Metro

Norman Leventhal at 97; enhancer of lives and landmarks

 Long curious about maps, Norman B. Leventhal endowed the Boston Public Library map center with $10 million.
TOM HERDE/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 1998
Long curious about maps, Norman B. Leventhal endowed the Boston Public Library map center with $10 million.

As a developer, Norman B. Leventhal shaped Boston’s skyline and dug deep below the city’s surface to ensure what remained at street level enhanced the lives of those who, like him, savored stepping briskly through each urban day.

Mr. Leventhal, who was 97 when he died Sunday, molded Boston just as significantly through years of philanthropy as he contributed millions to an array of institutions, from education and health care to the arts and Jewish causes.

“I can never repay this great city for the richness of life and fulfillment I have found here,” he told the Globe in 1997.

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An ardent walker, Mr. Leventhal strode through Boston, his daily routes mapping the marks he left on the city he loved. In 1946, with his brother Robert, he cofounded what became the Beacon Companies, which built, renovated, or reimagined some of Greater Boston’s best-known landmarks: Center Plaza, Rowes Wharf, the Hotel Meridien, 75 State Street, and South Station.

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“My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Norman Leventhal, a legend who dedicated his life to transforming Boston into a world-class city,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “He will be remembered for generations to come for his immense contributions to our city.”

A prominent jewel in Mr. Leventhal’s crown is Post Office Square, where he turned a 2½-story parking garage many considered an eyesore into a 1,400-car structure that plunges seven stories underground. Atop it rests a lush 1.7-acre park that bears Mr. Leventhal’s name and offers respite from the Financial District’s granite, glass, and pavement.

A prominent jewel in Norman Leventhal’s crown is Post Office Square (pictured).
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
A prominent jewel in Norman Leventhal’s crown is Post Office Square (pictured).

“If you look around downtown anywhere, you will see a monument to this man,” Lawrence DiCara, a real estate lawyer and former city councilor, once observed.

Though Mr. Leventhal rose to pinnacles of power and accumulated enormous wealth, he was quick to remind all who listened that “Boston also knows poverty and despair. Cities have always been that way. But that is not the way they always have to be.

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“We must constantly work to find ways to make the riches of Boston available to all of her citizens, not just the most fortunate among us,” he said in the 1997 Globe interview. “That we haven’t yet succeeded in doing that is no excuse for not continuing our efforts.”

Among Mr. Leventhal’s efforts were gifts of time and money to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he was on the board for decades, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. He was a founder of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, which built rent-subsidized apartments in Brighton, Brookline, and Newton. With his relatives, Mr. Leventhal led development of the Jewish Community Center in Newton, which bears the family’s names.

He also served as president, chairman, trustee, or board member for organizations including the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. An alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was a life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation, and was awarded honorary degrees from Brandeis and Boston universities.

“I am the luckiest guy in the world. I have been very fortunate,” he told the Globe in 2007. “I’ve been associated with wonderful people, got to know a lot of people at all different levels and in different areas. I’ve learned a lot from these people and gotten support from these people.”

Boston’s South Station.
Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff
Boston’s South Station.

Indeed, rather than embark on solo flights when launching some large-scale projects, he was known for his adroit touch at enlisting a squadron of politicians and other developers. In Mr. Leventhal’s eyes, business and community interests went hand-in-hand – his “vision of seamlessness,” the late Edward Linde, a leading real estate developer, told the Globe in 1986. Some of Mr. Leventhal’s most significant projects, such as Center Plaza and South Station, involved a form of partnership with government agencies.

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Mr. Leventhal, Linde observed, “has unparalleled skill in bringing people along with him – not by bludgeoning them or rolling over them, but by convincing them.”

Born on Aug. 30, 1917, Mr. Leventhal grew up in Boston. His father was from Russia and his mother was from Lithuania. At Christopher Gibson elementary school in Dorchester, Mr. Leventhal skipped a grade, he recalled in a 2011 interview, and he attended Boston Latin School, graduating at 15. “When you go to Latin School, you go to Harvard customarily,” he noted in that interview.

In the introduction to the 1999 book “Mapping Boston,” he wrote that “Harvard accepted me, but it was MIT that gave me a scholarship. So, for want of a hundred dollars to pay Harvard’s first quarter tuition, I found myself becoming an engineer, a naval architect, a contractor, and then a real estate developer.”

