John Boll, real estate investor, philanthropist, dies at 93

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

John Boll, who turned a small construction business into one of the world's largest mobile community management companies, died last Wednesday, his family said.

Mr. Boll was also a philanthropist who supported charities in Detroit, Colorado and Florida.

He was surrounded by family when he died in Detroit. He was 93.

Marlene and John Boll are being honored at DSO’s heroes gala. The duo have been committed to the group for more than 30 years.

The son of Dutch immigrants who ended up in Detroit, John Boll began his career as a construction worker. After serving in the U.S. Army, he started his own company, an underground contracting firm called Lakeview Construction, "with a wheelbarrow and a shovel in the trunk of his powder-blue 1949 Mercury," Jim Mestdagh, Boll’s son-in-law, said in a statement.

In 1964, Boll started Chateau Estates, a company that developed manufactured home communities and created homesites for more than 20,000 families in Michigan and Florida. Three decades later, the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange under a new name, Chateau Properties Inc.

By the time the company had merged with another and was sold to the State of Washington Pension Fund in 2003 for $2.3 billion, it had 240 communities in 36 states with more than 100,000 residential homesites.

Boll met his wife of 68 years, Marlene Miller, in 1951 in Raleigh, N.C., when he was in the Army. She was a Rockette who'd been on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and performed at Radio City Music Hall in New York. 

They married in June 1954. They later had three children: John Jr., Lora, and Kristine. 

Together, the couple quietly became some of Detroit's most generous philanthropists through their John A. and Marlene L. Boll Foundation.

The couple told The Detroit News in 2014 that they resisted putting their name on projects for years until they were convinced it could help draw other contributions. One such project that does bear their names is the Boll Family YMCA, which opened in downtown Detroit in 2005.

"John was in the hospital recently," Marlene Boll told the News in 2014, "and one of the male nurses who took such good care of him asked, 'Are you the John Boll whose name is on the Y? I take my kids there all the time! I love that place.' "

Their foundation also supported the University Liggett School, Grosse Pointe Public Schools, and Cornerstone Schools in Detroit as well as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Michigan Opera Theater, the Grosse Pointe Theatre, the Vail International Dance Festival, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and Dossin Great Lakes Museum.

"They're inspirational and very classy," Bob Bury, then-executive director and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society told The News in 2014. "They care a great deal about other people and their community, Detroit in particular."

On Monday, officials with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy released a statement about Boll's death on its Facebook page, saying the community lost a true leader. The Bolls supported riverfront revitalization efforts and in 2013 were presented with the Shimmer Award, the Conservancy’s highest honor, for their contributions.

"An enduring example of John and Marlene’s love for the riverfront is on display year round for everyone to enjoy," said the conservancy in a statement. "For more than 10 years, the Boll Family Fountains at Cullen Plaza has been a popular place for guests to gather or snap a photo...We were indeed fortunate to consider John a friend and we take comfort knowing that his legacy will live on not only along the Detroit Riverfront, but throughout our community as well."

Mestdagh said Boll enjoyed spending time with his family and friends at the family's homes in Key Largo, Fla., Grosse Pointe Shores, and Beaver Creek, Colo. He said his father-in-law was also an avid sportsman, boater, and skier. 

Survivors include his wife, Marlene, their children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Twitter: @CharlesERamirez