Builder and philanthropist Leonard Litwin, who brought premier rental apartment buildings to the East Side, West Side and Downtown Manhattan. Photo: Glenwood Management.
It was December 2008. Bernard Madoff had just been unmasked as the biggest financial swindler in U.S. history. And the builder-extraordinaire Leonard Litwin, then a mere 94 years old, whose elegant luxury towers had transformed the East Side, was out untold millions of dollars.
“I was scared to death to tell him how much he had lost,” said Charles C. Dorego, general counsel of Glenwood Management, which owns 26 residential buildings in Manhattan. Upon hearing the news, Litwin put his head down briefly. Then, he began to take care of the other victims.
Within hours, as Dorego tells the story, his boss gave him a handwritten list bearing the names of 32 friends, widows and associates who might need looking after. Each was contacted and offered financial assistance. Many declined, but roughly 10 accepted, and soon, Litwin was tapping into his personal fortune to help them recoup.
There was no attendant publicity, it was handled quietly, discreetly, as befits a most modest man: “His foundation got wiped out, but upset as he was, he had the compassion to help carry those who were suffering, those who lost everything and those who needed to pay the rent,” said Steven Swarzman, his grandson.
Litwin continued to pop into the office until July 2013, when he suffered a fall in his 99th year. In all that time, he never veered from his multi-decade insistence on being a rental-only, builder-manager. Why eschew more lucrative condominium development?
His was the old-fashioned view — of a man born two months after the Guns of August, meaning the start of World War I — that the city’s rental stock was its economic lifeblood and the essential means of providing homes for its young professionals, ambitious strivers and starter families.
Litwin was renowned both for his super-sized donations to charities and his large-scale real estate projects. Yet routinely, he would decline efforts to honor him both for his philanthropic and development work.
In 2009, he did accept the Real Estate Board of New York’s highest honor, the Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker Award for lifetime achievement. As Dorego recalls, his speech consisted of just four words: “Thank you,” he said, and then he repeated, “Thank you.”
And less than a week ago, one more award was bestowed on Litwin — an OTTY, or Our Town Thanks You, to mark his decades-long contributions to the East Side of Manhattan. It was the last such accolade he will ever receive.
Litwin died on Sunday, April 2, at his home on the Long Island suburb of Melville, executives at Glenwood confirmed. He was 102.
Litwin’s legacy is writ large in the landscaped and garden-bedecked residential apartment buildings dotting York Avenue. In fact, the first of his seven buildings on the avenue, the 838-unit Pavilion at 500 East 77th Street, the island’s biggest apartment dwelling when it opened in 1963, was for two decades a talking point for Circle Line tour guides.
“Among his fellow developers, he was affectionately known as the Duke of York,” said Gary Jacob, Glenwood’s executive vice president. “It was universally held that he had always been Manhattan’s premier developer of luxury rental homes.”
Being a duke came with certain responsibilities. Honor in business practices was one of them, said Hal Fetner, president and CEO of Fetner Properties, a developer whose late father Sidney used to build reinforced concrete superstructures for Litwin’s East Side towers.
“How business has changed,” Fetner said. “My father used to do deals with Lennie on a handshake, and then he’d go out and do the concrete.”
But being a duke also meant possessing a certain healthy territoriality. After Fetner’s father in the late 1960s developed Gracie Plaza, at 1725 York Avenue, all but wedged in between Litwin’s Andover to the south and Barclay to the north, he was suddenly on the receiving end of some good-natured ribbing from his friend.
“Lennie would always tease my father, ‘I don’t know how I let you slip in there and build,’” Fetner recalls. “He would say, ‘You broke up my string of buildings!’”
As one of the city’s largest private landlords, Litwin developed a well-managed portfolio of 12 buildings on the Upper East Side, seven on the West Side, four in Midtown East and three downtown. One calling card for all his properties: an abundance of the color green.THE History
Litwin’s father, Harry, who fled pogroms in Czarist Russia as a teenager, was a landscaper and gardener who built a small nursery on Long Island in 1933 that eventually morphed into the 200-acre, Litwin-owned Woodbourne Cultural Nurseries, which still grows thousands of trees and shrubs.
