What Does Everyone Want? Land

A postcard of the Harmon sales office on the corner of South Riverside Avenue and Benedict Boulevard. The building is now a nail salon.

A postcard of the Harmon sales office on the corner of South Riverside Avenue
and Benedict Boulevard. The building is now a nail salon.

On July 16, 1928, when the New York Times published the obituary of William E. Harmon, the newspaper quoted from an interview he had given years earlier in which he described how he started his real estate empire.

“The surest way is to hit upon something that everybody wants, make it possible for everyone to buy it and then let everyone know that I have it for sale. But what does everyone want? ‘Land’ was my answer. That is what everybody would like to own.

It wasn’t easy to buy land in those days. The first payments were always so high that a man with little money could not meet them. So most folks went wanting land, but they didn’t buy any. I worked out a plan by which even the smallest wage-earner could buy a building lot. All the purchaser needed was one dollar to pay in cash and a few cents to pay each week. It was simply the installment plan applied to real estate, and I was sure it would work. I went to Cincinnati, where I had a brother, Clifford B. Harmon, and an uncle, Charles E Wood. I told of my new idea, and they liked it.

My brother had a thousand dollars, my uncle had a thousand, and I had a thousand. I had already decided upon the best tract to buy, so we pooled our money and bought it. And we had it laid out in lots, built wooden sidewalks and had the necessary papers prepared.”

“One advertisement in the Cincinnati newspaper brought enough buyers to sell out the entire property,” wrote the Times. “With the success of the idea thus proved, the firm of Wood, Harmon & Company expanded rapidly, putting offices in Pittsburgh, Boston and various other Eastern cities. It was in Boston that Mr. Harmon interested capitalists, who invested $50,000 then and millions later, backing the establishment of the firm’s first New York office in 1898. In the years just after 1900 more than $4 million was spent for building sites in Brooklyn that were sold on small partial payments. The great expansion of population following the subway extensions prove the wisdom of Mr. Harmon’s choice of territory. Developments of a similar character were carried out in 36 other cities east of the Mississippi River.”

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