Tuesday 21 October 2014

He reached for the sky

John Meagher profiles Garrett Kelleher, whose 150-storey skyscraper dream came to an end this week as the last roar of the Celtic Tiger fades

It was, perhaps, the last great hooley of the Celtic Tiger.

On Wednesday, January 23, 2008, 600 dignitaries led by Hollywood couple Liam Neeson and the late Natasha Richardson, descended on a vast marquee erected in the centre of Dublin's private park, Fitzwilliam Square, to gaze at a model of the Chicago Spire, a futuristic 150-storey skyscraper set to be the world's tallest residential building.

Over the next three days, 1,000 people would visit the site, to witness a spectacular example of Irish can-do. After all, it was a Dublin developer, Garrett Kelleher, who had pledged to make this extraordinary structure a reality. Not only would its dimensions stun the architecture world, but Kelleher was promising apartments as luxurious as any ever built.

Designed by the Spanish star-architect Santiago Calatrava -- responsible for Dublin's James Joyce and Samuel Beckett bridges -- the distinctively twisting building would boast almost 2,000 residential units, with prices starting at $750,000 for a studio apartment, memorably described by the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic Blair Kamin as "shag-a-delic, Austin Powers-like". Those in the market for a duplex penthouse with views over Lake Michigan would have to fork out $40 million.

The urbane, if normally media-shy, Kelleher was joined by Calatrava at the Dublin launch and they talked up the Chicago Spire with all the finesse of master salesmen. With Ireland's economy thought to be so buoyant, there was little surprise when up to 30 people placed holding deposits on apartments in the development, according to Savills Hamilton Osborne King, the Irish agent employed by Kelleher.

But Kelleher's dreams of reaching for the skies would be short-lived. The foundation was dug, but construction halted at the end of 2008 when it became clear that the economy would be in trouble for the long haul.

And this week, it was revealed that Anglo Irish Bank would be taking control of the building site, claiming its loans to Kelleher's company, Shelbourne Development, are in default. It is the latest of several high-profile projects in the US that Anglo has taken over as it seeks to recover money for the taxpayer, who is facing having to pump €34 billion into the bank.

Consequently, the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower will remain Chicago's tallest building and Calatrava's grand vision will never be built. The architect, meanwhile, had fallen out with Kelleher just months after the Dublin launch, filing a €11.4m lawsuit for unpaid work.

"I'd say Kelleher is eating humble pie right now," says a former Dublin business associate. "If there's anybody who encapsulated the Celtic Tiger it was him. Private jets here, private jets there. He thought nothing of spending thousands on a turf bucket (he reportedly paid €145,000 for the Georgian peat pail at Adam auctioneers, Dublin in 2005. It had been expected to go for €20,000.)

"He was brash and often rubbed people up the wrong way. But he could certainly talk the talk and I think he really did believe that the Chicago Spire would be built. This was a time when Irish developers thought they were masters of the universe. There was nothing that they couldn't do."

Such self-belief would have been bolstered by the commentary of Chicago's foremost architecture critics, among them Lynn Becker, who wrote at the time: "Donald Trump step aside. Garrett Kelleher may be the most confident developer on the face of the earth."

The son of a dentist, Kelleher attended the well-regarded boys school Belvedere College. Academically astute, his first love was sport and he excelled at tennis. He studied mathematics at Trinity College, but left before graduating after receiving a tennis scholarship to the United States. According to self-styled legend, he arrived in Chicago in 1984 with just $500.

Although a fine tennis player, he wasn't good enough to make it professionally and set about cleaning up in the contract painting and decoration business.

That led to property development and a specialisation renovating old buildings as loft-style apartments.

His taste for luxury was evident in 2000, when he bought a seven-bedroom detached house in Herbert Park, Dublin 4 for an eye-catching IR£5.3m.

Yet, such an outlay was small change for a man doing big deals across Europe, most notably when he acquired the striking Lloyds building in London for €335m in 2004.

His involvement with the Chicago Spire project resulted from his acquaintance with Christopher Carley, president of the Fordham real estate firm. Carley had launched the scheme in 2005, but had been unable to secure the enormous funding required. He cut his losses by selling the site at 400 North Lake Shore Drive.

Irish Independent

Also in this Section

Top Stories

Most Read

Independent Gallery

Your photos

Send us your weather photos promo

Celebrity News