“Theater of Shopping: The Story of Stanley Whitman’s Bal Harbour Shops,” which is being released this month by Rizzoli, isn’t the vanity biography one might expect. Rather than a bland byproduct of the marketing department, it’s a good read with side threads about the Whitman family’s charmed life as well as the history of Miami Beach, retail and shopping centers. Whitman didn’t hold back on dishing juicy details either. For example, his industry peers will be shocked to learn the visionary developer behind the luxury mall once ate a maggot as a brotherly dare.
“His family wanted to take that bit out, but he was more inclined to tell the real story,” said author Alastair Gordon, who interviewed Whitman over years of lunches at Bal Harbour Shops’ restaurants. “I guess who cares by that age. [Whitman died at the age of 98 in 2017.] He was very open.”
Gordon, who specializes in writing about architecture and design, originally assumed he’d be bored with the commission. But when he and his wife, Barbara de Vries, who produced and designed the book, began digging through the dusty archives, they unearthed research gold. Among their most valuable scores were in-depth scrapbooks kept by former marketing director Enid Rosenthal that hadn’t been opened in 20 years.
“We found aerial photos of the shops, too. What everyone thought had been thrown out was all there,” said Gordon, adding there are enough photos personally taken by Whitman with his Leica camera while on a worldwide tour of shopping centers for his research and development phase to organize an exhibit. “The coolest story Stanley told was the 10-year period he spent looking at every center, if only because it had an innovative shipping dock or parking ramp.”
Whitman eventually settled on the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu as the main inspiration for his open-air concept with lush tropical landscaping whose multilevel design directly accessed parking garages for flow-through foot traffic — it was the automobile age, after all. He caught an enormous amount of flak, after paying a great deal more for the site and construction than other centers and eschewing their air-conditioned box model. Whitman described Bal Harbour Shops as a better reproduction of Lincoln Road, which had fallen into decline after World War II, according to his grandson Matthew Whitman Lazenby, president and chief executive officer of Whitman Family Development.
“He was a firm believer that there’s nothing new and just go out and find ideas and make the best version. But I thought he was wrong about what he built,” said Whitman Lazenby, who even learned some new things about his family history during the project. “We now know that his mother, my grandmother, was 25 percent owner of the shops. She was a smart, progressive businesswoman, especially for her time.”
For a center more associated with Brazilian billionaires, palm fronds and Ferraris, the cover’s black-and-white image of a Mod model in Courrèges dating to 1965 may seem like an odd choice. De Vries said they didn’t want anything that said “mall,” not to mention another factor that Whitman, who showed up to work until he died, would have certainly found enterprising.
“It’s got to come across in postage stamp size on Amazon,” she said.