Gerald Hines, international developer and champion of iconic architecture, turns 90 this month, with his crowning achievements quite possibly still ahead.
It’s a scorching 2pm in River Oaks, and Gerald D. Hines elects to entertain a visitor not in one of the many art-and-ornamentation-filled rooms in his regal—and air-conditioned—mansion compound designed by Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, but rather out by the pool. “Some people think it’s a little hot here in the summer,” he laughs, looking daisy-fresh in his cream-colored suit, “but here I am outdoors.”
Fair enough. If anybody has the right to choose where to be interviewed, it’s Hines. For one thing, he’s among the most successful developers on Earth. His credits include the Galleria and Pennzoil Place here, as well as other iconic structures the world over—like New York’s oval-shaped and pinkish Lipstick Building by architect Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry’s half-traditional, half-spectacle DZ Bank building off the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Founded in the 1950s, Hines’ private Houston-based company, known simply as Hines, now has about 3,500 employees worldwide and does business in 19 countries, with just under $85 billion of assets under management. He’s developed, redeveloped or acquired 1,077 projects—as close as a few blocks down the street and as far away as Beijing—with another 104 currently in design or under construction.
It’s also his birthday, or nearly so. He turns 90 on Aug. 15. So, sure, poolside it is.
The father of four and grandfather of 11 has had an extraordinary nine decades—during which he’s made a lot of friends, who, like former President George H.W. Bush, tend to call him “Gerry.” Bush offered words of praise when Hines was honored by the National Building Museum in 2000, explaining how the developer had “envisioned Houston as a city of beautiful buildings” and how he’d “enlisted the help of great architects to build buildings that make people proud.”
Hines—he says his “mostly vegetarian” diet and sporty lifestyle with lots of biking, especially while at his home in Aspen, is what “seems to work” when it comes to longevity—has his own take on his accomplishments. “I just like building,” he says. “And I like great architecture. Some people have scorecards for just money, but ours is a lot more than that. It’s about creating better places.” Of course, the money hasn’t been bad either. One estimate put the personal net worth of the man after whom UH’s architecture school is named at well more than a billion.
While he no longer runs the company day-to-day—his son Jeff has been president since 1990, “doing a fabulous job,” says the elder Hines—the founder remains as chairman. He’s savvy about guarding trade secrets, declining outright to confirm rumors Hines is looking to buy the Houston Chronicle building. And he stays abreast of new projects. Like the office building going up here at 609 Main at Texas, with sleek diagonal planes set atop its 48 floors like ears. And like Manhattan’s astonishing 53W53 residential building by Parisian master architect Jean Nouvel, a partnership with Singapore’s Pontiac Land Group and Goldman Sachs. The latter project, whose foundation will be complete this month, and whose sales effort officially launches in September, may become the pinnacle of Hines’ already formidable legacy.
The 53W53 setup is adjacent to MoMA, whose galleries will spill into the 82-tier tower, absorbing floors 2-5 with the likes of Matisses and Warhols, all visible to the Midtown throng below through high-tech floor-to-ceiling glass. Above the exhibition space, Nouvel’s trio of interlocked, tri-colored, triangle-topped slivers will stretch up with subtly organic Jack-and-the-Beanstalk swagger into the New York skyline. Inside, the residences will be spacious, swathed cleanly in marble and mahogany, with every minute design detail—the front-door handles will be custom-made to resemble the building laid to its side—considered. They’re asking $70 mil minimum for the penthouse.
It’s an extraordinary undertaking in every way, from its literal commingling with one of ￼the world’s great art museums to its state-of-the-art structural ingenuity and its boldness as a business deal. It’s also a long way, literally and figuratively, from Gary, Ind., where Hines grew up. At home in Houston today, with a blazing sun barely fazing him, Hines recalls his decision to make his way to Texas.
You first moved here in the ’40s, shortly after graduating Purdue in mechanical engineering. Why Houston?
The company I went with gave me the choice of Houston, Baltimore or Indianapolis. I had four Sigma Chi fraternity brothers in Houston, Texas. They were staying at the YMCA, so we all lived there together for the first few months.
So Gerald Hines’ first residence in Houston was the YMCA?
Yes, it sure was. Like [late banking executive and top-tier philanthropist] Ben Love and a lot of other people.
And you decided Houston was where you should be.
Houston had about 500,000 people at the time, and everyone said it was going to grow. If you were in the construction world, that was where you wanted to be. I worked as an engineer, and we designed building systems. And then one day my back-door neighbor said he needed a 5,000-square-foot building, 3,000 office and 2,000 warehouse. I said, “Let me build it.” He said, “Well, why not.” And then I probably built 10 office warehouses while I was still a partner at Texas Engineering. And when I got enough cash flow, above the mortgage, to support my family, I opened Hines in 1957 with just me and a secretary.
What were your first projects?
We had some warehouses and office buildings along Richmond Avenue. We got to know the family that owned most of the property, and we worked out ground leases with them. That gave us the chance to build without buying land. And then we did The Willowick [luxury high-rise condo building]. Hardest 3 percent I ever made in my life! We built it for the widows coming out of River Oaks [who no longer wished to maintain large estates], and the velocity of sales was not great. But we finally got it leased, and eventually sold it.
Did you think to yourself, what have I gotten myself into?
Oh, yes. Many times. And then we did One Shell.
One Shell Plaza was the project, built in the late ’60s, that many people point to as the first major building to set “the Hines standard.” How’d it come about?
