News & Community

100 Years: Walter Sondheim Is Born

Part of our "100 Years: The Twelve Events That Shaped Baltimore" series

In the midst of the red-brick canyons of UMBC’s suburban Baltimore campus stands an elegant sculptural tableau consisting of three polished granite benches and a life-sized bronze statue, all arranged in a tight circle. The statue depicts Baltimore businessman/public servant extraordinaire Walter Sondheim Jr. wearing a suit, a bow tie, and a smile, while each of the benches has been inscribed with a notable Sondheimism—words that, oddly, resonate with the same sort of plain, direct wisdom found in Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book.

“Try to understand someone else’s position and not assume you know what’s best for others.”
“Respect personal and intellectual honesty. It is so much simpler to be honest and fair. It is much more complicated to be dishonest.”
“Do the best you can and drop arrogance at the door. When you go in to give advice, be willing to let someone else take the credit.”

Tellingly, the Sondheim statue’s right index finger points toward that last aphorism. Sondheim, who died this past February at age 98, not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. He spent the majority of his years as a living embodiment of his own adages, always pondering what he thought was best for Baltimore—and never, it seems, putting the needs or ego of Walter Sondheim Jr. ahead of the challenges facing his hometown.

Sondheim provided nearly an entire lifetime of public service that touched on virtually every aspect of civic life, notably education, housing, and, particularly, economic development. Dust the city’s various public and private institutions for fingerprints, and you’ll find Sondheim’s.

“He taught us the meaning of the word citizen, and the importance of believing in ourselves,” observes UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who helped preside over the 2005 dedication of the Sondheim sculpture and benches, as well as the ceremonies renaming the school’s social sciences building Janet and Walter Sondheim Hall. “It was evident that he considered it both a privilege and an obligation to contribute to the city.”

In Zelig-like fashion, Sondheim was present for a handful of Baltimore’s most significant events in the second half of the 20th century—most prominently, the desegregation of public schools in 1954, and the urban renewal renaissance that culminated with the extensive waterfront development of the Inner Harbor in the 1970’s and 1980’s. But unlike Zelig, Sondheim was no mere mute witness, but rather an active participant, unobtrusively midwiving social, economic, and cultural transformation.

He functioned as what The Walt Disney Company terms an “Imagineer,” a behind-the-scenes wizard deftly weaving together the related strands of master planning, creative development, design, engineering, production, project management, and research development. Except that Sondheim wasn’t devising whiz-bang technology for animated feature films or grandiose amusement parks—he was handcrafting a city.

According to Martin Millspaugh, former president, chief executive, and chairman of the Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Corporation Inc., Sondheim advised “mayors and boards and organizations in so many different facets of the city’s life. You couldn’t list one particular thing [as being the most important] as much as say he was there and guided what happened—and so much of it was successful.”

The list of leadership roles he held is nearly too much to believe: chairman of the Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Corporation. President of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. Chairman of the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Commission. Director of the Baltimore Urban League. Senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee. Over the course of more than 60 years, Walter Sondheim served in all of these capacities, not forgetting board positions with a bevy of foundations, hospitals, businesses, and universities.

“He was uniquely public-spirited in terms of being interested in and involved with the issues that affected the city—public policy issues,” states Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “And all this occurred primarily after he retired; but even before he retired, his waking hours were devoted to issues involving public policy questions. It’s hard to find a comparable example of that.”

Born in Baltimore on July 25, 1908, and raised in Bolton Hill, Walter Sondheim Jr. went to the Park School, before graduating from Pennsylvania’s Haverford College in 1929. Soon afterward, he joined Hochschild, Kohn, where his father held an executive position; he married Janet Blum—a professional dancer—in 1934; and retired from the department store in 1970 as senior vice president and treasurer (he also served as a Navy lieutenant in World War II). By that time, Sondheim already had compiled an impressive resume in public service.

Appointed to the city’s school board in 1948, he rose to become its president, and, in 1954, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Sondheim steered his board colleagues into implementing the desegregation of Baltimore’s public schools quickly and without rancor, making Baltimore the first school district south of the Mason-Dixon Line to do so.

