click to enlarge .. The Incredible Story of Ben Weingart
by Deke Keasbey, Real Estate Investment Specialist, Tierra Properties

Ben Weingart was born near Atlanta, Georgia, in 1887, and died in Los Angeles in 1980. At age 18 he started work in Los Angeles as a delivery boy, and when he died at age 93 he left a real estate empire worth an estimated $100 million. By 1974, he had been for some time the largest taxpayer on the rolls of the Los Angeles County Assessor.

From Humble Beginnings

Weingart was an orphan. He never knew his parents. At age 7 he bought candy in town, then walked to his country school and sold it to school kids at triple his price, having eaten none of it himself. In grade school he got into frequent fights defending his adoptive sister, who was handicapped. The fighting forced him to leave school in the third grade. He never returned.

As a teenager, Weingart worked in Detroit in the garment district pushing racks of clothes through the streets, and in St. Louis driving a laundry wagon. He became convinced that his fortune would be made out west, in Los Angeles.

From Delivering Laundry to Hotel Ownership

In 1906, at age 18, Weingart arrived in Los Angeles penniless on a railroad boxcar. He got a job delivering laundry from a horse-drawn wagon with the Diamond Laundry Company. He lived frugally, saved much of his income and began to reinvest his money into the laundry company. In a few short years, he acquired ownership of the company.

Under Weingart's management the laundry company grew, especially with hotel business which needed large quantities of laundry cleaned in a short time.

The owner of the Winchester and other hotels, Mr. Orth, was so impressed with Weingart's efficiency that he asked Ben if he would manage some of his hotels. Weingart accepted the offer, and promptly changed the operating policies at all hotels under his charge. His salary was in the form of profit sharing. Nothing could make Ben work harder than profit. Efficiency tripled and profits increased sharply at Mr. Orth's hotels. Weingart again invested his earnings into the company he worked for, and soon he acquired ownership of some of the hotel properties.

Meantime, Weingart met Morgan Adams of Western Mortgage Company. Western Mortgage had a number of hotels that were experiencing difficulties. Ben was able to solve many of the problems and in the process acquired more hotel properties for himself.

An Accumulator of Property

With some experience under his belt, he obtained financing and began buying more properties. Most of his early properties were located in downtown Los Angeles. He was convinced that the Los Angeles economy was growing strongly. He believed that real estate in Los Angeles could only become more valuable. His belief proved to be correct - property values in downtown indeed grew at a rapid rate.

Weingart was never a seller. He was an accumulator. He would buy and hold property. His properties soon made him worth several million dollars.

At age 27 he fell in love with Stella Shobe and they got married. It has been said that Weingart always had a strong attraction for the ladies. It was also said that Ben never touched alcohol.

By the early 1930s the stock market had crashed and many people had experienced large losses. Ben lost nearly $20 million in the value of his investments, but he managed to hang onto some of his properties.

During the Depression, many of the hotels in downtown Los Angeles suffered hardships, and one of their major creditors was Weingart's laundry company. When hotels couldn't pay him, Weingart would settle for an option to buy the property at a greatly reduced price. Then he would contact the mortgage holder and disclose the problems that the hotel was experiencing. He would suggest that there was a good chance the mortgage holder might get the property back through foreclosure and thus would inherit the problems of the previous operator.

He would then negotiate with the mortgage holder, saying that if they would reduce the mortgage principal balance, and also sufficiently reduce the monthly payments, he would take over and operate the property. Weingart was a tough negotiator, but a reliable operator. Many mortgage holders took his proposal rather than face the prospect of losing substantial sums through foreclosure, while still being required to manage the property.

Weingart converted many hotel rooms into efficiency bachelor apartment units. The result was that the units were more desirable, the income was increased, and the units stayed rented for longer periods of time. Less turnover meant fewer repairs, hence higher net income.

After the Depression, once again he started buying foreclosed properties. He raised additional funds through financing and acquired even more properties.

