In death, Weinberg helps the city he neglected in life

January 27, 2004|By Michael Olesker

THEY CALLED him "Honolulu" Harry Weinberg, and his ghost still haunts the streets of downtown Baltimore. Shale Stiller knows this. Stiller has been handed $2 billion of Weinberg's money to give away. The creators of the new Hippodrome Theater know this, too. They will open their doors in two weeks, and maybe the aura of Honolulu Harry can be exorcised when the first curtain rises.

Until now, it's been a long downtown drama of dying. Weinberg, this strange man, this sixth-grade dropout who amassed a fortune in real estate, had to die before becoming the hero of the piece.

"I know," Shale Stiller was saying. "I know."

For years, Stiller was Weinberg's lawyer and watched his client in frustration and bewilderment. Last week, he was named president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. With Weinberg's dying, the foundation dispenses about $100 million a year: to the poor and elderly, to schools and hospitals and religious institutions.

In life, Honolulu Harry Weinberg presided over the decay of downtown Baltimore. Only his dying began to breathe new life into his old surroundings.

The evidence is all around us, and now it is up there in lights. On Eutaw Street, the electricity is already turned on, and it reads: "Hippodrome." Inside, the tattered old lady has been made elegant once again. Over the weekend, a few employees walked around the place, giddy with expectation. On Feb. 10, the doors open for The Producers.

Across Eutaw Street, workers will soon begin building the Centerpoint apartments, hundreds of upscale units. In the dismal years on this block, drug dealers such as James Wesley "Big Head Brother" Carter conducted business here, brazenly operating from a gangster limo with a built-in TV and a minibar. The dealers left behind only rubble. Until now.

A block north of the Hippodrome, the refurbished Lexington Market bustles with shoppers. Over the weekend, assistant manager Bob Thomas stood in the midst of a big crowd and said a word: "catalysts." All of this new development - the theater, the new apartments, the University of Maryland professional students now living within walking distance - they're all catalysts for "a different mix, a different demographic that we're seeing at the market," Thomas said. It's a nice way of saying the market doesn't feel as threatening as it used to.

For years, Honolulu Harry stood in the way of such things. He owned 60 downtown buildings, and he refused to do anything with them. The biggest Howard Street department stores withered and died, and their empty shells became painful reminders of a time when the area was the very heart of the city.

When downtown started falling apart - and those such as William Donald Schaefer pleaded with Weinberg to fix up the properties and put them to work - Weinberg sat in his faraway Honolulu offices and just said no.

"He'd rather let the damned buildings stand there and rot," Schaefer fumed, "instead of fixing them up and putting people inside of 'em." Some said it was Weinberg's $50 million tax write-off.

So intense was Schaefer's rage that, when Robert Irsay threatened to yank the Colts out of Baltimore, rumors spread that Irsay might be willing to sell the team. Weinberg, it was said, was prepared to offer $50 million, far beyond Irsay's asking price, to buy the team and keep them here.

Schaefer muttered darkly, "I'd rather lose the team than see Harry Weinberg buy it."

Until he died, 13 years ago, Weinberg never seemed to care how people felt about all of this. But then - who knew? - he died and became a hero. He left provisions for the fabulous $2 billion Weinberg foundation, one of the 25 largest in the country.

Leaving Shale Stiller to ponder the man, Weinberg, so strange and so destructive.

"It's a very sad story," Stiller was saying after last week's announcement of his new position. "Here's a man who came to this country at 4 years old, no money, grew to have a billion dollars, should have enjoyed it, and didn't know how. It's such a shame.

"I've represented a few people like that who didn't want to give it away while they were alive. And some who do want to. The people who give it away while they're alive get so much satisfaction. Many who don't grew up in such poor families and had such a rough time during the Depression that they're always fearful of going back to those circumstances.

"But this was a tough man to figure out. He held tight to his money. Yet, two years before he died, he was traveling through Israel and went to old-age homes. It was July or August, really hot. He saw four or five of these homes. And he took out his checkbook and wrote out a check for $1 million and gave it to the minister of finance. He said, `I want these places air-conditioned. Right away.' And that's what happened. Why he didn't multiply that, I don't know."

Instead, he allowed a city's downtown to deteriorate and die, and only now do we see real evidence of its rebirth: with new living and shopping space, with the Hippodrome reopening, and with optimistic new construction around the University of Maryland professional campus.

And with Stiller presiding over a $2 billion foundation.

"I've been a trial lawyer a long time," he said, "and now I'm going into the biggest trial of my life. I want to do well because my clients are millions of people."

Some of them live in a city waiting a long time to feel good about its downtown.

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