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
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
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had become outdated, inadequate, and dysfunctional in layout.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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.