When his young wife was pregnant with their first child, Albert Latner dropped out of law school to work for his father-in-law on a construction crew. Before long he was helping to steer Greenwin Inc. as it rode Toronto's postwar boom, becoming one of the city's biggest real-estate developers.
Greenwin helped shape modern Toronto, leaving its mark in the form of thousands of suburban houses, apartments and public housing facilities across the city. Among its projects are the celebrated 1950s modernist houses in Don Mills, the city's first master-planned suburb, and developments such as midtown's Davisville Village in the 1960s and the Yonge-Eglinton Centre in the 1970s.
The success made Mr. Latner, who died June 11 at the age of 88 after a battle with Parkinson's disease, one of the city's wealthiest men. He also became a philanthropist renowned for his generous support of a range of causes, as well as a leading collector of art, amassing a collection of more than 1,000 paintings and sculptures that includes masterpieces by Picasso, Modigliani, Renoir and Henry Moore, among others. Canadian Business magazine has estimated the family's current wealth at more than $1-billion.
Albert Latner was born April 25, 1927, in Hamilton to Jack and Elise Latner. His father was born in London, to immigrants from what is now Lithuania. His mother, Elise, was born in Bucharest, Romania, but was living in London and visiting relatives in Hamilton when she met her husband-to-be. He had come to Canada as a teenager, crossing the Atlantic on the 1912 voyage of the RMS Carpathia that was diverted to pluck survivors from the ocean after the sinking of the Titanic, according to Mr. Latner's sister, Zil Rumack.
The Latner family moved to Toronto about five years after Albert was born, to a house on Major Street, not far from Kensington Market, the centre of Jewish life in the city at the time. They were better off than many during the Depression: Jack cut sample cloth at the Tip Top Tailors factory at the foot of Bathurst Street.
Mr. Latner paid his way through school with newspaper routes, eventually studying at the University of Toronto. At one point, he opened a framing shop with a friend, which fuelled his lifelong love of art.
In 1949, he married Temmy Weinstock, the daughter of Arthur Weinstock, the owner of a women's clothing factory. The ceremony, at Shaarei Shomayim synagogue, then on St. Clair Avenue West, was a big affair, and Ms. Latner became not just the love of his life but a valued confidante and business adviser, Ms. Rumack said.
Ms. Latner soon became pregnant, and in order to support her, Mr. Latner dropped out of law school at Osgoode Hall to work on a construction crew for his new father-in-law's small home-building company. Mr. Weinstock had founded the company with a friend, a bricklayer named Lipa Green. Originally called Greenview Construction, it was renamed Greenwin, a loose combination of its two founders' names. Two of Mr. Green's sons, Al and Harold, along with Mr. Latner, took on leadership roles in the company as it expanded rapidly in the 1950s.
Some describe Mr. Latner as soft-spoken, as someone who did not seek the limelight. Ms. Rumack, who started working at Greenwin as a teenager, said he had a temper at work, but employees still loved him.
"He could be and was in his personal life very calm and cool and collected. But in the office, not necessarily so. If you didn't do something right, he might snap at you," she said. "And the girls would be, 'Oh my God.' But the same girls would say, 'I wouldn't work anywhere else,' because he cared about his employees, and that's an unusual thing. He knew their names, even when he had 400 [employees]."
Mr. Latner and Ms. Latner had four children: Steven, Michael, Elise and Joshua. The family moved frequently, living at one point in one of the first houses in Don Mills, surrounded by farmer's fields. As the family fortune grew, they ended up among Toronto's elite in Forest Hill, later decamping to a large farm in King City, Ont.
Both Steven and Michael attended Oxford University, where Mr. Latner donated money to build a student residence at St. Peter's College. Mr. Latner met Samuel Beckett, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and was a backer of a failed scheme to build a theatre at Oxford named for the playwright. Mr. Latner sponsored a performance of two of Mr. Beckett's plays at University of Toronto's Hart House that same year, including Breath, which is just 35 seconds long and famously features no actors, just some garbage on stage and the sound of a baby crying.
