Recalling the ‘toughest
woman in real estate’

Cecilia Benattar, who developed the GM Building, blazed a trail through a male-dominated industry more than 50 years ago

Feb.February 01, 2018 11:00 AM

Cecilia Benattar (Photo courtesy Simon Benattar)

Women who have smashed through the glass ceiling in New York real estate may have Cecilia Benattar to thank.

By her mid-30s, Benattar had earned her stripes by playing a key role in the development of Midtown’s iconic General Motors Building. And she pulled off the feat back in the 1960s, when women in offices were often employed as secretaries.

“She would never take no for an answer,” said Simon Benattar, 56, one of Benattar’s four children. “She would walk through walls, and nothing could stop her.”

Benattar’s path to success in New York City real estate was a bit roundabout, and her style a bit unconventional. Stories at the time described her toughness and quirkiness. The England native had a knack for negotiation, a superstitiousness about the number 13 and an obsession with the symbolic properties of the color green.

Fueling her dealings was a no-nonsense style. Indeed, business lunches were a “waste of valuable time,” she told Life magazine in a 1965 profile that dubbed her the “toughest woman in real estate.”

“My strategy and words are like a man’s, but I can show warmth and disappointment, which in a man would be thought weak,” Benattar told Life. “But I never cried to get anything in business, and I never intend to.”

A rapid ascent

Born Cecilia Rickless in 1931 in Manchester, England, she grew up in a working-class family, Simon said. Her father was a botanist who scraped together a living from selling plant-based medicines at markets.

As a student, Benatar struggled with math, she later told interviewers, and needed a calculator for problems others could do in their heads. But that didn’t hamper her interest in business — one of her early hobbies was pretending to invest in the stock market.

She earned a scholarship to the London School of Economics and graduated at the top of her class in 1954, Simon said. And in 1955, she married Jack Benattar, an architect.

Around that time, she met Max Rayne, the newly installed head of investment firm London Merchant Securities. Benattar was working for a shelving company, and despite having no real estate experience, she pitched Rayne a deal and asked for a job, according to Vicky Ward’s “The Liar’s Ball,” a 2014 book about the GM Building. Rayne agreed, and, in 1957, Benattar and her family moved to Toronto, where she took over as the chief executive officer of London Merchant’s U.S. division.

It was in Toronto that Rayne and Benattar, along with New York developer William Zeckendorf, hatched the plan to construct a new headquarters for General Motors on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street. It was up to Benattar to convince the manufacturing giant not only to relocate its Eastern headquarters from 1775 Broadway, but also to become a joint partner on the $90 million endeavor.

At one point, according to family lore, Benattar filled a room with strangers when meeting with the General Motors board of directors, to make it seem like she had a larger, and more powerful, operation than was the case.

But Benattar still had ways to go before making the GM Building a reality. The McKim, Mead & White-designed Savoy-Plaza Hotel had to be demolished to make way for the white-marble office tower — a move that was met with outrage by locals. And before knocking down the storied hotel, the English-accented, 5-foot-2 executive had to evict hundreds of residential tenants and personally fire all of the hotel’s staff, according to Life.

Upon the building’s completion in 1968, rents typically started at about $7 a square foot for non-GM tenants, according to Ward, or about double the typical office rents in Midtown at the time.

And Benattar would not give an inch in negotiations, according to Geoffrey Wharton, a former lawyer at the firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges, which was an early tenant in the building and one that’s still based there today.

In “The Liar’s Ball,” Wharton recounted that Benattar said: “I allowed you the discretion of the color of the ink. Beyond that, I wasn’t interested in your comments.”

Unusually, Benattar hired ex-convicts for the building’s security officers, as she firmly believed in offering people a second chance, Simon said.

Benattar’s office, whose centerpiece was a rosewood desk, sat on the building’s 33rd floor overlooking Central Park, Simon said. That floor is now part of Weil, Gotshal’s sprawling multi-floor footprint, as The Real Deal reported.

In 1971, General Motors bought out London Merchant’s half of the building in a deal that valued the property at $120 million, according to news reports. The building has since changed hands a number of times, and landlords have included Corporate Property Investors, Conseco and Donald Trump, Harry Macklowe and a group led by Boston Properties, which owns it today.

