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Saturday December 18, 2010

From refugee to renowned builder

Hungarian-born engineer was best known for Paris's controversial Tour Montparnasse, Canadian philanthropy

In February, 1957, after George Vari arrived in Montreal following the failed Hungarian uprising, he walked snow-covered Sainte-Catherine Street until he found a place where he had heard that a committee of university students were handing out $5 bills to refugees like himself.

No one could have guessed that the 33-year-old refugee engineer, speaking no English and without proper winter boots, would one day be a hugely successful international builder/developer, a philanthropist, friend of ambassadors and prime ministers, owner of art-filled homes in London, Paris, the French Riviera, Toronto and Cobourg, Ont. The best known - and most controversial - of his buildings is the 58-storey, 210-metre Tour Montparnasse, the tallest building in Paris.

Vari, who died in Toronto on Dec. 9 at the age of 87, soon found a fellow Hungarian, Etienne Beck. Vari's first paycheque in Montreal came from Beck's company Prefac, which made pre-cast concrete building elements.

"He worked as a draftsman for my father and I worked with him during the school holidays," recalls John Beck, the chairman and CEO of Aecon, a company that grew out of Prefac. "I remember him as very kind, affable, a European gentleman."

Eventually, Vari moved on to the construction company Secant as chief engineer and participated in the building of Dorval airport, Port Royal, the headquarters of Hydro Quebec and Jardin des Etoiles, a performance hall at Expo 67.

Expo created opportunities and Vari, by then running his own company, built six more pavilions for the fair. His efficient management of large projects, combined with his fluent French, came to the attention of New York developer Wylie Tuttle.

Post-war Paris needed more housing and office space. A decade had been spent on studies and consultations on how to redevelop the land on the site of the old Montparnasse railway station. Prime Minister Pompidou and his culture minister, André Malraux, believed that a modern infrastructure was badly needed, but the proposed development was going to cost billions of francs - more than any French developer was able to commit to it. In 1965, Wylie Tuttle arrived on the scene "like a saviour in a period of economic depression," according to architectural historian Virginie Lefèbvre in her book Paris - ville moderne.

Tuttle offered Vari such an advantageous contract to be his representative in Paris that Vari flew to New York, signed it in 10 minutes and returned to Montreal on the same plane. He was to be the maitre d'oeuvre supervising the work, assigned to the construction company Campenon Bernard. Vari had to approve every drawing and every invoice over 100,000 francs.

The half-dozen French architects of the high-rise tower resented the young Canadian who was their boss. According to Vari's wife, Helen, they were eminent men and one of them, Urbain Cassan, was a member of the Académie Française. But they were eventually won over by Vari's modesty and professionalism. "They realized they needed him," she says.

Almost as soon as the hoardings went up in 1969, the criticism of the Tour Montparnasse began because it was so out of scale with the rest of the city. One day, Vari's assistant announced that a Monsieur Eiffel was here to see him. Vari was incredulous: "But Eiffel is dead," he said. The elderly man who was admitted to Vari's small office on the job site was the grandson of Gustave Eiffel, the engineer who designed and built Paris's famous 19th century landmark. When Vari told him that he was fed up with all the carping, his visitor replied: "Mon jeune ami, my grandfather was so much hated and insulted that he even had to fight a duel to defend himself. Afterwards, people realized he had created something great."

The tower was completed on time and on budget in 1972, which greatly pleased the consortium of insurance companies that Tuttle brought in as investors. Amazingly, the Métro trains continued to run under it throughout construction.

Today, its 56th floor observation deck provides the best views of Paris.

The Varis intended to return to Canada, but so many interesting projects were offered to George that they stayed in France 21 years. His Paris-based company Sefri Construction built in England, Brazil, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Venezuela and Senegal. In Nigeria, he built an entire town. He visited every job site wherever it was in the world at least once a month.

"At some point, he made some big money," John Beck says. But he lost money when he undertook to build a lavish apartment tower in Iran at the behest of the Shah in the late 1970s. The Shah was deposed in the middle of the project and Vari and his workmen had to make a quick exit.

Vari invested in his own projects and excelled at hotel building; in 1990 he told the writer Peter Newman that he had built 43 hotels on four continents. When Moscow was to host the Olympics in 1980, he was invited to build the 1,840-room Cosmos Hotel there. During its construction, he received a call that two of the workers had fallen down an elevator shaft and were badly hurt. He immediately got on the phone to the Soviet ambassador and arranged for an ambulance plane to fly the injured workers to France for treatment. Both survived, Helen says.

"George was wise, shrewd, a capable negotiator. I never heard one bad word about him in a business environment," Beck says.

George Vari was born in Szépes county, Hungary, the son of Istvan and Ida Vari. His father was a successful lawyer and hoped that his brilliant only son would follow in his footsteps. In 1940, with Hitler menacing Hungary, his parents succeeded in getting young George to safety in neutral Switzerland where he continued his education in Lausanne, in French. By the time he returned to Budapest after the war, both his parents had perished.

He took a law degree at the University of Szeged, in southern Hungary, then degrees in economics and engineering at Budapest Technical University. He worked on the restoration of the Royal Palace in Buda, and other war-damaged buildings. In 1950, when he was 27, he was introduced by friends to the beautiful 19-year-old Helen de Fabinyi, then a student of philology in Budapest. But he was in another relationship and by the time their friendship caught fire, they were living on different continents. Each of them married and divorced, then began a long-distance romance by mail. "We fell in love on paper," Helen recalls.

In 1967, 17 years after their first meeting, they married in Montreal. "There were never any differences between us. We were soulmates, as if we had always been married," she says.

In 1990, they returned to Canada, settling in Toronto. Here Vari built the Novotel Hotel, the Balmoral Club retirement home, Vari Hall at York University and the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor Street West, where he personally chose the towels and the dishes and cutlery in the hotel's restaurant. The couple had no children but cared deeply about young people, and gave away large amounts of their money through the Vari Foundation to educational institutions and hospitals.

"When he gave us the money in 2005 for the (naming rights of) Vari Engineering and Computing Centre, the building was already built and he and Helen wanted to go through it," recalls Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University in Toronto. "He was concerned when he saw students working in the halls that there was not enough study space and a few days later sent me drawing of improvements he thought we could make in the use of space. I had never seen any donor do that. And we did make the changes."

Honours rained down on him in later life, including the Order of Canada, honorary degrees from Ryerson and York universities, the Queen's Golden Jubilee medal and the Legion d'Honneur of France. In 1991, he was named to the Queen's Privy Council. Four years ago, he began to show signs of Parkinson's disease and dementia. In September, his condition worsened and he went rapidly downhill. He died at home with Helen holding his hand.

At his death, French ambassador François Delattre wrote his widow from Ottawa: "France weeps for one of its closest and most faithful friends." Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered the flag on Peace Tower to fly at half mast on Saturday, the day of his funeral.

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