MAKING GOOD THINGS BETTER. Aby Rosen is an American-German real estate investor. He runs RFR, one of the largest real estate companies in the United States, with his partner and best friend Michael Fuchs. They have known each other since nursery school in Frankfurt.
How old are you?
I am 58 years old. I was born in May 1960 in Frankfurt, a Jew when only 1% of the population was Jewish. My father was Polish and was in Auschwitz until April 1945. My mother was born in Brussels in 1935, and in 1940 she was brought by my grandfather to a none-Jewish family of farmers, very simple people, and she lived with them until 1945. Later she became a painter, an art where she could express her fury.
How was it to grow up as a Jew in Germany 15 years after the war ended?
We were too young to realise what had happened. It was later we realised what it meant. For myself I thought it was nice to be special, different. My father made money and we felt financially secure. I was positive, friendly, outspoken, driven.
How did your professional success start?
My father had a heart attack and therefore retired from work when I was 18. I was in Law School then and I worked in my father’s real-estate business. He gave me the keys.
Why did you go to the United States?
I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I always liked America: it was smart, new, innovative. New York is a town you choose, not because it is beautiful but because it suits you.
How old were you when you went to New York?
I was 27. I took a loan from my father. I wanted to be independent.
“I feel gratitude towards America, who enabled my success.”
The courtyard of RFR’s newly opened 5 star The Jaffa Hotel & Residences in Tel Aviv, Israel.
What did you do?
I bought an empty building on the corner of 44th Street and Lexington Avenue, a fantastic location. I hired a very good architect and I spent too much money, to turn the building into a great building. When you have a great location you would not usually upgrade the building, but I was smart to make it aesthetically very nice and lease it to McDonald’s. It became the nicest McDonald’s in the city. From then on I understood how much real estate and architecture were connected. You also have a premium for great architecture.
What kind of real estate is interesting to you today? Where is the money to be made?
RFR is actively seeking to invest in high quality, architecturally significant, real estate in strong core markets across the US and Europe. We are targeting all asset classes where there is a value-add component through strategic ownership or property level repositioning.
Do you now own some very significant buildings?
Yes, I own the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and then Philip Johnson. And Lever House. Built in 1954, it was the first glass building in the world. In one year I bought two of the best pieces of real-estate ever. I have built 15 buildings, renovated more than 30, and I own over 70 buildings.
All in New York City?
No, also in Miami and Las Vegas – and a big portfolio of real-estate in Germany.
How are the two restaurants that you have in the Seagram building at the place of the Four Seasons doing, and how is your hotel and restaurant business doing?
The hotels, as well as the restaurants, are 24 hour businesses. If you do not stay on top of them and maximize your guest experiences, you are dead. I can report that our restaurants and hotels continue to meet my expectations. It is personally rewarding to see my vision executed. It takes an enormous amount of work and personal commitment to conceive a product and then to maintain their quality and freshness each and every day.
“I continue to be attracted to great architecture and design and good art.”
Which are your hotels in America?
Are you very close to Israel?
We had big ambitions to build in Israel, but twenty-two years later we have only built The Jaffa Hotel in Tel Aviv. I was disappointed not to do much, but it was too competitive. Israelis are very tough.
How is The Jaffa hotel going?
We opened The Jaffa, Israel’s best hotel and residences, in August 2018. We are offering 5-star hospitality in a country seeing exponential tourism growth. The feedback and reviews have been extraordinary. The old city of Jaffa is the most exciting and diverse area in Tel Aviv. The hotel is beautiful, restaurants superb and courtyard divine – time feels like it stops when you are there. It is that good.
Does art still have a lot to do with your work?
I realised that art and architecture have a strong relationship and I started to put art in all the buildings, plazas, and rented apartments. We commissioned lots of artists’ work. We buy art for our spaces and also help our tenants to put together collections.
What kind of art?
Progressive artists as well as established ones.
Is the art business still booming and which are the artists that you collect or admire?
The art world is doing well. I continue to be attracted to great architecture and design and good art. Collecting art and being active in the creative community is a pleasure of mine. I have 8 to 900 paintings. From Warhol, Twombly, Basquiat, Koons, Ed Ruscha, Damien Hirst, Richard Prince…. I collect many artists and am open to discovering new artists. I feel it is important to display my art and share with others. Our Lever House Art Collection gallery space is very active again and exhibiting exciting works from a diverse range of artists. I love sculpture because it is a form, you can place it anywhere you want. With a painting it stays on the wall and doesn’t change the shape of the room. Sculpture is a form in the room.
The idiosyncratic, eclectic vision of the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City attracts both business and leisure travelers.
Jeff Koons. HULKS. Lever House Art Collection, Dec 2005-April 2006
The Paramount Hotel, a refuge of edgy elegance close to Times Square in New York City.
The East Side Mall in the Berlin-Friedrichshain district of Berlin, Germany. The shopping mall was designed by architect Ben van Berkel.
Jean-Michel Basquiat. HOAX, 1983. W South Beach Hotel, Miami
Damien Hirst. THE VIRGIN MOTHER, 2005
Painted Bronze. Lever House, New York
“I would like to be remembered as someone who had a good eye.”
After so much success and many years, do you now feel German or American?
100% American. I have an American wife, American children. I feel gratitude towards America, who enabled my success. I have to be appreciative, and it is my home.
What is the impact of Trump’s Presidency on real estate?
Trump’s tax laws have not been good for home ownership in New York, but in general I feel little negative impact. I do not worry about micro-economic changes – I do not have a crystal ball. I invest for the long term and will find opportunities in any market. At times I may have to be more patient or a little smarter, but I will always be in the game.
What about art?
It is an asset and people want to buy, for investing, for pleasure, for documenting (like the museums). Art is the reflection of what is going on and by acquiring it you own your segment of the time, like a photograph. Today people who make money are more and more sophisticated. There is so much money! There are so many billionaires and millionaires everywhere.
Your Instagram is full of pictures of you travelling to exotic destinations. Is travelling one of your passions?
I will always be a student and endeavour to maintain a worldly perspective. I very much enjoy, and think it is important, to see and immerse myself in different geographies and cultures. It is so interesting and stimulating to witness differing lifestyles, aesthetics, politics and beauty – it helps me shape my own points of view which surely have an influence on my work and personal character.
What are your new projects?
I am looking at high quality architecturally significant properties in up and coming neighbourhoods where we can create value using imagination and creative vision. I have expanded our presence in Brooklyn and in downtown New York.
What about your future?
I think that one has to have a conviction and a plan. Time is your enemy if you are not decisive. Time is also a healer when you make a mistake. My program is very similar and simple. I continue to do what I do: create good housing, good spaces and use art for longevity, for long term things. I look for commercial success and I make good things better. I would like to use great architects, work with landscapers. Landscape architects have to be recognised.
How would you like to be remembered?
I am a capitalist but if I can do it with good architects, good landscapers, good artists and create longevity this makes me happy. I would like to be remembered as someone who had a good eye. A good eye means a good judgement.
Art and Portrait Photography by Jesse David Harris All images courtesy of RFR.
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.