Alfred A. Gilbert, 87, a prominent real estate developer, investor and philanthropist, died March 11 at Hahnemann Hospital. He was a resident of Merion Station.
Gilbert became interested in real estate when, as a young man, he collected rents for his father, who owned small properties in West Philadelphia. That led to employment with local realty companies, during which time he proposed a site on West Chester Pike, Havertown, for commercial development. The Manoa Shopping Center was constructed, considered to be the first suburban strip complex in the Philadelphia area.
Gilbert became an independent realtor in the early 1950s, and established a reputation as a skilled developer-investor and negotiator. He was an active participant in ownership of the Sheraton Hotel, formerly on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, the Pennsylvania Academy for Fine Arts property and the UGI Building at Broad and Arch streets. He also had a financial interest in the Budco Theatre chain.
In 1956, he introduced a new concept in commercial real estate on a 26-acre parcel at Tinicum and Essington avenues. It was called "The Market Place" -- a 70,000-square-foot, one-story structure that housed more than 30 independent retail tenants.
The property was eventually acquired by the Redevelopment Authority.
The Gilbert firm built two uniquely designed neighborhood shopping centers in the early 1970s, the Olde Country Shopping Village on Street Road in Bucks County, and the Olde Sproul Shopping Village in Springfield, Delaware County. The former was patterned on Bavarian architecture, and the latter was English-style.
In 1983, Gilbert spearheaded a group that purchased the then-shuttered Benjamin Franklin Hotel at Ninth and Chestnut streets, converting it into the Benjamin Franklin House with several hundred rental apartments.
He also had holdings in Delaware; New Jersey; the Washington, D.C. area; and Florida, where he owned a villa in Pompano Beach. For all of his career, he maintained an office in Center City.
He was a member of both the White Manor Country Club and Squires Golf Club, where he had served as president.
A philanthropist, Gilbert raised and contributed substantial funds to several nonprofit agencies, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the State of Israel Bonds, the Crohns & Colitis Foundation, Families of Murdered Victims, the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, and the Cardiovascular Institute at Hahnemann Hospital, as well as the Walnut Street and Prince theaters.
He was a founder of the Yeadon Jewish Community Center and a member of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Media.
Gilbert is survived by his wife, the former Louise Bowser; daughters Beth Reisboard and Valerie Swarbrick; son William Gilbert; stepsons Alfred Harrison and Roland Harrison; sister Natalie Isenberg; 13 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Memorial contributions can be made to: the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, 2100 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19103.