My wife and I had been on vacation in Point Clear, Ala., and met [late Sears Tower architect] Bruce Graham, a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill partner, on the golf course. He was impressive. And so, when this came up, I engaged him. I wanted to get a really well-known architect to get credibility with Shell. And so, with Fazlur Khan, the great structural engineer, we designed the tallest concrete building in the world. It’s still the tallest lightweight concrete building in the world. And, at the same time, we did the Galleria. That was... crazy.
To build the Galleria, you needed lots of land.
We had to acquire all the property from Post Oak and Westheimer to Sage, which was unbelievably difficult. Very, very difficult. Very, very painful to put together. Dealing with people like [late legendary geologist and wildcatter] Michel Halbouty. We actually had to excavate all the areas around his building. There was a 30-foot drop on either side of his property. We finally had to give him a six-story building and a piece of our Galleria. Land acquisition is one of the ugliest parts of the real estate world.
Did you have any idea what the Galleria would become or, more broadly, what the city of Houston would become?
No, I just went along for the ride. And being in Houston, Texas, at the time, being a part of the growth of Houston, and having the freedom to build, with no zoning... It created great innovation.
Sustainable, energy-efficient building is trendy these days, but you’ve actually been a pioneer in that area for years.
I’m an engineer. Engineers always want to create the most efficient type of structure. One Shell was the first double-pane-glass building, with reflecting glass, in the country. We were a major leader there. And Shell liked that.
And you combine your commitment to efficiency with a commitment to beautiful architectural design.
To add to the environment is extremely important. You get a reputation for outstanding quality and operation, and that gets you tenancy. A good reputation is the best way to lease.
How do you pick your architects?
We have many ways. Sometimes we just say, “This belongs to I.M. Pei or Harry Cobb. It’s their kind of building.” Or sometimes we’ll have a mini-competition, pick four different architects and pay them a nominal amount, and they’ll come up with four different schemes. We don’t ever work with just one architect. We work with all architects. Everybody knows they have a chance, if they produce an outstanding building.
It seems like you had a special relationship with the late Philip Johnson, who did 15 projects for you with his partner, John Burgee.
When our first engagement with Philip Johnson came about, we had a partnership with [multigenerational manufacturing and architecture family] the Brochsteins. They owned a big piece of land on Post Oak [they wanted me to develop]. They said, “Gerry, we’d like you to try Philip Johnson.” I said, “That crazy man?!” And they said, “Just try him.” So they came, and we rejected the first four layouts. They were impractical. Finally, the fifth one made sense.
And then, in the early ’70s, Pennzoil Place.
One of the partners of Baker Botts [law firm] was also the president of Pennzoil, Baine Kerr [who would later famously help the oil company win a $3 billion settlement in a merger-related dispute with Texaco]. And he said, “Gerry, we’d like a building.” I asked Bruce Graham to give me a sketch, and he came up with a building that looked a lot like the Hancock building in Chicago. Dark glass. I said, “That doesn’t look to me like a building in Houston.” Then I happened to be riding on a plane to New York with Philip Johnson. I said, “Philip, I’ve got this building...” On the back of a napkin, he drew the NBC logo, which was two trapezoids in counterpoint, 10 feet apart. I said, “That’s an interesting idea.” We priced it out, and it was 30 percent less construction cost than Bruce Graham’s building, and parked three times the number of cars. We showed it to [Pennzoil Chairman] J. Hugh Liedtke and asked if he thought we should slope the top of the building or just have a flat top. He said, “Oh, I like the slope. We’ll put my office up there.” It won the Building of the Year award and just knocked over the development community, since it was so original. And it leased up pretty damn well.
Your eyes light up equally when you talk about its artistic success and its...
Financial success. We think you can achieve both, and I think we do. And that’s why we have investors from all over the world that want to invest with us. We don’t take huge losses or substantially lower returns on our buildings.
What other architects do you particularly admire?
César Pelli. He just did this wonderful project in Milan for us, and many others. And he’s also doing the tallest building on the West Coast, which is in San Francisco. And Harry Cobb. He just completed a building at 7 Bryant Park in New York, catty corner to the park. Very successful. The corner of the building [which is scalloped, and tapers in to the 10th floor and then tapers back out] salutes the park. What he did was wonderful. China’s national bank bought the building. Big success.
What are your favorite projects?
Shell, Galleria, Pennzoil.
All in Houston.
Yep. They were the early ones, when I was skating on thin ice!
Is there any city, other than Houston, where a part of your heart lives?
London. We lived in London for 16 years. That became a very important part of my life, and my children’s lives. [Two] of them graduated from Westminster [high school]. My daughter Serena won the national debate championship of England. Oh my gosh. And I was there to see it!
You’ve seen, and been a part of, Houston’s amazing growth over the past several decades. Where’s the city going from here?
Well, Houston’s almost six million people today. That’s a huge city. We’re ready to bump Chicago out of third place, no doubt about it. We’re a seaport. We’re in the middle of the country. We have good air transportation, a temperate climate. We have some problems that have to be solved; we’ve got to watch our flood control. And we need to get the rail link between Dallas and Houston. But people like [energy company CEO and urban-planning/green-space champion] Rich Kinder and [his wife] Nancy have done a fabulous job of helping to increase the quality of Houston’s built environment. Houston’s always had people like that. Hopefully we’ll have more. That’s a very important part of building a great city.
How would you like to be remembered?
As innovative, quality-oriented, with integrity. And for the Galleria, which is unique. And for our contribution to the art of the city: the cityscape.