TAMPA — About 52 years ago, George Karpay sat in the office of a builder and listened to the man's laundry list of regrets.
Buying lots in the hopes of selling them for future retirement had been a terrible idea, the builder said, something he wished he had never done. Mr. Karpay's father and brother, who had come down from New York for the meeting, left dissuaded.
"I remember my father and brother said, 'Boy, we don't want to be in that business,' " Mr. Karpay said in a 1997 oral history interview conducted for the University of South Florida.
"And I said, 'You know something, for a guy to take an hour and a half to tell us all the bad parts and not one good part of that business, that must be one hell of a business.' "
Tiffany Homes, the company Mr. Karpay started with brothers Irwin and Joel in 1961, did everything the rival builder warned them against — and made a killing.
Before selling the company eight years later, Mr. Karpay was building affordable three-bedroom homes across eight counties from Floral City to Bradenton.
For Mr. Karpay, one of the largest developers over the growth decades that modernized the Tampa Bay area, it was a typical move.
"It was the recurring theme of his life," said Ken Karpay, 55, a management consultant and Mr. Karpay's son. "He saw where the market was headed before most other people did."
Mr. Karpay, who used the instincts and thoroughness that helped him build more than 7,000 homes over his career to benefit the arts and education, died April 8 on a Mediterranean cruise. He was 83.
Developments include Timberlane and Fawn Ridge, much of Town 'N Country and Carrollwood; a retirement community in Fort Myers; condos on the Pinellas County beaches; and forays into eastern Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
After a recession in the late 1950s caused his New York building business to go under, Mr. Karpay borrowed $200 to visit Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Sarasota.
"I said to myself, sooner or later there is going be an explosion to Florida, and I want to be in on it," Mr. Karpay said in the 1997 interview.
He moved to Tampa in 1959 with his wife, Bobbe, and their four children.
With $10,000 from the sale of his house and an offer to share expertise with developers Charlie Lamont and Mandell "Hinks" Shimberg, Mr. Karpay acquired 72 lots southeast of Hillsborough Avenue and Town 'N Country Boulevard.
"We had the highest respect for George," said Shimberg, 84. "He was tough, but he got the job done."
Mr. Karpay then formed Tiffany Homes, targeting first-time home buyers. In the 1960s, after receiving threats over building a home for a black couple, Mr. Karpay saw the home burned to the ground as soon as it was completed.
He petitioned Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio for police protection and rebuilt the home — in 17 days — for no additional charge.
As building skyrocketed in the 1970s, governments asked for concessions such as road widening, help with schools and other improvements to offset the growth.
"I think he was part of a small group of developers who saw the need to have a planning commission, who saw the need for some kind of impact fees and, most importantly, to work with governments," said former Hills-borough County commissioner and USF president Betty Castor. "He was passionate about home building and very positive about doing it the right way."
Predicting that Tampa would expand to the north, he invested $10,000 in property off Waters Avenue, then a one-lane blacktop. The growth he foresaw happened. The property sold for an exponentially higher price.
His work ethic made him a profitable yet formidable partner.
"If you met with him, you had better come with the facts," said Barry Karpay, 58, a developer who started working with his father in 1976. "You walked away either confident that you had stated your position and you knew what you were talking about, or you got your head handed to you."
He repeatedly sold companies and created new ones, including a sale of Karpay Associates in 1984 to a subsidiary of the Dallas-based Centex Corp. In later years he spent a greater proportion of his energies on investments, but never really stopped working.
George B. Karpay was born in Brooklyn, the oldest son of a Russian immigrant who developed commercial real estate. He graduated from Indiana University and married Bobbe Denenberg in 1951.
Mr. Karpay was a voracious reader who enjoyed golf and playing Cole Porter tunes on the piano and accordion. A fitness buff when that was still unusual, he won the YMCA's citywide handball tournament in 1966.
His financial support helped start the Performing Arts Co. (now the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts), and still underwrites the George and Bobbe Karpay Endowment Fund at USF. Mr. Karpay strongly supported the state of Israel and took more than a dozen family members to that country last year.
Bobbe Karpay died of cancer in 2009. He proposed to Joyce Hartmann, who was also widowed, about nine months later. "He said, 'I am 80, you are 75. What are we waiting for?' " said Joyce Karpay, 78.
On April 8, they left a cruise ship together to walk the streets of Rome. They saw the Colosseum and the Forum, and Mr. Karpay bought a book about the city. Around 6 p.m. the couple returned to the port of Civitavecchia, and danced their way up a gangplank lined on both sides by uniformed crew members. At the ship's entrance, Mr. Karpay said he felt tired. He found some soft carpet nearby and lay down.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.