Weingart Builds a City

In the late 1940s Weingart bought 3,500 acres of land north of Long Beach. It was farmland formerly used to grow beans and sugar beets. He had a vision of grand development for the property.

Weingart engaged three developers: Lou Boyar, Mark Taper, and Joel Eichenbaum. He contacted Harry Volk of the Prudential Insurance and Trust Company, who agreed to insure $250 million in mortgage loans. 17,000 homes were built. The combination of a development plan and financing was the birth of the City of Lakewood.

It was Weingart's vision and resources that built the Lakewood Shopping Center, the first large-scale shopping center in the country. It was constructed on 163 acres with more than 2 million square feet of shopping space. The Lakewood Shopping Center became a model for shopping center development everywhere.

By 1954, with a population of 57,000, Lakewood was the 16th largest city in California. The growth of the city, along with many other areas of southern California during the 1950s and 1960s, was bolstered by heavy migration of people into the area, including World War II and Korean War veterans.

Weingart also built homes in the San Fernando Valley, La Puente, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Ventura, and Las Vegas.

The Mayfair Hotel

In the early 1970s the Mayfair Hotel, located on West Seventh Street, was in trouble. The hotel had 330 rooms. Western International Hotels held the mortgage and the current owner was in default.

Western, owner of the Century Plaza Hotel, did not want to take possession of the Mayfair and have to operate it. They wanted to sell their position. Weingart made an offer to buy the hotel for substantially less than the mortgage amount. His offer was immediately accepted.

Barrington Plaza

Weingart's largest single acquisition was Barrington Plaza, 722 units in three high-rise apartment buildings located on Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles. The property had been taken back by the Federal government through default. The government held a $22 million loan against the property and did not want to take a loss, but they were ready to negotiate.

The government accepted his offer of $22 million with nothing down and a total moratorium on payments for two years. Then payments were to be "interest only" for 10 years, but the interest payments would be made only if there was sufficient net income. Any unpaid interest would be added to the principal balance.

As it turned out, Weingart's risk was minimal and his tax benefits were over $1,250,000 yearly. Real estate went into an inflationary period and Weingart ended up making a profit of over $10 million on a real estate acquisition which required no down payment.

In 1957 Ben's wife Stella died. During the 1960s and early 1970s he lived with his girlfriend Laura Winston. In 1974 at age 87, Weingart's health had deteriorated. He was unable to function adequately and his assets were placed into a conservatorship. He died in 1980.

In 1974 when the conservatorship began, the Weingart holdings consisted roughly of 100 apartment buildings with a total of 8,469 units, 17 hotels with a total of 4,492 rooms, 5 motels with 654 rooms, 38 leased commercial properties, a construction company, a linen service company, and several million dollars in the bank. The total value of the estate at the time has been estimated at $100 million.

The Weingart Foundation

Ben Weingart was a generous and caring person who used his wealth to help other people. In 1951, he and his wife Stella started a charitable foundation. Real charity, he thought, is helping those who really need it. The "down and out" people on Skid Row, and the forgotten ones, these were the people he chose to support.

Today, the Weingart Foundation is a well known and respected institution in Los Angeles. In 1994 the foundation had total assets of $490,350,000 and made total grants of $25,250,000 to assist people in numerous categories of philanthropy, including education, youth programs, health and medicine, crisis intervention, disaster relief, and community programs.

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Sources of information for this article include the "Herald Examiner" and the "Los Angeles Times," the Lakewood Public Library, the Weingart Foundation, and some people who knew Ben Weingart.

Note

You are welcome to use information from "The Incredible Story of Ben Weingart" for your own purposes, provided that you include the following credit when reproducing, distributing, or displaying it:

Courtesy of Deke Keasbey, Commercial Real Estate Specialist with Tierra Properties, 11941 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Phone: (310) 477-3192. Web site: http://www.tierraproperties.com. Email: keasbey@tierraproperties.com. Adapted from an article by him that appeared in "Apartment Age," the official magazine of AAGLA (the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles).


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