburn] passed away, the initial price was a big number. But it started coming down. It was the quintessential handyman’s special, with water stains and asbestos; it was actually listing six inches from front to back. I made an offer. Half of me was hoping they’d say yes, and half of me was hoping they’d say no.

You had it on the market for $14.8 million but now it’s off. Why?

The problem is, my wife fell in love with it. Not that I have any experience with other women, but I call this house the “other woman.” She’s beautiful, she’s expensive and she’s a distraction.

You’ve invested in several Broadway shows.

Do you still?

No. I invested in “Dinner with Friends,” which won all kinds of awards, and I think I made two cents. I thought the construction business was tough; theater is a lot tougher.

Your office has several prints by the artist Julian Schnabel, who hired you to build condos atop his studio in 2006. Is there a story behind the art?

We used to have our office at 80 South Street and we had fireworks at our Christmas party. One year, [Schnabel] said he’d love to come, but couldn’t. Well, a couple hours later, five eight-foot-by-10-foot prints arrived. At the party, one fellow there who was a museum art curator looked at the prints and said, “Let me get this straight. Schnabel sent these over because he couldn’t come to the party?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Sure beats a box of chocolates.”

Also in 2006, Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg tapped you to curtail the budget for the World Trade Center Memorial. What was that like?

It was a challenge. You say, “If the mayor and governor call, how could you say no?” Well next time, I don’t care if the president calls, I’m going to assess the minefields.

Is there a building in NYC you wish you had built?

The Empire State Building. I took my son Andrew there and I said, “If anybody ever tells you a job can’t be done in a certain amount of time, take them here.” The stainless steel elevator doors, stonework, terrazzo floors and stainless steel inlays, it was all built in
14 months.

What are you like as a dad?

They tell me I was a good dad. If there’s anything serious happening to anyone in my family, business shuts down. When the kids were young, I would leave the house at 4 a.m. and get all of my serious work done before 8 a.m. Remember 40 years ago there were no cell phones, so if I went to a Little League game, it was down time.

What’s the last thing you purchased?

A table saw for my workshop for about $400.

Do you have any vices?

I’m not perfect. I go to mass weekly, but I also go to confession. 

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