Sciame Construction’s Joseph Mizzi Builds Culture Venues of Beauty for NYC


Joseph Mizzi of Sciame Construction.
Joseph Mizzi of Sciame Construction.

Culture Shed is a 200,000-square-foot exhibition space that will sit at the intersection of the High Line and Hudson Yards. Proponents say the space, designed by starchitect firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group, will redefine the role of the visual and performing arts in the city when it opens in 2018, much as the High Line has transformed the concept of city parks.

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It’s perhaps no coincidence that the person tapped to carry out the architects’ vision is Joseph G. Mizzi, the president of Sciame Construction, who also worked on the High Line. Sciame handles construction, building and renovations for large-scale cultural, institutional and commercial projects. Since joining the firm in 1995, Mr. Mizzi has overseen some of the most high-profile, sophisticated construction projects for cultural institutions in the city, including the exterior restoration of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the expansion of the Morgan Library & Museum. As president of the firm, he now oversees the company’s day-to-day operations and all of its projects.

“He has the ability to balance business with architecture,” said architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien in a joint statement. The husband and wife architectural firm is working with Mr. Mizzi on the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University. “Joe wants to construct buildings that matter,” they declared.

Sciame also recently finished Section 3 of the High Line, the northernmost section, having worked with the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to complete the portion that spans from West 30th Street to West 34th Street, which opened last September.

“One of the reasons it was exciting is, in some way looking back, if you could be a part in building Central Park, I think you’d do it,” said Mr. Mizzi. “Certain people know of important cultural buildings that we built, certain people know commercial-retail buildings that we built. But everyone knows the High Line. I felt like it was an opportunity to build what is today’s Central Park.”

Though it may be invisible, Sciame’s footprint is everywhere throughout New York. The company has been involved in construction on almost every major museum in Manhattan, and it has collaborated on projects with most of the area’s colleges. The company is now in the planning stages of constructing a new building for the Collegiate School, which is set to break ground on the Upper West Side in 2015. Other recent projects include the Lefrak Center in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Columbia University Medical Center’s new Medical and Graduate Educational Building and Donald Judd’s home and studio in Soho. Right now, Sciame has approximately 20 ongoing projects throughout New York City, all at various stages of the construction process.

Susan Rodriguez, a founding partner and design principal at Ennead Architects, met Mr. Mizzi in the early 2000s, when she designed the 163,000-square-foot Lycée Français de New York, the bilingual French school on the Upper East Side. Sciame and Mr. Mizzi were responsible for constructing the building. “He’s terrific to work with,” said Ms. Rodriguez. “He’s trained as an architect also, and he really understands what it takes to make a great building.”

Mr. Mizzi’s passion for construction is rooted in his family. His father was a union construction worker in Jersey City, and Mr. Mizzi had initially planned to be an architect. After earning a bachelor’s degree in architectural design from Clemson University in South Carolina, he came to New York City and began working for an architecture firm in the early 1990s. But a year later he realized he wanted to work in construction.

“I actually enjoyed the construction process more than the process of making architecture,” said Mr. Mizzi. “They say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.”

So he took night classes at Pratt Institute, where he received a degree in construction management. He then worked for a small construction manager for several years before joining Sciame in 1995.

Mr. Mizzi, who’ll have been president at Sciame for 10 years this spring, said he is committed to continuing the growth of the firm as it takes on larger, more complex projects. Since joining the firm and throughout his presidency, Sciame has grown considerably larger.

“My hope is that we continue to grow as a firm, in a controlled manner promoting from within, so that every employee is confident that they have the same opportunity that I had: To be promoted through the firm to the highest levels,” said Mr. Mizzi.

Though the firm works on certain multi-unit, high-end residential projects and high-end commercial and global flagship stores, within the construction industry Sciame has carved out a niche working on highly designed institutional projects. This is likely due in part because Frank J. Sciame, the company’s chief executive officer and chairman, studied architecture as well (he has been called “a builder with the vision of an architect and the eye of a constructor”), as have a high percentage of the firm’s 125 employees.

“In some way, I feel if I worked for … one firm creating architecture, I would not get the exposure and experience that I have working with all the great architects that we get to work with,” said Mr. Mizzi, stressing that his firm was executing the vision of many of the most important architects in the world. He sees this as both a tremendous responsibility and a very gratifying experience that leads to the creation of very important buildings.