“That took real leadership,” says Ed Orser, professor of American Studies at UMBC and an authority on Baltimore history. “Admittedly, the immediate [actions] were rather modest, but nevertheless the step was symbolically quite significant.”

Three years later, Sondheim signed on as chairman of the newly created Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Authority, beginning a half-century odyssey of remaking the cityscape with a thoughtful purposefulness. While Millspaugh and J. Jefferson Miller Jr. oversaw the initial foray into the city’s transformation with the ambitious development of Charles Center beginning in 1958, Sondheim concentrated on a handful of satellite urban renewal projects: the University of Maryland’s downtown campus, Camden Industrial Park, Harlem Park, Broadway, and Mount Royal Plaza, among others.

“A revitalized downtown cannot exist as an oasis in a desert of blight,” Sondheim told business leaders in 1963. “It must be supported by well-housed middle-income city dwellers who are urbanites by choice. . . . Keeping good citizens in the inner city, and re-attracting those who have had enough of lawn mowers and long trips to downtown, is possible only as the city regains its former glamour and desirability. Bringing about this change in areas of housing, as well as of culture and of industry, finance, and commerce, is a major goal of Baltimore’s urban renewal program.

“Strong political leadership, coupled with strong citizen and business leadership, is the only combination that can insure Baltimore’s future as an outstanding example of the revitalized American city.”

Some of the commission’s renewal projects thrived; others foundered. All the while, Sondheim eyed the redevelopment mother lode: the Inner Harbor. “Here is an area that has excited the imagination of architects and planners for many years,” Sondheim noted in that 1963 speech. “It is perhaps our outstanding physical asset. Everyone wants to do something about developing the inner harbor.”

And so in 1970 he migrated to Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, staying for 19 years (15 as chairman) while accepting only $1 a year as salary. On his watch, he facilitated the makeover of Baltimore’s waterfront from derelict wharves into a commercial/cultural engine by refereeing the push-pull between city government and private developers: Up sprang Harborplace, the Maryland Science Center, and a handful of luxury hotels. Hardly a puppet master, Sondheim instead quietly built consensus between sundry stakeholders to advance projects from conception to completion, abetted by his benign nature and reputation for integrity.

“He was certainly laid back,” recalls Millspaugh. “He didn’t push himself or his ideas forward. He was there when people would say, ‘Walter, what’s your advice?’ He wasn’t really retiring—he was very much a strong person, but not putting anything forward until it was needed.”

Adds Embry, “He was very much behind the scenes. He was not quoted in the newspaper or writing letters to the editor. He was very selfless; there was no question that he was trying to benefit himself in any way, financially or in any other respect. He was very knowledgeable in the sense that he had spent many years involved in these issues, so knew about their history and could put them in context. He was very smart, very intelligent, very articulate, and very non-threatening. And as he grew older, he was more venerated. Thus, the more he did, the more he was respected. There wasn’t anybody else that occupied the position that he did.”

After stepping down from his Charles Center-Inner Harbor post in 1989, Sondheim continued to monitor urban renewal as a senior adviser at the Greater Baltimore Committee, and, in 1991, at the behest of then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, he chaired a panel that studied school performance, a group informally known as the Sondheim Commission. Its subsequent report established a template for what would morph into the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, and served as a model for the national No Child Left Behind initiative.

Without fanfare, Sondheim created an awesome legacy. Perhaps more than any single individual, he innately understood—intuited, really—Baltimore’s potential, its possibilities, and he worked assiduously to bring them to fruition.

“He wore his coat of influence very lightly,” points out UMBC’s Hrabowski. “It was so clear that his emphasis was on making a difference and not on himself—not about ego, not about turf, not about getting credit.

Why It Matters

• After a career at a legendary city department store, Walter Sondheim Jr. became the city’s strongest advocate, best strategist, and wisest sage.
• Sondheim’s canny diplomacy and unwavering vision helped unite city leaders to fight economic ills and undo social injustices.