He graduated in 1938 from MIT, and during World War II, he and his brother Robert worked as naval architects in the Charlestown Navy Yard. They cofounded Beacon Construction Co. after the war. “My brother and I were very close and worked well together,” Mr. Leventhal said in 2011. “We had a place in Allston, the two of us, and we got along beautifully.” On a shelf behind his office desk, he kept a ledger with handwritten entries of deals dating back to the company’s first days.

The Leventhal brothers began by remodeling stores and moved to larger projects, including 40 toll booths on the New York State Thruway. They built post offices from Newton to Oklahoma to Puerto Rico, then focused on public and military housing, including at Fort Devens. The company completed Wellesley Office Park in the early 1960s, when a significant break occurred. “Between 1962 and 1967 we worked on the 900-foot-long crescent-shaped Center Plaza office building in Government Center,” Mr. Leventhal recalled in the introduction to “Mapping Boston.”

Although much of the company’s early work was outside the city, “the one thing I’m most proud of is right there in Boston, and that is Center Plaza,” he said in the 2011 interview, adding: “It defines the area.”

In 1972, the death of his brother Robert, at 58, was “both a personal tragedy and a professional setback,” Mr. Leventhal wrote. “But our company continued to grow as Boston grew. My son-in-law Ed Sidman and my sons Alan and Mark joined us.”

Center Plaza “defines the area,” Norman Leventhal said in 2011.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Center Plaza “defines the area,” Norman Leventhal said in 2011.

Sidman died in 2005. Mr. Leventhal’s sister, Dorothy Levinson, died in 2007, and another brother, Edward, died in 2012.

Beacon Companies became one of Greater Boston’s premier real estate developers, though on occasion it was buffeted by economic upheaval, such as when a glut in office space and a corresponding plunge in rents coincided with the late-1980s completion of the firm’s 31-story office tower, 75 State Street, which took three years to fill. Those rough financial waters also led to the creation of Beacon Properties Corp., a real estate investment trust. Most Beacon Companies assets went into the trust, which eventually would own, in whole or in part, more than 120 buildings nationwide. Beacon Properties went public in 1994 and three years later, the family sold it to Chicago-based Equity Office Properties Trust for $3.9 billion.

For decades, the Leventhal family donated or helped raise millions for political campaigns, nearly all for Democrats. Mr. Leventhal once noted that he contributed to every opponent of US Senator Jesse Helms, the conservative North Carolina Republican, from 1978 onward.

Still, he bristled at suggestions that connections with elected and appointed officials smoothed the path to contracts. “I have never been political,” he said in a 1996 Globe interview.

More often, though, he approached with equanimity each deal, each interview, and each day. “You ask him how he is and he has one word for you: ‘Perfect!’ And he says it in such a nice way; there’s a serenity to it,” his son Alan told Boston Magazine in 2003. Alan is now chairman and chief executive of Beacon Capital Partners, a real estate investment firm unconnected to the businesses his father started.

Among Mr. Leventhal’s philanthropic endeavors, he is particularly fond of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. “I bought my first historic map of Boston while visiting London with my wife, Muriel, more than twenty-five years ago,” he wrote in the “Mapping Boston” introduction. “My curiosity about maps slowly got the better of me and my collection started to grow — or metastasize, in Muriel’s opinion.” That collection grew to more than 400, with many showing changes in Boston over the past 300 years. He endowed the map center with a $10 million gift in 2004.

Harvard and MIT wanted his maps, he said in the 2011 interview, but he chose the Boston Public Library because he wanted them in a home that was open to the public. “What better place could there be,” he later wrote in an e-mail to the Globe, “to ensure our schoolchildren will have free access for generations to come.”

Mr. Leventhal married Muriel Guren in 1941 and began each day saying to her, “Good morning, my dear, it’s a beautiful day.” When an MIT alumni publication asked him in 2008 to name his greatest accomplishment, he answered: “Marrying Muriel.”

In addition to his wife, of Palm Beach, Fla., and Boston, and his sons Alan of Chestnut Hill and Mark of Waban, Mr. Leventhal leaves his daughter, Paula Sidman of Palm Beach, Fla.; 11 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

The family will hold a private funeral for Mr. Leventhal, and later will announce plans for a public memorial service.

At an age when most would have long since retired, Mr. Leventhal still walked to an office he kept at his son’s business, mulling ways to make Boston a better place. “It’s a great city,” he told the Globe in 2007, just before turning 90, “but it could be and it should be greater.”

He had, however, contributed in ways that permanently left his signature on the city’s skyline. “I am not concerned about a legacy,” Mr. Leventhal said that day, taking in the panorama from his office window five floors above State Street. “I feel comfortable with what I’ve done.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.