It requires either vision or folly to undertake a massive development project that more than 100 other builders refused to touch, and David H. Murdock has no history of folly.

In a 35-year succession of business coups and shrewd deals, the high school dropout has amassed one of the nation's largest personal fortunes, estimated at $400 million by Forbes magazine recently. If he is taking on the formidable task of rebuilding and rejuvenating the worn-out area around Baltimore's Lexington Market, his record indicates that he expects to make a lot of money doing it.

David H. Murdock Development Co., of which Murdock is the sole owner, is the designated redeveloper of the long-depressed neighborhood on the northern edge of downtown and is scheduled to take title next month to the first of several parcels.

The agreement between Murdock and the city's Market Center Development Corp. commits Murdock to more than $100 million worth of development over the next decade: construction of apartments and offices, renovation of two department stores and creation of retail shops enclosed in an atrium.

No other developer was willing to take on this massive project because it runs against the flow of Baltimore's economic resurgence, which is concentrated around the Inner Harbor area. Murdock stepped in because he "saw something nobody else wanted, and he could get it cheaply," said C. William Pacy, president of the city-sponsored Market Center Development Corp.

"We had maybe 150 prospective developers in here, but nobody wanted to do it because they thought the area would never come back. We were beating our brains out. Murdock is a man of vision. He saw what we see," Pacy said.

For any other developer, the Baltimore project would represent a heavy commitment of time and resouces, but for Murdock it is little more than a sideshow. Murdock, one of the nation's most versatile entrepreneurs, spends most of his time these days running Cannon Mills, the big North Carolina textile company that he bought last winter. He is also chairman of the board of Flexi-Van Corp., a New York-based transportation equipment leasing company. And he is the biggest single stockholder and a member of the board of directors of Occidental Petroleum Co., where he helped engineer the acquisition of Cities Service Co.

Murdock owns 3.32 million shares of Occidental stock, worth about $65 million, according to company documents issued in May. His 1.25 million shares of Flexi-Van are worth another $27 million, and he holds Flexi-Van preferred that can be converted into 556,800 additional shares.

As the designated developer of Market Center, he was required to submit proof of his financial ability to complete the project. It took the form of a letter from Continental Illinois National Bank, Murdock's principal bank, saying he had the resources, according to city officials.

"You will note that the financially committed party is David H. Murdock personally, a sole proprietorship," said Timothy Chriss, attorney for the Market Center Development Corp. "The city has no doubt of his ability to carry it out."

Murdock, 59, comes from modest, middle-American origins that he has long since left behind. He was born in Kansas City, Mo., the son of an electric generator salesman who lost his job in the Depression, and he was raised in Wayne, Ohio.

He quit school in the 10th grade. His first business venture was a diner he operated in Detroit. Now Murdock lives lavishly on the former Conrad Hilton estate in Los Angeles, which he bought for $12 million in 1979, and on a 1,200-acre ranch. He created his own upper-crust social club atop his headquarters building, and frequently has ventured into Republican Party politics and fund-raising.

But since making his first fortune in Phoenix real estate after World War II, he has made most of his money in mundane, low-profile industries and in low-glamor cities that other developers overlook. Pacific Holding Co. of Los Angeles, the vehicle for Murdock's investments and acquisitions, operates companies that make tile, bricks, paint cans and sewer pipe. Murdock Development Co., the real-estate branch of his empire, is creating major projects in Omaha, Akron and Fort Lee, N.J.

Murdock did not respond to requests for an interview. According to Pacy, he originally was interested in participating in the Inner Harbor development and was not impressed by the pleas of Pacy and Mayor William Donald Schaefer that he consider the Lexington Market project.

"He has an attention span of about 90 seconds," Pacy said of the restless, fast-moving Murdock. "I could see I wasn't getting to him." But on the spur of the moment, he invited Murdock to lunch at Lexington Market, the oldest publicly owned market in the country, and "he said he wanted to buy it."

Shortly afterward, Murdock wrote to Pacy and M. Jay Brodie, Baltimore's housing commissioner, saying he wanted to take part in "the next stage in your very exciting and successful program for the redevelopment of downtown Baltimore."

In the "disposition agreement" Murdock later signed with the city, he undertook to build at least 1 million square feet and up to 2.5 million square feet of first-class office space, to restore the exteriors of the Hutzler's and Hochschild-Kohn department stores, to construct an atrium with access to the new Lexington Market subway station, to build parking garages and elevated walkways over Paca and Eutaw streets and to construct street-level shops. The agreement calls for Murdock to pay about $5.4 million for the various parcels of land.

Murdock once said that his "rule number one is that we don't build on speculation" but always have a major tenant signed before development begins. In this case, he is violating his own rule.

"We do not have a major tenant lined up for the main building," said Robert J. Coakley, a vice president of Murdock Development. "We expect to have a major tenant at the appropriate time. We are out beating the bushes for a main tenant."

Murdock's small team of trusted assistants has been operating in new circumstances since last spring, when Murdock, in a departure from his usual practice of investing in companies but not running them, completed his extraordinary takeover of Cannon Mills, installed himself as its president, chairman and chief operating officer and moved much of his operation to North Carolina.

Cannon was a major, publicly traded corporation, with 1981 profits of $37.8 million on revenues of $767 million. Few individuals can raise enough money to buy out an enterprise of that size, but Murdock is one of them.

With Cannon stock trading at about $30 a share, he made a one-man tender offer of $44 a share, and had little trouble persuading the stockholders to accept that price. According to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Murdock bought Cannon with $342 million borrowed from Continental Illinois and three other banks. The loan is to be repaid out of future Cannon profits, or, if those are insufficient, out of Pacific Holding's funds -- that is, out of Murdock's pocket.

"There is no question that he's going to succeed," said a local resident who has talked to Murdock. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Baltimore's famous Lexington Market is being expanded and the area around it north of downtown is being developed by David H. Murdock at a cost of $100 million. Photos by Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post