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Nicolas Salgo Dies; Watergate Developer, Ambassador

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page B05

Nicolas M. Salgo, 90, an immigrant who became a millionaire financier and developer and whose properties once included the Watergate commercial and residential complex, died Feb. 26 at the home of a friend in Bal Harbour, Fla. He had Shy-Drager syndrome, a neurological disorder.

The Hungarian-born Mr. Salgo received his first burst of attention in the 1950s as a top aide to William Zeckendorf, who turned the New York firm Webb & Knapp into a major developer of properties, including the United Nations.


Nicolas M. Salgo was an immigrant who became a prominent financier and developer. The Watergate complex was among his projects. He also served as envoy to his native Hungary. (1983 Photo Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)


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Known as one of Zeckendorf's "no men," Mr. Salgo often reined in some of his boss's proposals. "If you are not willing to stick your neck out and take responsibility," he said at the time, "what else are you but a glorified errand boy?"

Soon he was focusing on his own investment and development projects. He was involved in the conception and construction of the Watergate complex, built in the mid-1960s on an undeveloped site in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

He represented an Italian real estate firm, partly owned by the Vatican, that hoped to profit from plans to build a highway through the land, and then to create distinctive "curvilinear" structures to reflect the swerve of the freeway.

Mr. Salgo and a partner bought the property in 1977 for $49 million. He was chairman of the Watergate Cos. until 1983, when his long campaign to serve as ambassador to Hungary was fulfilled. He spent three years in Budapest, followed by many years as a State Department special negotiator on property issues.

One of his most prominent roles came in negotiations with the Soviets about the fate of the U.S. Embassy building in Moscow, which had been compromised by electronic bugging devices. He also traveled to other former Soviet satellite countries to develop sites for new U.S. embassies. He was a recipient in 1992 of the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal for his work.

Of his own accord in 1987, he funded the construction in Budapest of a bronze-and-granite memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who is credited with saving Hungarian Jews during World War II and who disappeared during the Soviet seizure of the city. Mr. Salgo commissioned Hungarian sculptor Imre Varga to design the statue, which replaced an earlier one that vanished from a square in central Budapest.

"I felt that Hungary owes much to Wallenberg, and since official action on such a delicate matter sometimes is very late to come," he told the Associated Press, "I figured that a private initiative would facilitate building bridges."

He was born Miklos Salgo in Budapest in 1914. It was years before he saw his father, a lawyer who had been captured by the Russians during World War I and spent years in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp.

As a young man, Mr. Salgo considered studying engineering but turned to law as a practical matter. He told the New York Times in 1957: "I was able to cut classes, do my studying at home and take the exams and still hold down a job, whereas I would have had to spend my time in class and the lab if I was going to pass anything in engineering."

After graduation from Pazmany University in Budapest, he worked in Geneva for the import-export business Salvaj & Cie. Sent to New York in 1948 to expand operations, Mr. Salgo led the company into investment management consulting, which proved lucrative.

Meeting Zeckendorf through mutual friends, he was soon recruited to Webb & Knapp, where he found viable projects for development and made invaluable contacts.

After leaving in the late 1950s, he helped organize the Bangor Punta Corp., a Connecticut-based conglomerate he forged from an expropriated Cuban sugar refinery and a defunct potato railroad in Maine. At Bangor Punta, he oversaw in rapid succession the purchase of Piper Aircraft, Cal Sailboats and other varied companies. This was his chief skill -- strategic assembly -- not running daily operations, his son said. Mr. Salgo was bought out in 1974 amid internal dissent.

He funded an exchange program between American and Eastern European students and also became a collector of Hungarian art, including paintings, silver and saddle rugs. He formed a trust to showcase his collection, which has appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other galleries.

With architect I.M. Pei, a former colleague at Webb & Knapp, he traveled extensively.

Sometimes their timing was terrible, Pei said. During a visit to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 1970, the government was overthrown. They could not leave the country by air, so they hired a driver at great expense to take them to the Thai border.

After the dusty journey, they waited for hours to cross to safety. Pei arranged for another ride to Bangkok so that they would not have to take a freight train. Through it all, Mr. Salgo was calm.

"He was an adventurer," Pei said. "He enjoyed these things."

His marriage to Marta Noren "Marika" Salgo ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Josseline de Ferron Salgo of New York; two children from his first marriage, Miklos Salgo of Kinnelon, N.J., and Christina Salgo of Rockport, Mass.; and three grandchildren.


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