Mr. Latner acquired much of his extraordinary art collection in the 1960s. His love of Henry Moore's sculptures saw him play a role, behind the scenes, with then Toronto mayor Philip Givens in raising private money to install Mr. Moore's Three Way Piece No. 2 – also known as The Archer – in front of Toronto's new City Hall, despite the objections of some city councillors mystified by the abstract work. (Mr. Moore, whom Mr. Latner had visited in his studio in England, was a personal favourite. Mr. Latner was instrumental in bringing his works to the Art Gallery of Ontario, his family said.)
Paul Godfrey, the president and CEO of Postmedia Network Inc. and a long-time political figure in Toronto, said he became friends with Mr. Latner after the developer called him out of the blue as Mr. Godfrey was launching his first political campaign, a run for a council seat in the former city of North York in 1964.
"He was one of my very first supporters," Mr. Godfrey said, praising Mr. Latner and his partners as risk-takers who built the city's housing stock. "He called me up, said 'I don't know you. I hear that you are running in the election. I want to be helpful And even though I am in the land development business, I never want to ask you for any favours.' And you know what, he never did."
In 1979, Mr. Latner left Greenwin to launch his family's own management and development company, Shiplake, which also does real estate development and branched into new lines of business, including retirement homes, air cargo and gambling. In 1998, a consortium that included Shiplake, resort giant Hyatt and others was selected to build what became the massive Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, Ont.
One of Shiplake's companies, Dynacare Inc., a publicly traded retirement home company that moved into the medical lab business, was sold to Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings for $480-million (U.S.) in 2002.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Latner's seemingly charmed life was struck by loss. Ms. Latner, who had suffered from lung cancer in the late 1980s but fought it off, died after her cancer returned in 1993. A year before, as the family dealt with the return of her cancer, an electrical fire gutted their magnificent house on the farm in King City. The Latners were away, but the flames destroyed some of their favourite art works.
Losing Ms. Latner, Mr. Latner's daughter Elise Latner-Assaraf said, was a blow from which her father never recovered: "After my mom died, my dad pretty much lost his compass."
The experience the family had with the palliative care staff of Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital inspired Mr. Latner to donate money to establish the Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care there.
He dated again subsequently, but never remarried. He became much more interested in his Jewish religion, something the death of his father in 1976 had also kindled.
Mr. Latner was always a passionate supporter of Israel, which he visited frequently, donating money to various causes there including a hospital centre that treats post-traumatic stress disorder in Tel Aviv. His family has photos of Mr. Latner with former Israeli prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, his sister said.
Over the past decade, Mr. Latner became embroiled in a family feud that bitterly divided his four children, pitting Steven and Michael, who worked in the family business, against Elise and Joshua, who were less involved.
Mr. Latner ended up suing his own offspring over money, the art collection, a collection of gold coins, a hand-embroidered chuppah or Jewish wedding canopy made by his late wife, and even a five-year-old Audi station wagon he had given a daughter-in-law.
The feud, detailed in a 2011 article in Toronto Life, saw him for years refuse to see some members of his family, as he grew estranged from Joshua, who lives in Zurich, and Ms. Latner-Assaraf, and their children. The acrimony came despite the fact he had transferred much of his art collection and fortune to his four children, who received the equivalent $150-million each.
Following the patriarch's death, Steven Latner issued a statement on behalf of himself and his brother Michael through a spokeswoman: "Michael and I had the pleasure of working closely with our dad for 35 years. We were there to share his lows, his successes and his extraordinary career and life."
Ms. Latner-Assaraf, who had re-established contact with her father in the two years before his death, blamed her father's seemingly bizarre decisions to sue his own children on his "dementia" and the dynamics of the family's bitter split.
She said she will always be reminded of her father when she sees public sculpture in Toronto. Not only did he and his partners in Greenwin give local artists studio space in their buildings, she said, they were pioneers in the provision of public art, commissioning sculptures to grace the front of their buildings.
"I get a twinkle in my eye every time I see some of these beautiful sculptures," Ms. Latner-Assaraf said. "He had something to do with beautifying the city, not just by building buildings and being a landlord, but bringing art where it was visible for everybody."
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