Why Jackie Kennedy Chose an Unknown Young Architect Named I.M. Pei to Design the Kennedy Library

Leena Kim
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From Town & Country

Fifty-four years ago, T&C profiled a young architect named I.M. Pei, declaring him "on the brink of great success." Pei, who died last night at the age of 102, would go on to design such landmarks as Hong Kong's Bank of China tower (the first supertall skyscraper outside the U.S.) and the Louvre Pyramid.

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But at the time that T&C photographed this portrait, he had just received the commission that would make him famous: the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. Jackie Kennedy, who picked him, later said she saw unique potential: "Pei's work, as John Kennedy's in 1960, was yet to come."

Ieoh Ming Pei was born on April 26, 1917 in Guangzhou, China, to a flautist mother and a banker father, and moved to Hong Kong when he was just one. A few years later, the family moved to Shanghai.

The Paris of the East, as the city became known, was going through a construction boom, and it was here, growing up, that Pei developed a passion for architecture. By the time he had finished secondary school, he had his sights set on the United States.

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Pei first enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania but eventually transferred to MIT, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1940. He then went on to the Harvard Graduate School of Design and took a three-year break to work for the National Defense Research Committee during World War II before getting his master's. At age 29, he became the youngest assistant professor at the school when the legendary Walter Gropius, founder of Bauhaus, took him under his wing. Then, after a decade working for real estate developer William Zeckendorf, Pei founded his own firm, I.M. Pei & Associates, in 1958.

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In 1965, T&C was invited into Pei's New York City home, a sleek, geometric Beekman Place apartment decorated with works by De Kooning and Jacques Lipchitz that the then-48-year-old shared with his wife Eileen and five-year-old daughter Liane. (He also had three college-aged sons at the time.) Our visit wasn't long after he had been chosen by Jackie Kennedy to design the library in honor of her fallen husband. Kennedy had met with the world's best architects, but chose the relatively inexperienced Pei because she felt he had much in common with JFK. "He was so full of promise, like Jack; they were born in the same year. I decided it would be fun to take a great leap with him," she said.

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After years of delays, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library was finally completed in 1979. Mrs. Kennedy Onassis expressed her gratitude to Pei in a letter she wrote in 1981.

“I think a great building reaches into the folklore, if that is the right word, of the people it serves. I hope it touches you the way it has affected the lives of all who live near it or discover it as they come to Boston by land, sea or air... You made that possible for Jack. I will always think of it as a monument to your spirit-to your humanity and perseverance. With my deepest thanks that stretch back through the years, and with much love, Jackie.”

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