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Building a Greater Presence in North America


The American University of Beirut, chartered by New York State in 1863, has always had a base in New York City. Now, a new, technologically advanced space enables its headquarters there to function more effectively for the 21st century and better serve the University’s constituency in the United States. Lynn Mahoney, MainGate’s co-editor, finds out more about this brand-new AUB center.

On one of the few quiet streets in midtown Manhattan is the American University of Beirut’s new home. Its neighbors include the Japan Society and the United Nations complex. Within the building are several international organizations and offices, among them the missions to the United Nations of the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Chile, the European Union and the African Union. On any given day, the neighborhood is a mix of diplomats from all over the world speaking an array of different languages. It is an international setting that could not be more perfect for AUB.
The new AUB headquarters opened its doors in April 2003 after having spent 20 years at 850 Third Avenue. As a vital bridge between the University itself and the United States, the New York base serves and
supports its alumni in North America; houses the Office of Development; develops and maintains relationships with American foundations, corporations, and individual supporters of the University; maintains liaisons with governmental agencies; monitors the University’s investment portfolios; and assists with the international recruiting of both students and
faculty. It is the corporate headquarters of AUB and the center for meetings of the Board of Trustees and its committees, as well as for meetings
of other groups involved in supporting the University’s operations.
The decision to purchase space occurred when the lease on the Third Avenue office came up for renewal—at double the rent. Another consideration behind the decision to move was that the space there had become outdated, inadequate, and dysfunctional in layout. Carefully weighing its options, the AUB Board of Trustees, under the guidance of Chairman Richard A. Debs, concluded that it would be best for AUB to purchase rather than rent new office space. All agreed this would be more advantageous economically—it would save the University a considerable sum in future rent money and thus be able essentially to recover its investment over a few years. A major determinant in that regard was that, as a non-profit organization, AUB would be exempt from paying taxes as a property owner and would also be eligible to finance its purchase with tax-exempt municipal bonds.
The other important advantage in purchasing was that AUB could completely gut out and reconfigure the office layout for its own specific needs and create a new modern base that would allow it to function more effectively than would any rented space. “We settled at 850 Third Avenue 20 years ago,” explains Eileen O’Connor, secretary to the Board of Trustees and director of the New York Office. However, over the last 10 years the office’s priorities had changed and staffing needs increased. “We had reached our largest number,” she says, “and realized that more efficient and cost-effective space was needed. And the best time to make a move,
it was agreed, would be when our lease expired in April 2003.”
After an extensive search in Manhattan, ideal space was found at 3 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, on East 47th Street between First and Second Avenues. A design committee made up of AUB trustees and administrators was quickly put in place. Vice Chairman of the Board Thomas Q. Morris headed the group, consisting of Eileen O’Connor; W. Stephen Jeffrey, vice president of Development and External Relations; and Howard Ray, comptroller. Under the leadership of Chairman of the Board Richard A. Debs, the committee was charged with the task of guiding the contractors, architects, and telecommunications specialists in designing an office that would be highly efficient and also maintain a sense of the University, as well as making sure the whole process (including the move) would run smoothly.
To oversee the process, Elizabeth Debs, an associate in Synthesis Partnership and daughter of Chairman Debs, offered her services pro bono as a consultant to the design committee. Synthesis Partnership of Providence, Rhode Island, is a firm that steers organizations through the complicated procedures of strategic planning, institutional identity development, business planning, and evaluation of facilities. “Everyone agreed that while AUB is such a significant player in the Middle East, it is less known in the United States,” explains Elizabeth Debs, “and it was important to create a presence in the United States that represented it well.”
Synthesis Partnership, after having developed an idealized plan of the new office space as envisioned by the design committee, as well as an estimated budget and project schedule, helped line up an architectural firm. “It was important to define the needs of the institution first before hiring the architects,” Elizabeth Debs says. The committee interviewed four firms and reviewed their qualifications and work background. Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick of New York City was selected on the strength of previous architectural projects it had undertaken for other educational institutions, such as Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School in Manhattan. We thought that they would capture the character of the AUB office.”
Jeffery A. Murphy, the architectural firm’s partner who led the team, says he found the project an invigorating experience. “We spent a lot of time trying to get to know the University and the individuals using the New York Office,” he remarks. “We challenged ourselves and the AUB design committee to design a space that would tell the story of AUB and also meet all the needs of its users.”
Based on meetings with the design committee and under the guidance of Elizabeth Debs, the architects went to work. “We wanted to develop a design strategy that took advantage of the different functions that AUB wanted to use the space for—not only as administrative offices but also as a potential space to hold parties, receptions, and the extensive influx of people involved in board meetings,” Murphy says. “It was important to design a space that could work very well as a day-to-day office, accommodate many visitors, and enable direct communication with the campus using advanced technologies.” He adds, “Equally important was to design a communicative architecture, so that a visitor who has never been to Beirut could enter the space and get a sense of what AUB and its wonderful campus are all about.” Perhaps the most striking reference to the campus is the glass etching of the Main Gate and the name of the University in the elevator lobby. Also in the lobby to complete the picture is a large Oriental carpet in vivid blue and burgundy donated by Iwan Maktabi of Beirut.
Walking through the offices and taking a further look, one is attracted by the carefully chosen artwork that lines the walls. “It was felt that images capturing the diversity of the students and the liveliness of the campus was more important than simply showing the architecture of its buildings,” says Elizabeth Debs. But along the corridor wall outside the boardroom and looking out to the terrace is a gallery space that, as Murphy points out, was designed “to create opportunities to hang historic photos and images of AUB’s campus.”

