By Scott Sanders
When Hugh Taylor Birch (Antioch class of 1869) died in 1943, he was already one of the College’s greatest benefactors. He had given Antioch its picturesque glen in 1929, naming it in memory of his beloved daughter, Helen Birch Bartlett. But even in death he wasn’t done, for in his will was stipulated another gift of land to his alma mater: over 200 acres of his Ft. Lauderdale, Florida estate. A good portion of the tract was prime oceanfront land between the Atlantic coast and a canal called the Intracoastal Waterway, but most of it was a mangrove swamp west of the canal and along the Middle River unusable by the utilitarian standards of the postwar era. Algo Henderson (college president 1933-48) wrote in his memoir Skyhooks that he sought the advice of Joseph P. Day, a New York real estate magnate and friend of Antioch whose son had attended in the 1920s. Day conceived of a plan to develop the 80 acres on the ocean and build apartment houses, the leases from which would provide a steady long-term income. Day would use his position on the board of Met Life Insurance to secure the massive loans required for construction, the repayment of which he projected would easily be covered by the lease income and paid off within 30 years. But when Joe Day died in 1944, the dream of using other people’s money to develop Antioch’s Florida property died with him.
Antioch nevertheless went ahead with the development plan, building a seawall and raising the land above tide level. We laid out streets and utilities and sold the lots for a net of about 2 million dollars, big money in the early 1950s. The swampland required substantially more work and money for development, and brought home around a million dollars in profits for the college, which had never in its history seen money roll in like that. Still seeking a source of long-term income, the college engaged a Ft. Lauderdale-area marketing consultant, who recommended a shopping center as that source based on surveys of the local populace. So in June 1953, largely on its own meager resources mind you, Antioch College began constructing a mall, the Sunrise Shopping Center, one of the first of its kind in this country.
The grand opening in early 1954 was a gala event featuring Magda Gabor, least known member of the otherwise famous Gabor sisters, who was supposed to make a dramatic entrance via helicopter and cut the ceremonial ribbon to open Sunrise, but arrived too late to be a part of the festivities. Within a year of Sunrise’s auspicious beginnings, however, Antioch would be looking to sell. Managing such a complicated enterprise from a thousand miles away in Ohio was difficult enough, that the profits failed to roll in as projected didn’t help, either. Ft. Lauderdale was a growing city at the time, having more than doubled in size between 1940 and 1950, but in 1954 it still had a population of around 50,000, perhaps a bit too small to support such a foreign concept as a shopping mall.
So in 1955 Antioch sold control of the center to one of Sunrise’s tenants, a restaurateur, and cleared a profit of about 2 million dollars but retained the mortgage so that it still received an annual income of about $100,000. That mortgage was finally sold in 1976 after a couple of down years that saw no money flow north to Yellow Springs, and the Antioch adventure in retail was at an end. Today the Sunrise Center is a now familiar indoor mall called the Galleria at Fort Lauderdale featuring four upscale dept. stores and over 100 other retailers. It’s awfully hard to fault the people behind the Sunrise Center gambit that had brought the College more money than it had ever seen, but in the long view of history, our Ft. Lauderdale property could have been the answer to Antioch’s seemingly endemic financial woes.