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Jerry Wolman, developer quickly lost his fortune

Jerry Wolman’s most beloved property was the Eagles, for which he paid $5.5 million in 1963.
Jerry Wolman’s most beloved property was the Eagles, for which he paid $5.5 million in 1963.Tom Kelley/Washington Post/1970

WASHINGTON — Jerry Wolman, a onetime Washington paint-store clerk who built and quickly lost one of the country’s biggest real estate fortunes of the 1960s, a collapse that ended his ownership of the world’s second-tallest skyscraper, the Philadelphia Eagles football franchise, and the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, died Tuesday at home in Potomac, Md. He was believed to be 86.

He had sepsis and a kidney ailment.

Mr. Wolman, a high school dropout, grew up in the Pennsylvania coal country as the son of an immigrant produce salesman. After Merchant Marine duty in World War II, he settled in Washington and worked in a paint store, where he met contractors who were prospering in the postwar housing boom.

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From there, it was a rapid jolt from obscurity. Mr. Wolman built an estimated 25,000 homes and apartment units, which propelled him to the front rank of real estate barons. By 35, he was worth as many millions on paper. He was dubbed a ‘‘boy wonder of the construction industry.’’

He opened offices in Chicago and Philadelphia and became involved with building projects of ambitious scale and design.

The most monumental venture was the 100-story, steel-and-glass John Hancock Center in Chicago, which Mr. Wolman described as a ‘‘city in the sky’’ for its housing and offices. When told of the opportunity to build on the North Michigan Avenue site in 1964, Mr. Wolman said he bought the land for $6 million within 15 minutes of the offer. It was named for the insurance company that provided the mortgage.

Mr. Wolman also bought Philadelphia’s old Connie Mack Stadium and built the Spectrum arena as part of a lobbying effort to secure the Flyers for the city in the late 1960s.

His most beloved property was the Eagles, for which he paid $5.5 million for a controlling stake in his mid-30s, becoming the youngest majority owner of an NFL franchise.

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Now, with deep pockets, he spoke of the responsibility to make the team great. He spent lavishly on the marching band and signed Joe Kuharich, formerly the head coach with the Washington Redskins and the University of Notre Dame, as general manager and coach.

Kuharich made a series of unpopular decisions, trading some of the team’s best players: Most notably, he swapped future Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen for the Redskins’ Norm Snead.

Amid a series of dramatic financial reversals, Mr. Wolman did not have the time to complete his plans for the Eagles. A mortgage market crunch in 1966 had a debilitating effect on his estimated $100 million fortune. He was overextended and began selling his holdings.

An engineering miscalculation with the foundation of the Hancock Center made Mr. Wolman’s financial situation dire. He spent millions of his cash and credit lines to guarantee the project but ended up selling his interest in the building for a reported $5 million loss.

John Hancock took over the project, which was completed in 1968 for $95 million. Dubbed ‘‘Big John,’’ it was the world’s tallest building outside New York City. Only the Empire State Building, at 102 stories, reached higher.

One of Mr. Wolman’s lesser-known legacies was in persuading other team owners to finance NFL Films in the 1960s.

After his bankruptcy, Mr. Wolman returned to development on a smaller scale and owned a bottled-water company for many years.

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When one youngster asked about a rival of the Eagles, Mr. Wolman could not help himself. ‘‘It’s not good to hate,’’ he said, ‘‘but I hate the Dallas Cowboys.’’