Stanley Whitman, the visionary who built an open-air mall on the site of a former German World War II prisoner-of-war camp in Bal Harbour when nearly everyone told him he was crazy, lived to see his grand idea become one of the country’s most successful luxury shopping centers.
More than 60 years after his folly led to the Bal Harbour Shops, Whitman also lived long enough to see his family’s long fight for a $400-million expansion win approval by the Village Council last week.
Whitman died Wednesday morning at his Miami Shores home, the same three-bedroom house he built in 1949. He was 98.
“He was the Walt Disney of the shopping center industry,” said his longtime marketing director and friend Cheryl Stephenson. “He saw this salty parcel of 16 acres of land and envisioned magic and made it happen.”
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Whitman’s powers of persuasion proved so infectious he managed to convince Stanley Marcus, the late colorful chief executive of Neiman Marcus, to open its first branch outside of Texas in 1971.
Whitman, one of the original 25 who, in 1946, pushed to incorporate what became the Village of Bal Harbour, believed so strongly in his concept for a high-end, open-air mall in steamy South Florida, he flouted convention. The Duke University graduate bought half of the land on the north side of 96th Street and Collins Avenue for $500,000 from developer Robert C. Graham in 1956. A year later, when Graham, who envisioned a mixed-use property on the site, opted not to partner with Whitman, he spent another $750,000 to secure the rest of the land.
Whitman’s mother Leona and Dorothy, his late wife, believed in him. Everyone else, not so much.
So Whitman, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, took to the road, armed primarily with charm, a fierce competitiveness and some know-how. Whitman was in the last graduating class at Ida M. Fisher High School in South Beach in 1936 before the school relocated to the north and became Miami Beach Senior High. His family, which included his late brothers William and Dudley, owned retail space on Lincoln Road Mall.
He had made money flipping oceanfront properties along Miami-Dade’s coastline. And he saw a void as luxury retailers such as Saks and Bonwits fled Lincoln Road.
On the road, Whitman visited luxury retailers from New York to Los Angeles. When the execs wouldn’t see him, he hung out in lobbies, figuring if he could corner them, he could make his case.
“It was nothing to go and spend a half a day waiting for a big shot to come out,” Whitman told the Miami Herald in 2013. “I was about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic. I got thrown out of more stores than anyone that ever lived.”
Whitman, who grew up in a single-family home on the ocean at 32nd Street and Collins Avenue (future site of today’s Faena Hotel), was unfazed.
It took the Evanston, Illinois-born Whitman several years to line up tenants, secure financing and build his $3.5-million project. He’d spent too much for that L-shaped plot of land — $2 a foot, at the time a record price for retail property. He fired the first two architects who advocated for an enclosed, air-conditioned mall. He ultimately hired the Miami firm Herbert Johnson.
Finally, in 1965, Bal Harbour Shops opened with tenants including the toy store FAO Schwarz, the men’s clothier Maus & Hoffman and Abercrombie & Fitch. Neiman Marcus opened in 1971 and Saks Fifth Avenue in 1976.
“I broke all the shopping center rules. What I did not break was Economics 101. I was the first to charge for parking,” Whitman told Women’s Wear Daily in 2015. He didn’t want employees or nearby hotel clerks to take up parking.
He put palm trees in the parking lots. He tapped a University of Miami expert in wind patterns so architects would design the mall to capture sea breezes.
The mall’s mix today includes restaurants, luxury clothing retailers and specialty stores. As a philanthropist, he’s opened the Shops to fund-raising events for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and the Buoniconti Fund and the University of Miami’s Project: New Born.
“I’m very saddened at his loss but I was really very fortunate to have gotten to know him and to understand what kind of generous, open, creative person he really was,” said Books & Books founder Mitchell Kaplan, who opened a branch at the mall more than 10 years ago. “We forged a friendship. He was a visionary in many ways. He understood the importance of books and community-oriented book stores and he made it possible for us to be there.”
As the 450,000-square-foot mall approached its 50th anniversary in 2015, it smashed a record with sales of nearly $2,730 per square foot — some six times the national average. By then, in his mid-90s, Whitman, who ceded control of the mall to his son, Randall Alan Whitman, and grandson Mathew William Lazenby, still maintained an advisory role. He was a constant presence at at his office, three to five days a week.
His final years were marked by the family’s battle to expand the mall. Some Bal Harbour residents fought the expansion, especially after the Church by the Sea, a 1940s structure, was sold to the Shops and torn down to make way for the revamped mall. Saks, too, opposes the expansion, arguing the retooled mall will rely too heavily on valet parking.
Whitman was still feisty at the end, but recognized his heirs would be the ones in charge.
“They’re going to live with the expansion, not me,” Whitman said in 2013. “I’ll be very happy if I live to see it. I don’t think a 94-year-old man has any business trying to control a business from beyond the grave.”
Whitman’s survivors also include his daughter Gwen Whitman Lazenby, grandchildren Lori Lazenby Faison, Riley Stanley Whitman and Katie Dorothy Ann Whitman, and four great-grandsons. A memorial service is being planned.