By Cheri F Rosen
Almost a century ago, H. Irwin Levy was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on June 23, 1926, to Jacob and Mary Feuerman Levy. As a young man, Irwin worked alongside his four brothers and his father in the wholesale shoe business started by his immigrant grandfather Benjamin Levy. Undoubtedly, more important than the business acumen Irwin learned were the lessons about caring for the Jewish people with a devotion that would shape his future and those of future generations for decades to come.
After serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II, Irwin resumed the education he had interrupted in order to join the war effort. He graduated from Penn State and then attended Cornell Law School. While studying at Cornell, Irwin met and married Jeanne Siskin of Elmira, New York. Honeymooning in Miami, Irwin was so taken with the climate and beauty of Florida that he walked into the admissions office of the University of Miami Law School and successfully applied to finish his education there so he could start his new life as a married man in the Sunshine State. Anyone who has spent some winter days in the area of Ithaca, New York (home of Cornell), could certainly appreciate his sudden fondness for Florida.
After earning his law degree, the Levys settled in West Palm Beach, where Irwin opened a law office in 1951. Irwin became known for introducing clients who wanted to buy or sell properties, and although he was not planning a career in real estate, that’s where he seemed to have a knack for success. Seeing great opportunity in the growing Jewish community, Irwin decided to invest his own money in real estate development. He knew land values would only rise with the growing popularity of South Florida real estate. More importantly, having grown up a hundred miles from the Catskills, Irwin also knew that many retired people spent the warmest months enjoying the cool mountain air at the famous Jewish resorts featuring days filled with myriad activities and nights showcasing world-class Jewish talent. Irwin decided that he would create the same setting in South Florida in a place to live year-round, with recreation, entertainment, and services the elderly and retiring Jewish community would appreciate. He called this new kind of lifestyle Century Village.
Most anyone who is old enough to live in a Century Village condominium today can still recall the beloved comedian Red Buttons singing the praises of these new developments on commercial after commercial. Actually, Irwin had originally considered Jackie Gleason for the job, or a famous baseball player of the day, but then realized that the wives were the likely decision-makers and they wouldn’t want any of Jackie’s dancers hanging around!
Irwin opened the first sales office in Miami Beach and bused people to West Palm Beach, offering a free lunch and opening a Holiday Inn at the Turnpike exchange for their comfort. The first Century Village units were priced between $9,000 and $13,000, but those would quickly rise as the community gained reputation and value. With just architectural renderings and nothing concrete (pardon the pun) to see, and with a delivery date at least two years away, Irwin sold 400 units in less than three months.
Great success in West Palm Beach led to Century Villages in Deerfield Beach (Century Village East), Boca Raton (Century Village West), and Pembroke Pines (Century Village South), along with an existing project in Coconut Creek that Irwin renamed Wynmoor Village. Soon the company Irwin founded, Cenvill Communities, became the largest builder of condominiums in the entire country, with 1,500 employees in 1980. Although he sold Cenvill in 1985, Irwin returned to the helm in 1992 when it appeared his legacy was in decline. He sold the Century Village name five years later, but Cenvill Recreation still operates some of the recreational facilities and parts of the municipal operations such as streets and utilities.
As many of the Century Village population, especially the Conservative and Reform Jews of retirement age, are known to be diehard Democrats, many politicians have visited Century Village over the last several decades. Hillary and Bill Clinton visited twice when he was president, Vice President Al Gore came by in 2000, President Barack Obama appeared in 2011, and Vice President Joe Biden showed up in 2012.
Today, those of us at retirement age who have fond summer memories of bungalow life (many still participating) find ourselves drawn to the same type of camaraderie and simplicity offered in a Century Village. Though the condos are not much larger than our bungalows, those who have spent summers using common laundry machines or carting garbage out to a dumpster don’t find the inconveniences as loathsome as winter loneliness can be in the Northeast. Many of my Northeastern friends and acquaintances are now at least seasonal, if not annual, residents of a Century Village. Some who are the owners of huge homes or luxurious Five Town condominiums are absolutely enamored with their 1,000+ square feet in a CBS-constructed building that houses 100 strangers within another 1,000 linear feet.
As of this writing, although I am neither retired nor quite ready for adapting to year-round bungalow life, I can imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when the comfort of being surrounded by friends while quilting, with games of canasta, mah-jongg, or Pickleball awaiting, will be a siren song playing loud enough in my ear to actually lure me away from the beachfront of Boca.
Cheri F Rosen, of Lang Realty, has been a realtor in South Florida since moving to Boca Raton over a decade ago. You can learn more about real estate in South Florida by calling Cheri at 561-221-2233 or visiting Cheri’s website: southfloridacondosandhouses.com or just Google the words Orthodox Boca. Cheri’s website is the top search result. Submit your personal questions and concerns to Cheri, and they will be answered personally, or anonymously in future columns.