Benjamin Duke Holloway, South Florida real estate pioneer, dead at 88

 
 
Benjamin Duke Holloway
Benjamin Duke Holloway

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

Donald Trump’s quest for a big real estate score, Norman Braman’s foray into the automobile industry, and Continental Companies’ aim to fill Coconut Grove hotel suites with baby grand pianos all led to one man: Benjamin Duke Holloway.

As a senior executive for Equitable Life Assurance Society’s real estate subsidiary in the 1970s and ’80s, Holloway oversaw billions in investment from Miami to New York, and was a man whom businessmen sought out to secure financing for their ambitions. Under his watch, Equitable snatched up the Omni downtown, helped finance renovations to Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau hotel and an expansion of Dadeland Mall, and played a major role in redeveloping Times Square.

Those landmarks are now lasting monuments to Holloway’s life, which ended Sunday in Midtown Miami’s Bay Oaks home because of complications of emphysema. He was 88.

“His work with Equitable, and even post-Equitable, is really well known to anybody who has anything to do with development, especially in New York City,” said Braman, who credits Holloway’s financing of a Cadillac dealership in 1975 as the spark that launched his auto empire.

Holloway’s decades with Equitable, now called AXA Equitable, saw heavy investment in Manhattan. He saw the company develop the 3-million-square-foot Equitable Center complex. When a young Trump needed financing for his redevelopment of The Commodore hotel in the 1970s, he sought approval from Holloway, a southern gentleman who called The Donald “sort of green.”

Equitable eventually invested in Trump Towers. In 1985, a city official told the New York Times that Holloway was “the glue” that united developers “who had never worked together as a group before and, most likely, never will again” in order to finally redevelop Times Square.

But Holloway, born in 1925 as the youngest of eight children into the lineage of Duke University’s founding family, also had deep ties to Florida. When he was 3, his mother would take him to Miami Beach, where he would later invest in the Fontainebleau, part of billions in investment in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“I have a picture of him, he and his little brother on a little cart in the sand,” said Holloway’s widow, Rita Holloway, whom he married in 1982. “Ben always had a place down here.”

Those connections deepened after Holloway entered the U.S. Navy during World War II after high school and learned to be a pilot at a Pensacola air station. He later graduated with a bachelor’s in economics from Duke University, where he would go on to serve as a trustee.

Holloway's first brush with real estate came in 1950, when he went to work as a “valuator” for the Federal Housing Administration in Washington, D.C. A year later, he joined Equitable. During his first 30 years with the insurance company, property assets grew from $1.5 billion to $14 billion.

Then in 1981, Equitable made Holloway chief of its real estate subsidiary, Equitable Real Estate Group, and backed his plan to not just finance development projects but also to invest in major real estate companies. Among the partner corporations: Boca Raton’s Arvida Corp. and the Miami-based Continental Companies.

In 1984, Holloway told The Miami Herald “with everything to lose and nothing to gain from making fixed-rate mortgages, we decided that we were entitled to half the profits if we were going to risk our money.”

Donald Lefton, of Continental Companies, called Holloway “a dear friend” and “a mentor.” He said Holloway’s backing secured the land on Key Biscayne where the Ritz Carlton now stands, and was crucial in developing the five-star Grand Bay in 1983.

“He was a very perceptive man, long before others saw the prospects of South Florida as a very fertile area for hotels,” Lefton said.

He also said Continental couldn’t have secured an exclusive deal with ultra luxury Italian hotel developer Ciga on the Grand Bay had Holloway not traveled to Italy with Continental. Holloway’s wife, Rita, turned out to be the only one on the trip who spoke Italian.

As Holloway sought out investment deals in landmarks from the Westland Mall and Mayfair Shops to The Sheraton River House, he also placed a premium on the arts. In 1984, he was part of an Equitable team that negotiated the $3.4 million purchase of the Thomas Hart Benton mural America Today, in order to showcase the piece at the company’s Manhattan headquarters.

He also commissioned a 68-by-32 pop art mural by artist Roy Lichtenstein.

After retiring in 1990, Holloway continued to serve as a consultant for Continental, which Lefton ran with partner Woody Weiser, and became close friends with both. He kept an office in Coconut Grove for many years and a residence in Grove Isles. He also continued a lifetime of arts philanthropy, serving as board emeritus with the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.

Holloway is survived by his widow, Rita Holloway, and by two sons and three daughters born to his first wife, Joan Briggs.

Visitation will be 4 to 6 p.m. Jan. 2 at the Van Orsdel Funeral Home at 3333 NE Second Ave. Final services and burial will be at a later date in Durham, N.C. In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to the Duke University Libraries in memory of Benjamin Holloway.

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