Most important, the new space had to be functionally efficient and effectively conducive to enhancing teamwork and improving productivity. It was also necessary to provide suitable workspace for the Board of Trustees and for the frequent visitors from campus. “The former office was a maze of small offices and confusing corridors, and we tried to make a headquarters facility that was both worker and visitor friendly,” says Murphy. Each office has wide windows with views of the East River, as well as interior glass partitions. “The functional purpose of this transparency was to make the working environment more conducive to staff communication and also afford each office with more daylight plus views to the outside,” Murphy explains. “The openness creates more dynamic spaces where colleagues can easily interact while business gets done.”
Another essential priority was to create a center that would be technologically state-of-the-art in electronic communications. To connect New York and the campus, technological consultants wired the offices extensively, including installation of a video component to provide for the video conferencing of meetings and lectures between New York and the University.
The boardroom itself, with its large sliding doors and ready access to the terrace, can hold up to 40 people. Outfitted with a wide video screen bearing the distinctive AUB logo, the room is ideal for meetings of the Board of Trustees and its committees, as well as for receptions, dinners, or lectures.
The finished product is one that sheds a new light of significance on AUB and its American operations. It reflects the importance of the University’s role in the United States and reaffirms its commitment to its North American constituency. “It was our goal to have people realize that AUB’s home in New York and the campus in Beirut are closely connected and that the New York center appropriately represents the University,” explains Thomas Morris, chair of the design committee. Indeed, they now will.


 

A Vision of AUB in New York

Lynn Mahoney talked with AUB Chairman of the Board of Trustees Richard A. Debs about the process of creating AUB’s new center in
New York.

LM: I understand that you were instrumental in moving towards the purchase of a new office/headquarters for the American University
of Beirut in New York. Can you tell me about that process?


Debs: Since the University’s lease was up for renewal in April 2003 and the rent would have been doubled, I saw this as an excellent opportunity to establish a presence in North America that reflects the stature of the University. We were never satisfied with the old quarters at 850 Third Avenue, which were crowded and dysfunctional.
We felt it necessary to have a presence in New York that communicated the University’s image as the premier educational institution in the Middle East—and also affirmed the vital role it has played in North America since its founding, particularly in New York City. Since the lease was about to expire, I saw this as a unique moment to reconsider the way AUB is represented in the United States, both now and throughout its growth and expansion in the future.
So, we began the search for a condominium space to buy. We knew that owning instead of renting would result in substantial savings to AUB as a tax-exempt organization—we wouldn’t have to pay property taxes, and this would more than offset the costs of continuing to rent. There were other economic incentives in owning space—for example, we would be eligible for tax-exempt municipal bond financing. In planning the new office, the design committee asked the architects to design a conference/board room that would accommodate our Board of Trustees meetings, as well as events such as lectures and receptions. You see, we do not view this center as just an administrative space; rather it is the presence of the American University of Beirut in North America that must be stressed.

LM: Tell me more about the design and planning.

Debs: We wanted the space to provide room for growth and administrative changes throughout the next decades, as well as for meetings and events. The main objective was to make the AUB office functional and efficient for staff, trustees, and visitors. The design committee also wanted to encourage teamwork and more interaction among the staff. So we gutted the space and designed it to fill our own unique needs.
As you can see, I believe we accomplished that.
The process of designing the new center was very interesting in that it gave us the opportunity to reflect on the future of AUB in North America: what our goals were, and what plans we had for growth, for outreach efforts, and for development/external relations strategies. It turned out to be a very fruitful exercise in thinking about the future of the institution in North America and how to expand on our current role.


LM: On the aesthetic level, tell me about the design of the new space.
What was the feeling you were looking for?


Debs: It was vital to give the new office, as much as possible, a real
feeling of the campus; and the architects accomplished that. When guests arrive on the 8th Floor, the first thing they see is a glass etching of the Main Gate, and beneath their feet in the elevator lobby is a beautiful oriental carpet donated by Iwan Maktabi. Other elements which
subtlety convey a feeling of campus and Lebanon are touches like Jerusalem stone for the floor, a small gallery space hung with archival photos of the University, AUB’s logo on the boardroom’s video screen… and much like College Hall, we have wonderful views of the water—and while the East River is not as magnificent as the Mediterranean [laughing], it is still quite beautiful.


LM: Tell me a little about the neighborhood and building that the new AUB office is located in.


Debs: It is very international in character—much more so than 850 Third Avenue, which was primarily corporate. Within 3 Dag Plaza, we count as some of our neighbors the UN missions of the United Arab Emirates, Chile, Sudan, the African Union, and the EU. The Japan Society is right on the same block. Across the street is Katherine Hepburn Park. And right down the street is the United Nations complex. Close to the UN is the International Institute of Education, of which I am a trustee and whose facilities we can use for large dinners or meetings. AUB is an international institution, after all, with alumni and friends in leadership positions throughout the world, as well as a growing international student body. It is good to be in similar company in North America.


LM: Any closing thoughts?

Debs: I am proud to have been part of this historic acquisition and moment in the University’s history. With the new center in New York, I believe AUB has made a statement on the importance of maintaining strong links with its North American constituency. Chartered as a university by the State of New York in 1863, AUB is one of the oldest American universities in the world. In my opinion, we really are a bridge between East and West, and the new center now better reflects that role.