Winding down

If Benattar was shrewd in the boardroom, she could also be quirky. Superstitious about the number 13, she refused to close any deals on the 13th day of any month, she told Life. And she was obsessed with the symbolic properties of the color green, adding that she didn’t feel comfortable unless her homes were decorated in that hue.

Those homes included a six-bedroom Modernist retreat on the waterfront in Rye, New York, designed by Edward Durell Stone (the same architect who worked on the GM Building). Sold by the Benattar family in the 1980s, the house most recently traded for $2.15 million, in 2015, according to public records. The family also kept an apartment at 100 West 57th Street, in the Carnegie House co-op.

Cecilia Benattar with her son, Simon

Benattar seemed to deftly juggle her work with domestic life. When her children were young, she always ate dinner with her family, according to profiles written about her, before heading out to work again. In addition to Simon, her only son, she had three daughters with Jack: Naomi, Jessica and Judith. She later married attorney Michael Schwartz and acquired a stepson, David. (Today, Simon invests in properties in Harlem and Brooklyn by way of Sugar Hill Investment Partners, where his stepbrother, David Schwartz, is a managing partner.)

Although the GM Building was ultimately a success, there were setbacks in Benattar’s New York career. She attempted to mimic her block-clearing approach in the late 1960s, when she tried to empty out apartment buildings controlled by London Merchant at West 55th Street and Sixth Avenue to make way for a 38-story, 800,000-square-foot office spire.

But in 1971, the city denied a zoning change to Benattar because the office market was so soft, officials had said, and housing was a better use of the property. For her part, Ward suggests that Benattar didn’t get the permit she needed because she didn’t donate $100,000 to a campaign being run by Mayor John Lindsay.

Subsequently, Benattar proposed an apartment building for the Midtown site. But lawsuits from about 80 tenants who didn’t want to move stymied the plans. London Merchant paid some tenants more than $30,000 (more than $130,000 today) apiece to vacate, according to the New York Times. The project lost too much money and was ultimately abandoned.

“We bought at a time when we were considerably more optimistic about the future of New York than we are now,” Benattar told the Times in 1975. In the same interview, she railed against high real estate taxes and rent regulation. By that point, her office, which had 20 employees in 1971, had just six, the newspaper reported.

Today, 101 West 55th Street (at Sixth Avenue) is called Claridge’s and is a red-brick luxury rental with 160 one- to three-bedroom units, where rents start at $3,000 a month.

Second fiddle

Benattar, who divorced Jack in the early 1970s before marrying Schwartz, decamped for Toronto again.

There, she worked to assemble the high-profile downtown site for the Sun Life Centre office complex. Similar to her GM building endeavor, she had to clear out an old hotel, the Lord Simcoe Hotel, and purchase air rights. The office complex opened in 1984.

In the early 1980s, Benattar began intermittently working with longtime friend Paul Reichmann, whose development firm Olympia and York firm built Manhattan’s World Financial Center (now called Brookfield Place). Reichmann brought Benattar on as a consultant when he built London’s high-rise Canary Wharf financial district.

Eventually, Cecilia founded a firm called NIOT Investment Holdings — an acronym for “Now It’s Our Turn,” Simon, who would later join his mother at the firm, said Cecilia had grown tired of playing second fiddle at large corporations. The duo served as consultants, developed condos and invested in real estate until the early 1990s, when Simon bought out his mother’s share, he said. In New York, in addition to working with Sugar Hill, NIOT functions as a mortgage lender today.

Around that time, Benattar began spending more time in Florida. Years later, en route from Florida to California, she suffered a heart attack on a plane, prompting it to make an emergency landing in Dallas, Simon said. She died there, on Dec. 10, 2003, at age 72, and is buried at Pardes Shalom Cemetery, in Maple, a Toronto suburb.

Oddly, no newspapers ran an obituary at the time, though that in many ways typified how Benattar lived her life, Simon said.

“She was very, very low-key, my mother,” Simon said, adding that just 25 people attended her funeral. “She never wanted recognition for all her accomplishments.”

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