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Remembering I.M. Pei’s debut project: Atlanta’s Gulf Oil Building

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Looking back at the iconic architect’s first building

Illustration by Franziska Barczyk

The architecture world is mourning the death of Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. In partnership with his firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Pei was responsible for a wide range of buildings in the United States and abroad, including the famous glass-topped extension of Paris’s Louvre Museum.

But long before Pei was a household name, he designed the Gulf Oil Building in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1949. In light of Pei’s passing, we’re sharing a closer look at his debut project, first published as a part of the 21 First Drafts series.

Getting the gig

After more than a decade in academia, Ieoh Ming Pei was ready for the next step. Born in Canton, China, and inspired by the cityscapes of Shanghai, Pei had come to the United States to study architecture in 1935. He chose the U.S. over Britain, in part because he found the American experience depicted in Bing Crosby movies to be much more exciting.

More than a decade later, he had studied at the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Harvard as a disciple of modernist design. A rising star, Pei made connections with key figures such as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at Cambridge and earned national exposure for designing a series of prefab wooden houses. By 1948, he became an associate professor at the Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (he was prevented from returning to China due to the civil war between Communist and Nationalist forces).

That year, he traveled to New York to meet developer William Zeckendorf, a flamboyant Manhattan real estate mogul of that era. A Life article from 1965, which found him driving through Central Park in a telephone-equipped Cadillac (license plate WZ-1), quoted the dealmaker telling a potential partner that “the Messiah only comes once every 2,000 years.”

Zeckendorf had already built a staggeringly large empire by the late ‘40s, and decided he wanted to broker big deals and commission beautiful buildings. So as part of his search for young design talent to staff an in-house architecture practice, he’d decided to meet the promising, 30-year-old Harvard professor on the recommendation of a friend.

Despite personality differences, the two gelled immediately, the businessman admiring Pei’s intelligence and abilities while the younger architect was impressed by the brash developer. Pei moved to New York to work for Zeckendorf’s firm, Webb & Knapp, initially staying in the same building as Zeckendorf so he could help remodel his boss’s penthouse. Pei’s first conceptual design, the Helix housing project from 1949, was never built, but another opportunity quickly presented itself in Atlanta.

The design

Pei may have studied conceptual design and architecture at school, but his performance during his first project demonstrated his mastery of finance. The brief from Zeckendorf called for a gleaming new office space for the Gulf Oil Company built for just $7 a square foot, a minuscule budget that Pei stretched with a combination of innovative design and masterful negotiations.

The Miesian layout was due in part to a prefab construction plan; a series of identical bays were assembled into a skeletal frame in two weeks, creating the outlines of a central, open workspace ringed with executive offices. The entire 50,000-square-foot building took just four months from start to finish. Marble and fixed glass panels, installed from inside and caulked from the outside, made building the simple rectangular box even easier. The designer also bargained for materials, convincing the nearby Georgia Marble Company to cut him a deal in exchange for having his product showcased in the new Gulf Oil offices.

The Gulf Oil building just before it was demolished in 2013.
Wikimedia Commons

Impact

Pei’s Atlanta office building earned glowing press: The February 1952 issue of Architectural Forum declared that “with one bold stroke, architect Pei freed traditionally monumental marble from its use as a thin veneer on costly masonry walls and turned that veneer into the wall itself.”

While his first project wasn’t a radical reinvention, by delivering a contemporary commercial project on time and nearly on budget—in the end, it cost $7.50 per square foot—he earned his employer’s confidence and a continued series of more challenging commissions. He was so swamped with work that he convinced Zeckendorf to let him hire his former Harvard student, Henry Cobb, with whom he would later form a decades-long partnership.

While his work for Zeckendorf wasn’t as artful as his later designs, Pei relished the “big picture” thinking that went into big urban development projects, which prepared him for his later, large-scale works.

Current status of the Gulf Oil Building

Pei’s prefab facade stood for decades until redevelopment at the corner of Ponce and Juniper reconfigured the Midtown neighborhood a few years ago. Despite protests from preservationists, developers Sereo Group and Faison Enterprises purchased the building and demolished it in 2013 to make way for a massive apartment complex.

All the remains of Pei’s first project is a two-story glass-and-marble box, reconstructed from the original panels of the building, that once served as the development’s leasing office.

Pei’s other famous works:

Luce Memorial Chapel (Taichung: 1963), National Center for Atmospheric Research (Boulder: 1967), Dallas City Hall (Dallas: 1978), Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center (Dallas: 1989), Louvre Pyramid (Paris 1989), Bank of China Tower (Hong Kong: 1990), Miho Museum (Kyoto: 1997), Museum of Islamic Art (Doha: 2008)