Dominic F. 'Nick' Antonelli Jr., 88
D.C. real estate, parking-lot magnate Dominic F. 'Nick' Antonelli Jr. dies at 88
Friday, July 23, 2010
Dominic F. "Nick" Antonelli Jr. grew up so poor that he survived at times on nothing but cornflakes and water. After dropping out of high school, he made a living as a carhop in a parking lot across from the plush Mayflower hotel in downtown Washington. He lived in a boarding house nearby, where he spent Saturdays ridding his room of bugs and rats with the careful use of kerosene.
From those beginnings, Mr. Antonelli used determination, shrewdness and connections with the District's elite to build one of the city's largest and most powerful business empires, a conglomerate of parking lots and sprawling real estate investments that gave him a key role in shaping the development of the city and its suburbs.
Mr. Antonelli, 88, who became part-owner of the Mayflower before the collapse of his businesses forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1991, died July 19 at his home in Potomac. He had cancer.
Mr. Antonelli went into the parking-lot business in 1946 when, using carefully scrounged savings, he leased and then bought the lot where he had worked as an attendant. He eventually built a nine-floor corporate headquarters there for Parking Management Inc., the firm he founded with railroad heir Kingdon Gould Jr. By the mid-1960s, PMI operated 90 lots in the city, and the company's logo is still ubiquitous on garages in the District.
He gave generously to politicians, including Rep. John L. McMillan (D-S.C.), the longtime chairman of the House District Committee, to prevent the creation of a municipal parking authority. But he realized early on that land, rather than parking, was the key to wealth.
Working 18-hour days, the entrepreneur made millions of dollars in the post-World War II real estate boom of the 1950s and '60s. He bought and demolished hundreds of old buildings, turning the sites into parking lots until he was ready to build office buildings, apartments other profitable developments -- many of which included PMI garages.
Mr. Antonelli's real estate holdings extended into Washington's suburbs and as far afield as Panama, where he owned more than half a million acres of land, a coconut-oil refining business and a Coca-Cola bottling company. He also owned interests in a range of businesses, including tomato and cucumber farms in the Bahamas, an auto-parts manufacturer in Maine and a ship-salvaging outfit in Texas. He lived on a 22-acre estate in Potomac and occasionally spent time on his 103-foot yacht.
The key to his success, he said, was his willingness to work harder than anyone else. His first big business deal came in 1947, when he bought a pair of binoculars and rented a room on the top floor of the Willard Hotel. Camped there for several days, he counted the cars going in and out of the Great Plaza, a giant government-owned parking lot at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
When the Great Plaza came up for lease, the information Mr. Antonelli had collected gave him an edge. He submitted the winning bid and went on to operate the lucrative lot for more than 30 years.
After a rise, a fall
Decades after Mr. Antonelli's rise, however, his business empire began to falter. By the early 1960s, he had co-founded Madison National Bank and Mortgage Investors of Washington. The bank financed real estate ventures in the region and came under scrutiny for lending heavily to Mr. Antonelli and other insiders.
In 1978, Mr. Antonelli was indicted on charges of bribery. Prosecutors said that he had landed a $20 million contract to lease office space to the D.C. government in return for providing financial help to mayoral aide Joseph Yeldell, who owned a struggling travel business and was unable to repay his loans from Madison National Bank on time.
Mr. Antonelli and Yeldell were convicted by a Washington jury, but the case was retried in Philadelphia after it came to light that the father of one of the jurors had worked for -- and been fired by -- Mr. Antonelli. The second time around, the two men were acquitted.