H. Irwin Levy, the developer behind the Century Village communities, dies

It started as a dream in 1969 to sell a South Florida lifestyle to retirees.

In the following years, H. Irwin Levy, attorney and developer, marketed Century Village condos to New Yorkers for as little as $9,000 for one- and two-bedroom units.

By the 1980s, his homes were full of transplanted Northeasterners — most of them Jewish and Democrats — and helped changed the face of culture and politics in South Florida.

Levy, a philanthropist who lived in West Palm Beach, died Monday at age 97, his family said. Part of his legacy was opening new communities in South Florida that thrived through the decades. His son, Mark Levy, said his father built the four Century Village communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties — and Wynmoor Village in Coconut Creek — to “provide an incredible way of life for tens of thousands of people in South Florida. That’s what he was the proudest of.”

In this file photo published in the Sun Sentinel on October 10, 1997 shows H. Irwin Levy and son, Mark, in the background - who helped make South Florida retiree haven with his Century Village condominiums. (Hilda M. Perez/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
A photo published in the Sun Sentinel on Oct. 10, 1997, shows H. Irwin Levy (with his son, Mark, in the background). The elder Levy helped make South Florida a retiree haven with his Century Village condominiums.

Born in Scranton, Penn., in 1926, Levy served in the U.S. Air Corps during World War II. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Penn State and then the University of Miami Law School in 1951. He moved to Florida in 1950 after transferring from Cornell Law School, according to his son.

In 1967 Levy was a practicing attorney in Palm Beach. He got three of his client-friends to invest $1.8 million with him in a West Palm Beach condominium project called Century Village, according to a 2000 interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Within six months the project was failing. So he gave up his law practice to manage the project full time.

“In Miami Beach they were showing retirees sitting in rocking chairs,” Levy said at the time. “That was what retirement was all about in those days.”

His new marketing message: “We give years to your life and life to your years.”

He offered golf, a clubhouse, shows, movies, dancing, swimming pools “and a guarantee that if 10 people said they wanted to learn something, we found an instructor to teach it.”

While oceanfront condos and “retirement hotels” had existed in South Florida for decades, Levy was the first locally to offer the massive, full-service retirement village — a place where nonstop entertainment was right outside your front door.

He targeted Jewish tourists when they already were in town. “In the mid-’70s, we’d run buses down to the hotels, in that little place they now call South Beach, and bring them up for a visit,” Levy told the Sun Sentinel in a 1997 interview. “We’d give them a lunch and sell them an apartment.”

Levy sold out three complexes, totaling 22,074 apartments, in 20 years using this formula. First, there was the Century Village in West Palm Beach, started in 1969. By 1974 Levy had sold all 7,854 units at the Century Village in West Palm Beach.

Second came the one in Deerfield Beach, the largest complex, where construction began in 1973. Century Village West in West Boca came next. The final one was in Pembroke Pines.

Levy also hired Jewish comedian Red Buttons as a pitchman, which required Buttons to come to South Florida at least three times a year “to shake hands and stuff,” the comedian told the Sun Sentinel in 1997.

“I’ve made a lot of people happy — and a lot of money,” Levy said in an interview more than two decades ago when he was 73.

At the time Levy was still a businessman who didn’t have time to play golf with his friends except on weekends. His boat was spending most of its time on its lift out of the water. He jokingly referred to it “as my backyard sculpture.”

From its peak from 1975 through the early 1980s, Levy’s salespeople at Century Village could move 100 apartments in a good week, he told the Sun Sentinel in a 1997 interview. Eager buyers would be lined up outside the sales office. Levy knew what they wanted and he gave it to them: cheap apartments, lavish clubhouses, gatehouses and uniformed guards for security, and lots of recreation right outside their front doors.

Levy often said that with Century Village, he was selling a lifestyle, not an apartment, and he scrimped on the living units so he could lavish money on the facade, plus keep costs low. All of the buildings in the first village in West Palm Beach, most in the second, in Deerfield Beach, were two stories but had no elevators, in order to save money.

As a result, apartments in the West Palm Beach village started at $9,000; in Deerfield six years later, a luxury two-bedroom unit was around $32,000.

“We sell lifestyle,” Levy told the Palm Beach Post in 1981. “The quality of our environment is the reason people buy here rather than Nome, Alaska.”

Mark Levy said the point was that “people of modest means could come and live a wonderful life in South Florida with incredible amenities and shows, and active quality lifestyle, and affordable for people who were teachers and civil servants.”

Otherwise, he said, “you’d have to be rich to move to South Florida to live a great lifestyle. He made himself financially successful by doing good.”

In 1997 he sold the rights to the name “Century Village.”

Mark Levy said his father had “tremendous empathy” and “all he cared about was using good judgment and integrity and honesty in everything he did. He didn’t have a need for other people’s approval, he just did what he thought was right.”

Levy’s legacy in South Florida involves philanthropy, including being one of the founding supporters of MorseLife, where he was honored in 2009 at the 25th anniversary. In 2005 he and his wife gave a $1 million gift to the Kravis Center.

The funeral will be 11 a.m. Thursday at Temple Emanu-El, 190 N. County Road in Palm Beach. Burial will immediately follow.

In addition to his son, Mark Levy, of Palm Beach Gardens, Levy is survived by his wife, Ellen Levy, daughter, Lynn Peseckis, of Riviera Beach; four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash

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