A sketch of Norman Leventhal’s early life would not have promised great fortune, but he became a prominent Boston developer and map collector who helped rejuvenate his city and endowed an extensive map center in the Boston Public Library. “I’m a lucky guy, because of my associations with terrific people throughout my life,” he says. “They have made all the difference in what I’ve been able to accomplish.”
An MIT tuition loan in 1934 enabled the working-class boy from Dorchester to earn his engineering degree. With that degree and a penchant for hard work, Leventhal transformed his life. While studying civil engineering at MIT, Leventhal held down three jobs. After graduating, he served as a naval architect in Boston until 1946, when he started Beacon Construction with his brother Robert and a few hundred dollars.
The brothers got their first big break in 1962, when they landed the development rights to build Center Plaza at Government Center. That success led to the development of Post Office Square, Rowes Wharf, and South Station. All these projects enlivened and enriched the public face of Boston. The redevelopment of Post Office Square from a parking garage to a park embodied his vision “to find ways to make the riches of Boston available to all her citizens, not just the most fortunate among us,” as a Boston Globe article put it.
In the 1970s, Leventhal discovered the allure of antique maps. “Maps are art,” he says. “They’re also great educational tools about history, geography, social sciences, religion.” Recently, he established a $10 million permanent endowment to fund the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. His gift is the largest in the library’s history.
But ask Leventhal what he considers his greatest accomplishment and he says, “Marrying Muriel.” The two live at Rowes Wharf, steps away from Leventhal’s State Street office. They have three children, 11 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, who all live in the Boston area.
These days Leventhal, a life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation, chairs the effort to rejuvenate City Hall Plaza. The city of Boston has honored him with several named public spaces, and he has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. With characteristic modesty, Leventhal comments, “I’ve just been very fortunate.”