The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Toll, home developer who redefined suburbs, dies at 81

As co-founder of Toll Brothers, he used some of his wealth for philanthropy, including covering school costs for students from elementary to college

Robert Toll, co-founder of Toll Brothers home developers, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of Toll Brothers)

Robert Toll, co-founder of Toll Brothers home builders that transformed rural tracts across the country into planned communities of expansive houses and multi-acre lots but also faced resistance from preservationists trying to halt suburban-style sprawl, died Oct. 7 at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

Mr. Toll’s brother and business partner, Bruce, confirmed the death. Mr. Toll had health issues related to Parkinson’s disease.

The brothers built their first model Colonial-style homes in suburban Philadelphia after founding Toll Brothers in 1967. The company soon became among the most ambitious developers pushing to build a new generation of tony commuter enclaves farther out from cities in farmland and wooded groves.

The Toll Brothers blueprint includes targeted land purchases, appeals for quick zoning approval and predesigned houses — now often selling for $1 million or more and typified by high-ceiling great rooms and elaborate master suites — that allow buyers to make some personalized changes. The business model made Mr. Toll and his brother wealthy and put the company on the Fortune 500 list. That also opened doors for philanthropic initiatives by Mr. Toll that included a program in Maine, Seeds of Peace, that brings together children from global conflict zones to share experiences at a former summer camp.

Mr. Toll’s company, meanwhile, has received praise for its growth and ire for its hard-charging corporate vision.

It has been targeted with various complaints over the years for alleged construction flaws and by opposition to “McMansion” subdivisions disrupting life in once-bucolic areas. In April, activists in Ann Arbor, Mich., climbed into trees in attempts to block a 57-home Toll Brothers development known as Concord Pines. (In the Washington area, the company has more than a dozen projects, ranging from homes worth more than $2.5 million in the Arden development in Great Falls, Va., to leased apartments in Navy Yard.)

Mr. Toll’s company heavily promotes its brand as “luxury” living, but he also acknowledged that developers have their own image problems to overcome — often seen, he told a journalist in 1989, as “big, ugly builders with black hats, mustaches, gold chains and big Cadillacs.”

“Toll Brothers recognized the shifting demographics,” said James W. Hughes, a professor of urban planning and policy development at Rutgers University.

In the 1980s, baby boomers were looking to “trade up” in a surging economy, he said. At the same time, officials in suburban fringes and rural areas in the Northeast were looking to control density by putting restrictions such as minimum two-acre lot sizes.

“Toll was perfectly placed with the kind of developments they were pushing,” Hughes said. “This is when they really took off.”

But Mr. Toll, as the son of a developer, knew that mistakes were still possible in land deals. As a joking but unsubtle reminder of what awaited colleagues who took unnecessary risks, he kept a pitchfork in the corner of his office to symbolize the jab one could expect for erring.

Started with two houses

Robert Irwin Toll was born in Elkins Park, Pa., in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, on Dec. 30, 1940. His father was involved in Philadelphia-area real estate, struggling during the Depression and then rebuilding his career.

He graduated in 1963 from Cornell University, where he majored in political science, and he received a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1966. He worked briefly at the Philadelphia law firm Wolf Block before leaving to start Toll Brothers with his younger brother, Bruce.

“We built two homes,” Mr. Toll recalled. “Instead of selling them, we used them as samples for the lots we owned down the street.” That landed contracts to build 20 more like them, only a little bit “fancier” than the models that were priced at about $17,500.

“Those houses today sell for $1 million,” Bruce Toll said.

At the time, the suburbs were pushing beyond the first wave of postwar, tract house developments. Mr. Toll and his brother were among the first developers to recognize how the trends in highway construction and retail changes such as malls would open up areas that were largely still farmland.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Toll wrote in a New York Times essay in 2005, he was tracked down by a man who just bought a home in a Toll Brothers development in Pennsylvania farm country. A farmer was leading his pigs through the man’s backyard. The farmer told Mr. Toll that his family had a Colonial-era covenant, from Pennsylvania’s namesake William Penn no less, that gave him access to a water site on the Toll subdivision. “It was true. … They had to buy the rights back from the farmer for about $30,000,” he wrote.

As Toll Brothers grew — now in 60 markets across 24 states — Mr. Toll became increasingly frustrated by the vagaries and volatility of local politics, including pressure on officials to change zoning rules to block development.

“I fully support preservationists who buy land to be set aside, which is the correct way to do it,” he wrote in the Times. “But some towns think they can change zoning laws after we’ve applied for approval of a subdivision by coming up with spurious reasons why we can’t build.”

Still, some of Mr. Toll’s challenges came from within. A Boston Globe investigation in 2001, amid rising claims of problems with Toll Brothers construction across the country, found a variety of apparent flaws such as wall panels improperly cut and other shortcuts. At the time, a Toll Brothers statement to the Globe said that no national home builder “has customers who are more satisfied than Toll’s.”

In 2010, Toll Brothers agreed to a $25 million settlement in an investor lawsuit that claimed the company overstated its ability to manage the housing slump during the Great Recession. (The company went public in 1986.) Toll Brothers denied wrongdoing in agreeing to settle.

The company bounced back as the economy recovered, however, currently building about 10,000 homes a year. Forbes estimated Mr. Toll’s net worth at $1.1 billion.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Toll is survived by his wife of 38 years, the former Jane Snyder Goldfein; five children; and 12 grandchildren. Mr. Toll retired as chairman and chief executive of Toll Brothers in 2010.

In 1990, Mr. Toll and his wife pledged to sponsor 58 third-grade students at a predominantly Black elementary school in West Philadelphia as part of the Say Yes to Education Foundation. The couple paid for the students’ school programs and then covered their tuition at college or vocational institutions.

One of the students, Naeemah Nelson, 40, went on to a degree in anthropology from George Washington University in 2004 (with tuition covered) and a master’s in business at the University of North Carolina in 2012. Her career has taken her from local initiatives in Philadelphia, such as helping former inmates find jobs, to working on development programs in Egypt and Indonesia with General Electric. She also joined a national Say Yes to Education board to help the next generation.

“I fully understood the value of the Tolls’ generosity,” said Nelson, who now works at the health-care technology firm Medtronic. “I wanted to make sure to give back and have some impact.”

In southern Maine, Mr. Toll purchased the former site of Camp Powhatan, where he was a counselor when he was 18. The site became Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together young people and educators from areas of ethnic and political tensions such as the Balkans, India and Pakistan, and the Middle East, including Israelis and Arabs.

The idea, said Mr. Toll, was to get them “to bunk together, eat together, and go to conflict-resolution sessions to discuss face-to-face their anger with their enemy.”

“You have a tremendous opportunity to end the conflict,” Mr. Toll said. As an avid sailor, Mr. Toll sometimes taught boating classes.

Koby Sadan attended Seeds of Peace in 1994 as a 13-year-old student from south Tel Aviv and returned later as a counselor. When Sadan was accepted to Yale University in 2002, he was taken under the wing of Mr. Toll and his wife, who became a “surrogate family.” He found Mr. Toll’s optimism — about life, business and the ideals of liberal democracy — a point of inspiration.

“It may sound trivial, but his views really had a deep effect,” said Sadan, who went on to attend Harvard Law School. “It really set the trajectory of my life.”