His son followed him into the family business, and before long, the father-and-son nurserymen had become landscaping subcontractors, digging holes and planting trees for property developers. Most builders, if you scratch deep enough, began as contractors before venturing into ground-up development themselves, says Carole Litwin Pittelman, the Litwin daughter who now runs the family business.
“After a while, they thought, ‘We could do this development thing ourselves,” she added. “So they started from the bottom up.”
Literally. Just as a Litwin building was rooted in bedrock, the recessed gardens and towering trees that grace the frontages alongside many of his towers were rooted in the soil of York Avenue and elsewhere.
Others would build to the lot line so a uniform street wall would line up with the city’s grid. Litwin often did that, too, but many times he’d utilize the perimeter around a building’s footprint to create mini-emerald spaces.
“We in the city need as many trees and flower and shrubs as can be allowed because we don’t have enough green spaces,” Litwin Pittelman said.
The bottom line: depending on applicable zoning, Litwin left as much room for landscaping as earthly possible. Ideally, if given a choice, his floor plates would utilize all the available square footage in a “financially beneficial way,” while allowing space for “planters, gardens, the maximum number of trees, roof gardens — and as much green as anyone would let us,” she said.
Was Litwin’s tenure in the rough-and-tumble, politically treacherous, super-competitive, supernova of Manhattan real estate unblemished? The answer is, not exactly. He plunged into the market with his father in the 1950s, and in 2015, his second century, twin political corruption scandals plagued his firm.
Glenwood and its then-101-year-old boss figured in two criminal cases that toppled ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. In each trial, the company’s practice of using a maze of limited liability companies to contribute to the biggest figures in New York politics went under the microscope.
When they were over, both Silver and Skelos were convicted on several corruption counts. Neither Litwin, Glenwood nor any company executives were charged with anything.
Still, it emerged that Silver, in one scheme, had pressured Glenwood to hire a law firm that funneled fees to Silver, who in turn backed legislation sought by the developer. As for Skelos, he supported bills benefiting Glenwood, while pushing the firm to send some title insurance work to his son.
A future Litwin biographer can decide if these were troubling lapses or mere footnotes amid many mitzvahs. But consider those good deeds:spirit of GENEROSITY
Litwin gave $5 million to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. He donated $500,000 to the restoration of gardens at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“He made a monumental contribution to the Jewish National Fund,” said builder Jeffrey Levine, national president of the group, which buys land and plants trees in Israel. “I don’t think there’s ever been anybody in the industry who solicited Mr. Litwin for a worthy cause who was refused.”
Said developer and philanthropist Donald Zucker, “I asked him to contribute $5 million to an Alzheimer’s research foundation. He said, ‘OK,’ but that he’d only do so if I matched the contribution, which I did.” Thus was born the Litwin-Zucker Research Center for the Study of Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders at Northwell.
Any list, however abbreviated, of his medical and scientific giving would have to include massive support for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America and the founding of the New York Crohn’s Foundation. His grandson Howard Swarzman suffers from the disease.
In addition, “He was the first developer to build downtown after the 9/11 attacks because he always wanted to make the city a more desirable place to live,” said Swarzman, who is also a Glenwood vice president.
Indeed, Dorego says the “embers were still hot” at Ground Zero when Litwin “stepped up to the plate and committed $50 million in equity to show the world that downtown would rise again.” Eight months after 9/11, Glenwood broke ground for Liberty Plaza at 10 Liberty Street.
It was a dizzying life, so, one wonders, what did Litwin ever do for relaxation? As Zucker tells the story, there was a time, maybe 15 years ago, that the two men went to Paris on vacation with their wives.
“We were having dinner, and suddenly he tells me, ‘I don’t belong here, I got to go back to work.’ I told him, ‘Lennie, we’re here, try to enjoy it,’ and he says, ‘No, I hate it here! I got to go back to work.’”
Zucker implored him to stay, and Litwin agreed to tough it out in Paris. But it was clear that his heart was elsewhere. Perhaps at Glenwood. Or on York Avenue. Or with the philanthropic work he adored.