Toronto developer Murray Menkes, who died April 24 at 87, liked to stay out of the limelight, but built a real estate empire from scratch that would help reshape his city with suburban houses, shopping centres, high-rise condos and office towers during the post-Second World War building boom.
Born in 1926, he grew up on Major Street in the Bathurst and College area of Toronto. His father, Max, who came to Toronto at the turn of the century from Poland at 16 with next to nothing, had become one of the city’s top furriers, with a shop on Spadina Avenue, then the bustling centre of the city’s Jewish community and its garment trade.
Max was always at the shop, so Murray, the fourth of five children, was very close with his mother, Ann. Her death, when he was just 21, left him essentially alone to care for his 15-year-old sister, son Alan Menkes said in an interview.
Before this “seminal event,” Murray led a carefree, but not irresponsible life, Alan said. “He was one of those guys who knew how to have a good time. And then he just got hit by a train when his mother died, and didn’t know what happened to him. He had to wake up and grow up very quickly.”
Murray’s mother’s death was a turning point, his son says: “He was distraught for a period of time and then he got his life together and decided he was going to do something significant.”
The towering apartments, condos and office buildings were still years down the road. In the late 1940s, Murray headed down to Spadina Avenue to help with his father’s furrier business. But by the early 1950s, he could see that fashions were changing.
“He realized that it was not a business that he could really grow in,” Alan said. “I don’t think he really enjoyed it. He knew he needed to start something on his own.”
All around him, Toronto was changing, too. Immigration, and the baby boom, were producing a steady flow of families looking for houses and backyards. Murray saw an opportunity.
The housing business then was made up mostly of small entrepreneurs selling houses on a handful of lots. Striking out on his own in 1954, with some money from a friend but none from his father – who insisted his son make his own way, Alan said – Murray started with a couple of lots near Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue in North York.
He was aiming to build starter homes for the mostly Italian and East European immigrants looking to live in the rapidly growing suburb. His business, like the city, grew quickly from there.
By the 1960s, Menkes Developments Ltd. was still smaller than the city’s largest builders, but among the major companies racing to put up the big rental apartment buildings then redrawing Toronto’s skyline. In 1969, Alan said, his father registered Ontario’s first condominium – a prescient move, as rent-control rules enacted in the early 1970s made new rental apartment buildings less attractive for developers. The company would form its condo division in 1976, and pioneer the marketing of a high-rise condo “lifestyle.”
Alan, along with his two brothers, Steven and Peter, have run the day-to-day business – still with direction and strategic advice from Murray – since the early 1990s. Before taking over, they said that as kids they toured construction sites with their dad on weekends.
Their father worked hard, Alan said, but put a priority on family: “He was a very traditional guy. He was always home for dinner.”
Murray met his wife, Pauline, an American visiting family for the summer, on a dock in Lake Simcoe in 1949. They were engaged three weeks later, and married on Christmas Day.
Recently, Menkes Developments has been responsible for the towering new Four Seasons hotel and the gleaming Telus Corp. building. But, perhaps the most dramatic monument to its founder’s impact on Toronto is the downtown that was created from scratch in the 1980s for the suburb of North York, under mayor Mel Lastman.
Believing in Mr. Lastman’s controversial vision, Menkes took a big risk and started building a high-rise office tower on Yonge near Sheppard – after a delay caused by the 1981 recession – without a single tenant.
“It was a pretty risky move,” Alan said. “But we believed in downtown North York. We felt, because of the 401 [highway] and because of the subway, it was really the geographic centre” of the greater Toronto area.
It paid off, as Procter & Gamble soon came forward and leased the entire building for its Canadian headquarters. (It is still a tenant nearly 30 years later, and Menkes Developments has its offices in the same building.) Other Menkes megaprojects nearby, and those from other developers following suit, would transform the centre of North York.
Mr. Lastman, who would later go on to lead the amalgamated city of Toronto, said the success of the plan was due to Murray Menkes, who backed the controversial notion to create a new downtown for North York from the get-go, without complaint.
“Murray didn’t start fighting, like all the [other developers], and looking for extra things,” Mr. Lastman said in an interview. “He just started building. He was the first guy on the bandwagon.”
Despite the bold bet he made on North York, and the inherent risks in the development business, Murray was not a stereotypical risk-taker. He was quiet, and shied away from publicity, although his son describes him as a “demanding businessman, always trying to get the best out of people.”
But his father was always a good listener, Alan said: “He would sit there and listen. And then guys would say to him: ‘Murray, how come you’re not saying anything?’ And he says: ‘You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when you’re talkin’.’”
Paul Godfrey, the former chairman of Metro Toronto and now president of Postmedia Network, has known Murray and his family since the late 1960s, and praised him as a visionary who built a massive organization from nothing: “He’s done it all without a lot of fanfare, with a lot of hard work.”
Mr. Godfrey called Murray the catalyst that made the transformation of North York a reality, a generous philanthropist who quietly gave to hospitals and other causes, and a developer who always respected the role played by the city’s politicians in negotiations over zoning.
“During my years in public life, he would never ask for more than he believed he was entitled to. He wasn’t the type who would ask for more so he could compromise in the middle – what you call a straight shooter.”
Isadore (Issy) Sharp, founder of Four Season Hotels and Resorts, knew Murray for decades growing up in Toronto before the handshake that saw Menkes Developments chosen to build Mr. Sharp’s 55-storey flagship hotel in Toronto’s Yorkville, which opened last year: “In business, sometimes you just have to do business with certain people. Well, Murray’s the kind of person that you want to do business with.”
Murray was troubled by health problems in his later years, but fought hard and never complained, son Alan said.
Murray declined to speak to The Globe when he was at the centre of a controversy in 2002, after the paper reported that he had asked the Ontario government to reimburse him for $180,000 in expenses incurred to receive a kidney transplant from his live-in housekeeper at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Canadian hospitals had refused to perform the surgery for ethical reasons, even though the employee said she was acting voluntarily and on “compassionate grounds.” His son Steven said in a letter to Ontario’s Health Ministry at the time that his father only went to the Mayo Clinic after being left “very frustrated with a medical system that he has supported all his working life.”
Murray Menkes died of congestive heart failure in Toronto on April 24. He leaves his wife of 63 years, Pauline, his three sons, Alan, Steven and Peter, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article, which has been corrected, incorrectly referred to Rochester, N.Y.