Two brothers who altered face of city Manekins have made mighty buildings sprout where gloom once grew; 50-year labor of love; 'We've tried to repay the good fortune that life has given us'


Standing on the 21st floor of the World Trade Center, Bernard and Harold Manekin marveled at the skyline they helped craft over the past five decades.

Looking out past Harborplace, the two brothers who started a small real estate firm in the halcyon days of post-World War II saw much to reflect on. After all, there is little of downtown that does not bear a Manekin mark.

From the 33-acre Charles Center that was the genesis of Baltimore's renaissance in the early 1960s to the Lord Baltimore Hotel to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Manekins -- 82-year-old Bernard and 79-year-old Harold -- have either developed, owned or influenced virtually every significant downtown building project of the past 50 years.

At Charles Center, for instance, the Manekins were involved in leasing, managing or planning four of the five office towers constructed there. Most notably, Manekin Corp. leased One Charles Center, the 23-story speculative office building that sparked redevelopment there.

"It gives me great satisfaction to see the tangible evidence of what we've been involved in these past 50 years," said Manekin Corp. Chairman Bernard Manekin, whose firm is celebrating its golden anniversary this year. "But of all the achievements and successes, the greatest to me is the growth and meaningfulness of the 150 people of this company."

Even the 30-story World Trade Center owes its existence partly to the Manekins, who voluntarily scrapped a potentially lucrative leasing and management contract rather than start a fight that could have held up construction on the skyscraper.

"They have made an outstanding mark in center city development over the past 35 years," said Walter Sondheim, the 87-year-old senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee and counsel to mayors, governors and business leaders.

At least part of the Manekins' success can be chalked up to longevity: No commercial real estate firm in the city, save for Colliers Pinkard, has been in business longer.

And with the exception of Rouse Co., the publicly traded, $4.8 billion real estate firm founded by Bernard's law school classmate James W. Rouse, no company has built more commercial space downtown.

Its city monuments are many: the 25-story, onyx-skinned office tower known as Charles Center South at 36 S. Charles St.; the 12-story One Center Plaza building it rehabilitated in 1982; and, most recently, a 25-story skyscraper at 120 E. Baltimore St. that Manekin completed in 1989.

"What Baltimore needed after [World War II] was extraordinary vision and foresight," said H. Furlong Baldwin, chairman and chief executive of Mercantile Bankshares Corp., Manekin's primary lender. "And the Manekins provided it."

"They changed the entire world's perception of Baltimore," Rouse Chairman Mathias J. DeVito said of the brothers' involvement with Charles Center.

In exchange for their prosperity, the Manekins have made extensive financial contributions to charity and the city's cultural institutions such as the Walters Art Gallery, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation and the United Way.

And later this week, much of the Manekin staff will descend on a Southwest Baltimore neighborhood with brooms, paint and other paraphernalia to clean and rehabilitate the area. The so-called "Day of Caring" is an annual Manekin event.

"We've tried in some small way to repay the good fortune that life has given us," said Vice Chairman Harold Manekin, who later this week will carry the Olympic torch nearly a mile through Baltimore on its path toward Atlanta.

The brothers' influence extends well beyond the city limits, however.

In the suburbs, the Manekins were pioneers of the modern industrial park, when they teamed with General Motors Corp. for the development of the 200-acre Parkway Industrial Center in the Hanover section of Anne Arundel County.

In Columbia, while Rouse was developing housing, retail and recreational facilities, the Manekins were among the first to recognize the new town as a viable spot for commercial and industrial projects.

"They're smart, experienced and they have a high degree of integrity, which for us is of paramount importance," said Kevin M. Mahony, managing director of Boston-based Copley Real Estate Advisors Inc., a $6.5 billion pension fund adviser and a key Manekin development partner since 1981.

"They've really focused on their local market, because in real estate, the further away from home one gets the better chance for mistakes. And the other thing that separates Manekin is that they've always focused on serving their clients."

