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.”
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.