Philanthropist Frenkil, 90, dies

Baltimore contractor built local landmarks

June 04, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Victor Frenkil, the politically connected contractor and philanthropist, died yesterday of heart failure at Sinai Hospital. He was 90.

Mr. Frenkil's firm, Baltimore Contractors Inc., built several local landmarks, including the Baltimore Arena, the Herbert R. O'Conor State Office Building on West Preston Street and the Poly-Western high schools complex on West Cold Spring Lane.

Among his acquaintances, he counted presidents, governors and other elected officials.

The short, balding, avuncular-looking man with a wide smile was an inveterate and lifelong Democrat, but he never forgot his Republican friends.

"You're in politics in Maryland -- you know Vic Frenkil. He's everywhere," said a top aide to a member of Maryland's congressional delegation in 1977.

"He was a jolly rogue and a big man in his time," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. "He was a good guy who liked controversy, and he liked seeing his name in the paper. He was one of a breed that is definitely dying out."

Mr. Schaefer recalled sitting in Mr. Frenkil's office and watching him ask a secretary with great flourish to get the president on the telephone.

"He'd wave his arms and say, `Get me President Johnson or Admiral Such and Such.' It was an incredible performance," Mr. Schaefer said.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Frenkil enjoyed a measure of influence in Washington, where he built the Dirksen-Hart Senate Office Building and the Rayburn Office Building parking garage. He reveled in telling people that he "had the back door to the White House."

"It really is the end of an era. Maryland has lost a very colorful figure," said former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who described Mr. Frenkil as "one of the most energetic individuals I've ever met in my life."

Born and raised in Baltimore, he worked as a youngster in his father's plumbing supply business. He attended Forest Park High School, where he set a record for the 440-yard dash, despite losing a shoe halfway through the race. The mark stood for 17 years.

In 1932, he married the former Margaret Panzer, who died last year.

With $250 they received as a wedding present, Mr. Frenkil founded Baltimore Contractors Inc. in a one-room office that he rented for $15 a month and furnished with a desk, a chair and a telephone.

With only a dollar a day for advertising, Mr. Frenkil hired a man to walk the streets wearing a sandwich board to drum up business.

The firm grossed $1,000 that first year and $106,000 five years later.

In 1953, the company had 450 employees and grossed $10 million.

A story he relished telling over the years was that an early customer was famed Evening Sun journalist H. L. Mencken. BCI fixed the bathroom plumbing at the Mencken home in Union Square.

By the late 1940s, Mr. Frenkil had hit the big time. He renovated the Baltimore City Hospitals complex and built the National Gypsum Co. plant in Baltimore, and Cole Field House, the Student Union Building and Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland, College Park.

While amassing his fortune, Mr. Frenkil had several run-ins with controversy and prosecutors, beginning in the mid-1950s with unsubstantiated charges of trying to influence bidding on local development projects.

On the Rayburn garage, BCI filed a $3.3 million contract overrun claim that was denied by the Contract Appeals Board of the House Office Building Commission.

In 1970, a federal grand jury investigating cost overruns on the Rayburn garage wanted to indict Mr. Frenkil for allegedly bribing two Louisiana senators to pressure the government to pay for the overruns. But Attorney General John Mitchell refused to approve the indictment, saying the case wasn't strong enough.

A similar cost overrun on the Hart Building damaged Mr. Frenkil's insurability, and United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. in Baltimore denied the bonding that he needed to bid on contracts, crippling BCI. During the last decade of his life, he fought to bring the firm back.

In 1977, acting Maryland Gov. Blair Lee III barred Mr. Frenkil from working as construction manager of the Baltimore Metro after complaints that the developer had manipulated the contract selection process.

Mr. Frenkil -- who viewed himself as the eternal outsider -- dismissed the accusations as examples of hypocritical do-gooders seeking to undermine a hard-working businessman trying to make it big.

One of his better-known projects was buying the once-luxurious Belvedere Hotel at a 1975 auction and saving it from the wrecking ball. He restored the landmark hotel with the help of municipal loans.

A self-taught musician and songwriter, Mr. Frenkil wrote "Meet Me at the Belvedere," "Husband For Rent," "4: 40 For Chicago" and other songs. He came to the famed hostelry on Chase at North Charles Street looking to buy a piano and left with the whole hotel.

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