Today, from humble beginnings in a basement office at 7 W. Biddle St., Manekin Corp. controls roughly 100 buildings totaling 7.5 million square feet. Last year, the privately held firm's revenues reached a record $10.6 million, a 13 percent increase from 1994 and a 39 percent jump over the company's 1993 performance.

But along the way, Manekin has faced more than its share of setbacks.

"We've been through great economic times, and we've been through economic times that have threatened the lifeblood of this company," said Richard M. Alter, Manekin's chief executive.

Like many real estate developers, Manekin lost key projects to lenders as a result of the industrywide depression that began in 1990.

Most notably, a J. P. Morgan & Co. fund assumed control of the 12-story One Center Plaza building downtown, after falling rental rates squeezed Manekin's ability to service debt on the project.

Manekin's suburban holdings weren't immune from losses, either. State Farm Insurance took control of the firm's five-building Woods at Broken Land and 67-acre Rivers Center projects in Columbia in the wake of tenant bankruptcies.

The same sour market conditions led to a forced restructuring of loans on the former Tower Building site downtown in February 1993, where Manekin had planned to develop a 300,000-square-foot skyscraper. The property at Baltimore and South streets is currently a parking lot.

"The past five years have been like sailing through a hurricane," said Donald Manekin, Harold's son and a Manekin Corp. principal and senior vice president.

The Tower Building location also marked the site of perhaps Manekin's biggest political setback, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- who received early backing in his career from Bernard and Harold -- rejected a plan for a new Manekin-developed headquarters for the Baltimore City Police Department there in favor of adding onto the existing headquarters on Fayette Street.

"We have a cordial relationship with him," Bernard Manekin said of Schmoke. "But I don't know that anyone has a good relationship with City Hall. It's just not Kurt's style."

Manekin's relationship with Copley has also changed recently, as the Boston-based company has begun liquidating much of its real estate holdings. Although Manekin is expected to participate in the sales, it is unlikely the duo will ever significantly add to its $400 million portfolio.

Once the buildings are sold, Manekin will also likely lose management fees that generate thousands of dollars in annual revenues.

But Manekin doesn't believe that potential loss will seriously wound the firm's balance sheet.

To make up for the lack of new development work, Manekin has beefed up its brokerage and property management activities and diversified into investment sales, consulting and construction services.

It has even landed new financial partners, including H&S; Bakery Inc. founder John Paterakis and Prudential Life Insurance, with which it is developing 800,000 square feet of speculative industrial space in the Troy Hill Industrial Park in Howard County.

The firm is also continuing to develop office projects on a build-to-suit basis, such as the 75,000-square-foot building it recently completed on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy in Germantown.

Manekin has also begun branching out into retail development -- most notably its completion of several stores in the Snowden Square retail center in Columbia, and its efforts to rezone 156 acres in Owings Mills for a series of "big box" retailers.

Not that the future will be easy. Alter notes that Manekin faces the risks associated with debt, a lack of adequate capital in a capital intensive business and industry consolidation -- a trend that led Manekin to briefly consider merging last year with Washington brokerage firm Carey Winston Co.

The changing real estate industry will also be manifest in the structure of Manekin itself, changes that are certain to further dilute the Manekin influence in the once-family dominated business.

A certain amount of family dilution has already occurred. Bernard's two sons, Richard and Robert, departed more than a year ago: Richard to CB Commercial Real Estate Group Inc., where he works as a senior vice president and head of the Los Angeles-based brokerage operation's Baltimore office; and Robert to Julien J. Studley Inc., a New York brokerage house, where he's a senior managing director.

Over the next several months, Manekin plans to name new partners and possibly double its existing six-partner roster. One thing is certain: None of the new partners will have the last name of Manekin.

"The company believes it needs to expand its ownership to reflect where business is being done," Alter said. "We're striving to change from a family-owned firm to a merit-driven business. For the company to survive and prosper for another 50 years, we have to have new people brought in who will be as dedicated to the business as Bernie and Harold have been."

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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