Who Was Charles Rutenberg?

By CRAIG BASSE, The St. Petersburg Times
Published September 12, 2004

Selling furniture and appliances in Chicago put food on the table for Charlie Rutenberg. He knew nothing about building houses.

But a spur-of-the-moment decision changed all that.

In 1951, Mr. Rutenberg was visiting his parents, who had retired to Harbor Bluffs, near Clearwater.

"One day we saw an ad in the paper saying lots in the Skycrest Development property near Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard were being auctioned off," he recalled in 1970. "It was sort of a whim. We didn't know anything about building houses, but we had the morning free, so we went to the auction. When we came out we found we had spent $7,000 and owned nine vacant lots."

Mr. Rutenberg, who built Suncoast shopping centers, office buildings and thousands of homes, died Friday, Sept. 10, 2004. He was 80 years old.

Charles Isaac Rutenberg was born in Chicago and studied at the University of Chicago, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in economics in 1947. He was a U.S. Army veteran of World War II.

Impressed by the growth potential of the Suncoast, Mr. Rutenberg moved to Clearwater in 1953 and plunged into home building and land development. Three brothers joined him: Arthur, who was a senior vice president; Daniel, who also became an English professor; and Morton, who was assistant to the company comptroller in the early days.

Their Rutenberg Construction Co. introduced the "split floor plan," to Florida. The company built a 1,600-square-foot model in Keene Forest in Clearwater with an innovative floor plan that separated the master bedroom off the dining room and three other bedrooms at the opposite end of the house. The concept, credited to Daniel Rutenberg, created one of the state's most visible contributions to mass-produced domestic interior design.

The developer, among other enterprises, of Countryside Mall, Charles Rutenberg once presided over a diverse empire of more than a half-dozen Pinellas corporations, including a bank and a savings and loan association. Nobody knew "more about land development than Charlie," his brother Arthur Rutenberg once said.

Charles Rutenberg also was known as a savvy and successful executive who developed people. Many of those he trained went on to be real estate brokers, developers and contractors. They were called "Charlie's boys," a fraternity of successful Rutenberg graduates.

Locally, Charles Rutenberg first made a name for himself with Rutenberg Construction Co. and Imperial Home Corp. When they became part of U.S. Home Corp. in 1969, he became president of U.S. Home as it grew into the nation's largest home builder.

Deposed as chairman in 1977, he later called the surprise action "probably the best thing that ever happened to me." He struck out again on his own, launching Rutenberg Corp., and becoming chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Republic Bank and Life Savings and Loan Association. Charles Rutenberg also was a benefactor to many civic and charitable groups, donating time as well as money. Some of the local beneficiaries included the Clearwater Hospital Development Board, Morton Plant Hospital, Clearwater Jewish Welfare Fund, the University of South Florida and the Performing Arts Center and Theater.

He was a past chairman of PACT Inc., the nonprofit management group that runs Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Over the years he also held posts with the American Friends of Haifa University, United Israel Appeal, the Tampa Orlando Pinellas Jewish Foundation, Clearwater's Golda Meir Center, Hebrew Union College and the Council of Jewish Federations.

He was a past vice president of Temple B'nai Israel and a member of the national executive committee of the United Jewish Appeal.

A cello player, as is his wife, Isadora "Isa," Charles Rutenberg was a former president of the Clearwater Symphony and a supporter of the Florida Orchestra.