One hundred million dollars may not buy a Yale graduate’s name for one of the two new residential colleges, but the New York Public Library apparently shares no such reservations.
The name of Davenport College alumnus and one-time School of Management adjunct professor Stephen Schwarzman ’69 will soon grace the New York Public Library building in five different locations — a change local historical preservation groups have generally resisted. But, in an exclusive interview with the News on Thursday, Schwarzman said his decision to make the largest, unrestricted gift to any cultural institution in the city had nothing to do with the naming incentive. Really, he said, it was a no-brainer.
A library trustee since 2001, Schwarzman said he was one of many individuals asked by library officials to support the library’s proposed one-billion dollar expansion and renovation, designed to make it “the most used library in the world.” And after attending a presentation about the development plans last June, Schwarzman — Forbes’ 40th-richest American with a net worth of over $6 billion earned during his career as chairman, CEO and co-founder of The Blackstone Group — unreservedly agreed to make the donation.
“They asked me if I would contribute $100 million, and that they would like to name the main branch of the library at 42nd and Fifth Avenue in my honor,” Schwarzman said. “I told them that I thought [the expansion plan] was a very good idea, and I’d like to support them.”
“It wasn’t,” he added, “a very complex discussion.”
An ‘inappropriate architectural invention’?
Given the library’s historic landmark status, which dates back to 1967, officials needed the approval of the New York City Landmark Commission before they could proceed with changes to the exterior façade.
But before they got their approval last Tuesday, the library had to answer to the opposition.
Both community and citywide advocates for historic preservation protested against the etchings proposed for the façade and floor of the nearly 97-year-old building. At a Commission hearing last Tuesday, representatives from both the Historic Districts Council — an independent, nonprofit that strives to protect historic landmarks throughout New York City — and Manhattan’s Community Board Five, an advisory committee for the borough in which the library is located, argued against the library’s proposal.
The proposed engravings are an “inappropriate architectural intervention,” executive director of the Historic Districts Council Simeon Bankoff said in an interview.
“A simple plaque on the front incorporated in a way that incorporates the beaux art design … would be a much more restrained and elegant way of indulging Mr. Schwarzman’s extreme generosity,” Bankoff said in an interview Thursday.
The library’s Fifth Avenue façade already features its original founders’ names engraved in 12-inch tall letters; the proposed changes would add Schwarzman’s name to either side of both entrances, in letters at most two-and-a-half inches tall.
But last Tuesday, the Commission voted unanimously, 8-0, to approve the engravings as aesthetically “discreet” and “appropriate” recognition, said Elisabeth de Bourbon, director of communication for the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. And, she added, the hearings ended within 45 minutes of the opening testimony.
Commission Chairman Robert Tierney cited the library’s good-faith assurance that there would be no future changes to the building’s façade as one of the factors in the board’s decision.
And, at the end of the day, Bankoff said, this loss was not a big one.
“There are buildings getting ripped down throughout New York City that we’re trying to save,” he said. “Not to say that things like this are unimportant, but … this is not the most important thing in the world to me; I’m dealing with much more serious things.”
An American impulse
Beyond the controversy surrounding the engravings, Schwarzman’s contribution — and subsequent recognition by the library — raises larger questions about the motivations behind philanthropy.
Schwarzman dismissed, forcefully, the notion that he made his $100 million donation at least in part to get his name engraved in the building.
“It was their proposal, and I accepted,” he said. “I think it’s important for people who have been fortunate enough to be financially successful to … give back and support the causes that they think are important for the society.”
And his cause, Schwarzman said, includes Yale.
He helped co-chair one of the University’s capital drives in the Midwest and said he has “always tried to be an active supporter of Yale.”
The impulse to donate is uniquely American, Schwarzman said. Claire Gaudiani, clinical professor at the Heyman Center for Philanthropy at New York University, agrees. This type of philanthropy, she said, is — and has always been — “an important part of culture.”
“I wouldn’t say that this is at all trendy,” Gaudiani said. “After all, Yale was named for, and received a major contribution from, Elihu Yale. And John Harvard gave the first set of books and first major donation to Harvard.
“This is the case in no other culture in the world,” she added. “Our democracy defines itself by the fact that we are all free to give, and put our personal money where we want to make a difference — and we do.”
Schwarzman, who while at Yale was a member of Skull and Bones with President George W. Bush ’68, said he will pay out the donation over time, and the library predicts a minimum of five years to complete its general expansion plans. They are still seeking $250 million in private donations to fund the comprehensive overhaul.
With Yale’s upcoming plan to build two more residential colleges, Schwarzman’s philanthropic spirit might set a good precedent among University alumni who want to give back. Although the Yale Corporation has already decided not to name the new colleges after major private donors, Bankoff jokingly suggested that the University should approach Schwarzman.
“Is there a Schwarzman Building at Yale?” Bankoff asked. “Well then, it’s a failure of the administration to get his money.”
The Chronicle of Philanthropy annually compiles a list of the 50 most-generous Americans. In 2007, 20 of the top donors made gifts of $100 million or more, and it is likely that Schwarzman’s name will be added this list for 2008. Although colleges and universities are the most popular recipients of philanthropic grants, the Chronicle of Philanthropy lists “museums and libraries” in the top 10 types of institutions most benefited by philanthropy.