6. The Expanding & Contacting Helix Apartments

I.M. Pei, Helix Apartments. Courtesy Pei Cobb Freed

In 1949, architects were faced with the difficult task of building apartments to accommodate World War II soldiers returning home while still leaving room for the revival of the urban housing market. The solution? An apartment building that could expand and contract. Architect I.M. Pei proposed “a 21-story cylindrical tower composed of wedge-shaped apartments spiraling up around a central trunk.”

Those who wanted more space could create duplexes by expanding into adjacent apartments, and many walls could be added or removed if needed. Pei’s first helix was planned to be over looking the East River, with plans for 14 smaller buildings, and another intended for Battery Park City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston.

After Pei received praise for the design, real estate developer William Zeckendorf filed for a patent— the first ever for an apartment building—for the Helix apartment. Unfortunately, Zeckendorf could not get financial backing for the 22-story venture, and the innovative idea never came to fruition.