By Michael E. Miller
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He chose the navy. The decision kept him close to home and out of harm's way. Whitman served as an instructor at a Miami training facility and commanded a small fleet of submarine chasers off the Atlantic seaboard. Whitman didn't see any combat, but that was the whole point of his job. “We never went out on a search-and-destroy to get enemy submarines,” he says. “You do that, you're being diverted. You'll get court-martialed if you try that stuff.”
Thanks to widespread prosperity and the increased popularity of air travel, Miami Beach experienced a major postwar boom. A raft of young entrepreneurs settled the area, determined to take advantage of the growth. One of these was Robert Graham (no relation to Sen. Bob Graham, whose family also was involved in land development). His goal was to create an ideal planned community -- George Merrick's Coral Gables, but on the ocean. From the beginning it would be modern and private. Wiring would run underground, eliminating the need for unseemly electrical and telephone poles, and the town's residential center would be accessible from only three entrances. The name, like the village itself, was an inventive leap, the word “Bal” being a shotgun union of “Bay” and “Atlantic.”
But before development of Graham's seaside utopia could begin, he needed 25 males of voting age to incorporate the community. In 1946, he put out the welcome mat. Whitman recalls Graham's huckster ingenuity. “To induce some men to move to the area, he went to Sears, Roebuck and Co. and bought the cheapest furniture he could find and put it in these wooden barracks buildings left over from the war.” The war may have been over, but Stanley Whitman's campaign to become the most influential man in the fledgling community was just beginning.
It didn't take Whitman long to set his sights on a share of the development corporation Robert Graham had set up to build a community shopping center in Bal Harbour. The opening of the Shepard Broad Causeway in 1951 meant shoppers and tourists could be brought from the mainland directly to the center's future site on 96th Street. Whitman bought half of Graham's interest in the corporation in 1955; the second half in 1957. With the deal came seventeen acres of land at the corner of 96th and Collins Avenue. Whitman considered his purchase a kind of civic intervention.
“Graham was negotiating with Food Fair [a supermarket chain]. Had that deal been consummated,” Whitman says, “nothing would have ever happened here. It would have been a convenience center with shoe repairs, post offices ... like what you see in Surfside.” The thought still mystifies him. “What shopping center developers were all doing at that point in time was leasing to Publix and Food Fair. And they wouldn't have one, they'd have two or three, and they'd have a big F.W. Woolworth. All these large stores unable to pay any kind of rent. That was not my prototype.” He pauses long enough to raise his fist over his desk. “My prototype came [he knocks] from [knock] Lincoln [knock] Road.”
Whitman could have built a community one-stop shopping center, a place where local residents, young families, and retirees mingled casually while taking care of basic household needs. What he envisioned, though, was a shopping district built around the affluent out-of-town tourist dollar. Like the Lincoln Road he remembered. But better. Set apart. Elite.
His involvement in the project was complete -- and obsessive -- from the beginning. He fired his first two architects, Victor Gruen and Welton Beckett. Both men had an international following, and their ideas for what the center should be (not to mention their egos) clashed with the young developer's. He eventually hired a local architect named Herb Johnson to design the plans he wanted. The final version called for an open-air mall with intersecting walkways overlooking a courtyard. Landscaping was central to the look and feel of the place. Tropical plants enhanced the courtyard. Palm trees camouflaged the Collins Avenue entrance, already set back from the street. Waterfalls, fountains, and reflecting pools filled with exotic fish were added over time to emphasize the otherworldly dimension of Whitman's paradise.
Bal Harbour Shops opened for business in 1965 and was -- what else? -- an instant success. “I'm really the only [mall] who ever made money from the get-go,” Whitman says. Indeed Bal Harbour Shops produces some of the highest yearly sales of any mall in the United States, about $1200 per square foot. Local supermalls like Dadeland and Aventura? “We absolutely bury them,” crows Randy Whitman, Stanley's son and Bal Harbour Shops' leasing agent since 1975. “We do double what they do per square foot. Maybe better than double.” Pam Stubing, a retail analyst with Ernst and Young in New York, says the reason for the Shops' profitability, simply put, is its customer base. “These are very select upper-middle-class, upper-class people, people with servants.”
Bal Harbour Shops is an endless procession of famous names and consuming thrills: Versace. Gucci. Louis Vuitton. Though he would never say so, Whitman created what essentially is a Disney World for monied adults. Whitman, like Walt Disney, belongs to a generation born in the first decades of the century and raised on a distinctly American can-do philosophy. Progress -- scientific, technological, social -- could be reduced to simple questions of engineering. Disney built a new and improved version of the Coney Island amusement parks of his youth: cleaner, safer, controlled. In Bal Harbour, a place that bills itself as “a tiny magical enclave on the ocean,” Stanley Whitman engineered the ideal shopping experience of his youth. He lured stores that could only be found in places like New York and Paris, transplanted them to a well-monitored, artificial environment, and surrounded them with private parking and security guards uniformed like traditional Bahamian police, or gendarmes, in military-style black trousers, red tops, and white helmets. (The official logo of the Shops is a silk-screened silhouette of a helmeted gendarme). The Shops are New York's Fifth Avenue, or the original Lincoln Road, minus the unpleasant smells, obnoxious sounds, panhandlers, or chance encounters among people from different social worlds.