“Most great architects appreciate the building process and they highly value the builder,” he said.

Mr. Mizzi said that his firm is known for building complex, highly designed buildings cost-effectively, and the need for these projects are not in market-rate housing, but rather institutional buildings. These projects generally come from private schools and institutions of higher learning, museums and other cultural buildings and public memorials, as opposed to more pedestrian-type structures.

Mr. Mizzi was behind the complete exterior restoration, as well as various mechanical and electrical infrastructure upgrades, of the Guggenheim at 1071 Fifth Avenue between East 88th and East 89th Streets, a project he described as one of his favorites. Completed in 1959, the world-renowned Frank Lloyd Wright-designed cylindrical masterpiece was deteriorating, with cracks in its facade and its mechanical systems in disrepair by the early 2000s.

Sciame erected a complex scaffolding system to provide the design team with access to every inch of the facade. The existing layers of paint—there were as many as 11—were removed from the outside, and its condition was carefully documented and evaluated by a design team. Sciame then assumed responsibility for repairing and restoring the facade back to its original condition.

“It’s not good as new, it’s better than new because it uses materials and techniques that were not available at the time the building was built,” said Mr. Mizzi.

Because the Guggenheim never closed to visitors, all of this work was conducted while the museum remained open and operating. The most intrusive work was performed after-hours and while the museum was closed on Mondays.

Though Mr. Mizzi may be known professionally for his adeptness at managing complex construction projects, a number of his associates highlighted his altruism. Ms. Rodriguez called him a “very generous participant in different organizations.”

Mr. Mizzi sits on a number of boards, including the Architectural League of New York, New York Building Congress, The Salvadori Center, The Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Boy Scouts of America, Greater New York Councils. But as of late, the cause he has invested the most time and resources into is his own foundation called 14 +, which he established in 2012 to develop, build and operate schools and orphanages in rural African communities.

“One thing that’s always impressed me about Joe is his charitable work,” said Ken Levien, the founder and president of Levien and Company, a New York-based project management firm. “Most people would take a vacation and lie on the beach. Joe goes to a very tough place and helps people who need it, and the community has been very supportive of him.”

Mr. Mizzi devised the idea for his foundation when he visited Zambia on a service trip in October 2011 and spent time at a school, which was in terrible condition and which children were walking great distances to attend.

“I know how to design and build things and I have the resources to raise money and so, I decided that I wanted to start a foundation for building schools and orphanages,” he said, rather matter-of-factly. And raise money he did. Since 2012, Mr. Mizzi has raised close to $1.5 million for the cause.

“I’ve been to two fund-raisers that raised a significant amount of money and the amount of people that show up to these things is a testament to the respect Joe has in the community,” said Mr. Levien.

Mr. Mizzi is not merely sending capital to rural communities in Zambia. He has kept a close eye on every aspect of the project, from the design to the construction and development and now on the operation and management of the school, even when watching from Sciame’s office in New York’s Financial District.

“The work has to be done quickly and efficiently, and this was a personal mission of mine to make that happen,” he said. He routinely embarks on multi-leg trips (by his count, he has taken nine since 2011, usually flying from New York to Amsterdam to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital and largest city) to get to the site.

He and his co-founder successfully identified a community an hour and a half outside of Lusaka where local schoolchildren were walking several hours to school, or not attending at all. He negotiated and purchased the land in Chipakata, the village and site of the project. He recruited a New York-based design team comprised of prominent architects and engineers. The men from the community build the projects. And on Jan. 5, after spending the last two years ensuring the construction of a first-rate primary school was completed, the school serving 150 children grades one through five from the seven surrounding communities opened.

The foundation has also built necessary infrastructure, including a grinding mill for the farming community, close to five miles worth of roads, a bridge, and teachers’ housing units to attract the best educators to the school, which also includes an outdoor dining pavilion.

Though the school is now finished and looks first-rate, that doesn’t mean that working in Zambia is always easy.

“You’re jetlagged, you’re hot, you’re hungry,” he said. “I just tell myself, ‘That’s why there is no school in this community and this community has no running water or electricity … When I experience challenges, I always tell myself, ‘If it were easy, everyone would be here doing it.’ ”