Sheldon H. Solow, a Manhattan real estate developer who built a commercial and residential empire from scratch over a half-century, but left his son to finish his crowning project, a line of towers down the East River from the United Nations complex, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 92.
His wife, Mia Fonssagrives Solow, confirmed the death, at Weill Cornell Medical Center, but did not specify a cause.
The son of a Brooklyn bricklayer, Mr. Solow, who embraced litigation with the passion of a sports fan, was a mercurial fighter with unshakable confidence in his own views. He built scores of high-end rental structures, including his signature Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street, a 50-story office tower whose front-and-back glass facades are steep concave slopes. Since the early 1970s, it has been one of the city’s most distinctive edifices.
But Mr. Solow’s most ambitious and visionary undertaking, by far, was his unfinished $4 billion project to transform the 9.2-acre site of a former Con Edison power plant on the East River into seven glass towers, with 4.8 acres of gardens, lawns and esplanades. The site, just south of the United Nations headquarters, was the largest undeveloped, privately owned plot in Manhattan.
A decade after buying the sprawling property in three parcels with a partner for $630 million in 2000 and spending $125 million more to demolish the power plant and clean up toxic debris, Mr. Solow was still bogged down in public-approval processes, community resistance, financing issues and other problems. He had shed his partner but had not yet begun to build on the site.
In 2013, he sold the southern parcel for $172 million. Two residential towers were built, but not by Mr. Solow. His first building on the site, a 42-story condominium-and-rental tower on the west side of First Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets, was finished in 2018. But most of the site, bounded by 41st and 38th Streets, First Avenue and the F.D.R. Drive, has remained a grassy wasteland, awaiting three residential condominium towers and an office building that were approved in a master plan in 2008.
While Mr. Solow said nothing specific about retiring as he turned 90 in 2018, his son, Stefan Soloviev (a pre-Ellis Island family name), had in recent years assumed a growing role in his father’s affairs. After working in agribusiness with large landholdings in the West, Mr. Soloviev appeared destined to succeed his father and to complete his long-dormant East River project.
“I’m taking over the business — I get that,” Mr. Soloviev, who was 42 at the time, told The New York Times in a 2018 joint interview with his father, with whom he had a long, prickly relationship. “But right now I work with my father. And I don’t think we’ve ever worked as well together as we are right now.”
In a career that began in the 1950s building rental garden apartments in Queens, Mr. Solow became a tycoon. This month, Forbes put his net worth at $4.4 billion, No. 167 on its list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.
Though shy of publicity not of his own making, he was often in the news, announcing a project or one of his 200 lawsuits against rivals, tenants, banks or even friends, often in losing causes. Like it or not, he was a New York real estate mogul, along with Donald J. Trump, the Fisher brothers, Lewis Rudin, Leonard Litwin, the Milstein family, Bernard H. Mendik, Larry Silverstein and Harry B. Helmsley.
While he dropped out of New York University in the 1950s, Mr. Solow, who was self-taught in fine art appreciation, amassed one of the city’s notable private collections of Renaissance and modern art, with works by van Gogh, Joan Miró, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Balthus, Picasso, Matisse, Botticelli, Giacometti, Morris Louis and Mark Rothko, as well as Egyptian antiquities and African art.
He bought most of his art from dealers. But in 1973, he picked up a telephone in New York, called Sotheby’s auction house in London and waged a trans-Atlantic bidding war that won him Picasso’s 1909 Cubist “Femme Assise” (Seated Woman) for $800,000, a record price then for a Picasso. In 2016, Mr. Solow sold the painting, in a Sotheby’s auction, for $63.7 million.
Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called Mr. Solow’s collection eclectic and distinguished. Its astronomical value was hard to calculate. Like many aspects of his life, his art generated controversy. Crain’s New York Business reported in 2018 that his art was held by a nonprofit museum that received federal tax breaks despite not being open to the public.
Sometimes his publicity was quite positive. In 1984, Mr. Solow built a row of 11 connected five-story single-family townhouses on East 67th Street in Manhattan, between Second and Third Avenues. They all had elevators and shared a private common garden in the back. It was a creation that had rarely been seen in Manhattan since the 19th century.
Paul Goldberger, at the time the chief architecture critic of the Times, wrote of the project: “It marks the return of an ambitious and deeply civilized idea: the belief that the individual house enriches the city more by being part of a group, and that the street becomes a richer place by being planned as a totality. One can only celebrate Mr. Solow’s intentions. He understood, as few commercial developers have, that the essence of decent urbanity is in the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Sheldon Henry Solow was born in Brooklyn on July 20, 1928, to Isaac and Jennie (Brill) Solow. His father was a bricklayer who developed homes in Brooklyn but lost them during the Great Depression, forcing him to return to masonry work. Sheldon and his sisters, Renee and Rosalie, attended public schools in Brooklyn. After attending New York University for a year, he quit to try real estate.
His first project was a 72-unit garden apartment rental complex on a waterfront location in Far Rockaway, Queens. He gave away 16-foot outboard motorboats to any family that signed a three-year lease. He then built one-family homes in Huntington, on Long Island, before buying more land in Suffolk County and on Jamaica Bay and erecting more homes.
Moving his business to Manhattan, he built Rivers Bend, a 22-story residential tower overlooking the East River and Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side, in 1964. It advertised amenities like a penthouse swimming pool, wood-burning fireplaces and panoramic views.
He then began assembling properties for a building site on West 57th Street, off Fifth Avenue. It took five years and cost $12 million to buy the properties (the equivalent of about $100 million today). Clearing and construction took several years more. The result was the Solow Building, at a cost of $40 million (about $335 million today), with its sloping facades, views of Central Park and 1.5 million square feet of rentable space. Avon, the cosmetics firm, was an anchor tenant.
In 1974, the Fifth Avenue Association, in its biennial architectural awards, gave the Solow Building a slap on the wrist. “The Solow Building has urban bad manners,” the association said. It praised the building’s “handsome” detailing, including a giant red “9” address marker on the sidewalk, but said that the sloped facades broke the line of the street and that its 50-story height shattered the block’s scale.
Mr. Solow hit back, saying his building “may have bad manners, but it has good foresight,” adding: “In 20 years that whole block will be developed at this scale, and I think my building will set the standard.”
He was right. Today, countless midtown skyscrapers are as big, or far bigger, than Mr. Solow’s, and several have sloped facades.
Mr. Solow married Ms. Fonssagrives, a sculptor and jewelry designer in 1972. Besides his wife and his son Stefan, he is survived by another son, Nikolai Solow, and 13 grandchildren.
For years, his son Mr. Soloviev was largely based in the West, where his family owned a half-million acres of crop and cattle-grazing land in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. In recent years, however, he has resided mostly in New York and East Hampton, N.Y., and commutes by helicopter to Manhattan.
Mr. Solow, who also had homes in Manhattan and East Hampton, gave millions to medical, educational, environmental and Jewish organizations. He was a life trustee of New York University and its Institute of Fine Arts.
While his art collection was not generally open to the public, sculptures and paintings by Miró, the Spanish surrealist, were put on display at the Solow Building in 1990. Mr. Solow called it good for business. “Thousands of people come into the building every day,” he told The Times, “and I wanted them to be able to walk through the lobby and enjoy art.”