Maurice Wohl was a self-made real estate magnate, Wohl was known for his generosity. The president of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, he was also a benefactor of Bar-Ilan University, Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, as well as many other Israeli institutions.
He built up United Real Property Trust and floated it in 1961. Having established his own company, United Real Property Trust, in 1948, he built up a portfolio of 14 prime City and West End office buildings, including Reed House in Piccadilly and the vast State House in High Holborn – completed in 1960 but left untenanted for many months until Wohl was offered what he considered an acceptable rent by the Ministry of Works.
United Real was floated on the stock exchange in 1961, provoking comparisons between Wohl and the archetypal real estate tycoon of the era, Charles Clore. But Wohl himself maintained a resolutely low profile and, despite growing wealth, a modest way of life which offered no fodder for gossip columnists.
A bachelor until his late forties – described by one admirer as “dark and fluorescently handsome” and by another as “charmingly eccentric” – he lived in a flat in central London, drove an old car and quietly got on with his business, in which he had a reputation for being cautious, iron-willed and more fluent in company and property law than many a solicitor.
Exposure to the whims of the stock market did not particularly suit Wohl’s business style, and in 1965 he announced that he intended to put United Real into liquidation because he felt its share price was too low compared to the value of its properties.
He changed his mind, however, and remained at the helm as chairman until 1974 when – having survived the property crash relatively unscathed and without the help of the Bank of England’s “lifeboat” scheme – he retired to Switzerland.
Thereafter, United Real maintained its portfolio but was no longer an active developer.
In 1986 it was taken over by Mountleigh, one of the hottest names of the 1980s property scene under the swashbuckling leadership of the Lancashire-born Tony Clegg.
Mountleigh went on to crash spectacularly in the recession of the early 1990s – but the Wohl family had received £60 million for their shares, and their shrewdly invested fortune was estimated earlier this year to have grown to £100 million.
In his later life – divided between homes in London, Tel Aviv and Geneva – Wohl enjoyed intellectual pursuits and art collecting, and was a generous supporter of a wide range of medical, educational and cultural causes, both personally and more publicly through the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation.
In London in 1987 he endowed a dental practice centre for students at King’s College Hospital.
Among his other benefactions were the Wohl Virion Centre for the study of retroviruses at UCL; a research scholarship at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh; and a large donation to the Great Court development at the British Museum.
By the mid-1970s he had retired to Switzerland. In 1986 United Real was sold in a £117m deal, earning Wohl about £60m for his stake.
“When a book is written about the great Jewish philanthropists, there will be a very thick chapter on Maurice,” said Zalli Jaffe, vice president of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.
Born in London to working class, Eastern European immigrants, Wohl had long been active in philanthropic causes both in Israel and abroad. He and his late wife, Vivienne, donated the rose garden opposite the Knesset that bears their name, and Wohl was honored with the title “Trustee of Jerusalem” (Ne’eman Yerushalayim). Wohl, also made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE), split his time between his homes in London, Geneva and Tel Aviv.
The Wohl Centre serves as a convention center for Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel. It was built between 2001 and 2005 and covers about 42,000 square feet (3,900 square meters). The building, designed by the internationally-renowned Daniel Libeskind and a local architecture firm, the Heder Partnership, has been noted for its stark exterior and uncluttered interior. In 2006, the Wohl Centre won a RIBA International Award for its architecture.