Frank J. Sciame Jr., chairman and chief executive of New York-based F.J. Sciame Construction Co., founded his business in 1975. His first job was a $75 repair to an iron gate at New York University. Today, Sciame has over $1 billion worth of projects in the pipeline and has worked with such celebrated architects as Thom Maynes. In 2004, Sciame bought and renovated Katharine Hepburn’s estate in the Fenwick borough of Old Saybrook. His latest project in Connecticut is the redevelopment of the Croft Estate in Essex.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get into the building business?
A: I always loved building from when I was a little boy. I would build with the erector sets, then I would build go-carts. I would build forts. I always loved building. Then I went to school to study architecture. But I knew there were designers that had better creative design skills than myself but I still loved and appreciated great architecture. So, I got my degree in architecture, and I went to work for a construction manager. Then, after a year working for a construction manager, I went into business for myself. I started out very small.
Q: You are now involved in the redevelopment of the Croft Estate in Essex. What other projects are you working on right now?
A: Right now, we are working on a new academic building for Princeton University and a larger $300 million school for City Tech [New York City College of Technology] in Brooklyn. That’s in terms of educational buildings. Then, we do a lot of private schools. We’re in pre-construction on the Collegiate School in New York. That’s a private school. We’re opening up the Prospect Park ice skating rink [in Brooklyn] in December. And just opened up — there was a dedication with Mayor Bloomberg — for the opening up of the Theatre for a New Audience, which is a Shakespearean theater. We’re doing commercial buildings in mid-town and condominiums, luxury condominiums on Park Avenue South, and also in the Meat Packing District, we’re doing luxury condominiums as well as a commercial office building. Then, there’s another interesting project. We’re finishing the last leg of the High Line, that’s the park that was built on abandoned railroad tracks in Manhattan. Those are the things that are keeping us busy right now.
Q: Was there ever a project that you had to turn down because you just didn’t think it would work?
A: We regularly will turn down projects if we don’t have a team in place to do the job. We control our growth. If I don’t think we can be of service to the clients, we won’t do the job. We have a reputation for doing the architecturally sophisticated projects in terms of design, like the Morgan Library, which was designed by Renzo Piano. So, if its a straight-forward, 40-story apartment building, we would basically tell the developer that’s not really what Sciame is about. With the kinds of projects that we do, we need top-notch teams available. And if we don’t have them, we’ll just say that we’re sorry, we can’t take on that project. And it has worked out well by controlling growth and remember, reputation is a fragile thing. So, we always keep that in mind and make sure that we are able to satisfy the clients on these challenging and important projects.
Q: Are you interested in doing more projects in Connecticut?
A: We think Connecticut is a good market. We will do more if we find the right projects. One of the things that might be interesting would be to find a historic building where we could do an adaptive reuse of that building. That’s something we’ve done in the city. I really do love old buildings. If you Google me, you’ll see I was the former chairman of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and I continue to be on the board and the executive committee. There, we really look to buildings that are old treasures that have to be recycled for an adaptive reuse. So, let’s say, there are some really old warehouses in Connecticut. It would be interesting to see if they could be converted to nice apartments or commercial office buildings. But right now, we’re keeping busy with the building of another house over in Fenwick and renovating the Croft mansion and the windmill and maybe building another house or two on that property.
See a video of Sciame talking about the renovation of the Croft estate.
Q: Have you started construction in Fenwick?
A: We started construction. We’ve broken ground. We’re excavating as we speak.
Q: How long will that take?
A: I hope we’ll be done before the hammer law, which is July 1st.
Q: Is the house pretty much what you had anticipated originally?
A: It’s about a 2,800 sf house very much in keeping with the architecture of Fenwick.
Q: You’re still planning on keeping it for your own use?
A: At the moment, yes.
Q: Are your kids still in the business with you?
A: They are. My two sons are in the construction business. My oldest son is doing construction both in New York and Florida. He’s developing custom homes on the island of Palm Beach, which is a nice, niche market. That’s an extension of New York City. A lot of the same people are there. My youngest son is working on projects in New York. And my daughter Fiona, who graduated from law school and passed the Bar but doesn’t want to practice law is working in the development business along with her sister Alexandra. So, it’s a real family business.
Q: If you had to pick a project, what would your dream project be? Something you’ve always wanted to do?
A: One of the most challenging assignments was the memorial at Ground Zero when the mayor and the governor asked me to become involved in it. Can’t call it a dream project, but it was a very important project because the memorial itself at Ground Zero was threatened to be abandoned. The budget had gone from $500 million to $972 million. It was a challenge of bringing everyone together, the design, all the stakeholders, the families in particular. The city, the state, the country, everyone was looking. And it was a scary, defining moment. I really felt if I couldn’t get enthusiastic support for a design that was in alignment with the budget [of $500 million], it would be a failure and the controversy would continue. Fortunately, with a lot of help from a lot of people, I was able to bring it to that point. The design changes that were recommended were implemented and widely received with enthusiastic approval. It turned out to be a dream assignment once we found the right solution to it.
See photos of the 9/11 memorial in New York City.
Q: But how about a dream building project?
A: In terms of a building…It sounds crazy, but we normally are being involved in projects that I dreamed of in architecture school. It would make me excited learning about Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn and people like that. And then, we ended up building Four Freedoms Park [designed by] Louis Kahn. It’s just like a dream working with the Frank Lloyd Wrights of today, the Renzo Pianos, the Thom Maynes. My dream project is just to continue working with these great architects and successfully complete them. We’ve built a number of dream projects, and I don’t want to sound silly, but I can’t think of a project that I would dream of building because we are in the middle of a number of dream projects.