Are eponymous buildings egotistical or practical?

Advice on how to make the world better.
May 19 2010 10:17 AM

Building a Legacy

Why do rich people demand to have structures named in their honor?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to   Ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

Dear My Goodness,
What is the deal with the main New York Public Library building now being called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building? This is a beloved landmark, not some brand-new college science building. Schwarzman basically bought this honor by giving $100 million. So is this a good or a bad thing? And if I win the lottery, can I donate $200 million to the library on the condition that I get to name the building? My choice: The Main Library.

—Rebecca in Brooklyn

Dear Rebecca,
Good or bad, it's pragmatic. I was unhappy, too, when this was announced back in 2008 because, like you, I see the library as a familiar, venerable public institution. Naming it for a private individual was like changing the name of Yosemite. (At the time, I wanted to point out to Schwarzman that the library in his hometown is called the Free Library of Philadelphia.)

Stephen A. Schwarzman. Click image to expand.
Stephen A. Schwarzman

But then, neither you nor I have to bear the responsibility of keeping a big cultural institution like the New York Public Library alive in tough times. Over the last few years, the endowments of the doing-good organizations—museums, colleges, hospitals, libraries—have taken a hit, in some cases being slashed by as much as 30 percent. The proposed New York City budget, recently announced, cuts $37 million in funding for the library system.

Given the drought in the usual sources, these cultural entities look at an obvious target—people who've made a lot of money and have reached an age when they're considering becoming more philanthropic. Schwarzman was a billionaire, co-founder of the private equity firm Blackstone Group, when he turned 60 in 2007. His birthday party for 500 in the Park Avenue Armory did not go unnoticed. We never learned how much Patti LaBelle earned for singing "Happy Birthday," but Rod Stewart was reportedly paid $1 million for a 30-minute medley.

A year later, when the naming of the library was announced, the public perception, mistaken or not, was that Schwarzman's values were not a good fit with the library's.

Fundraisers who spoke to me off the record argued that there are positive aspects, beyond the $100 million, to Schwarzman's gift and the brouhaha around the building name. A highly publicized gift, even if controversial, inspires philanthropy in others. (Though at the time I felt my own annual library donation in the very low three figures was kind of swamped.)

Many of New York's self-made millionaires and billionaires see the giving game as one more area for competition. Often the potential donor bargains about how little he or she might get away with spending and still win the name on a building; could $36 million earn you the name on a $300 million building? Very likely, especially if the timing is good. Schwarzman's $100 million had special impact as the lead gift in a $1 billion campaign for the expansion of the library and its branches.

Schwarzman has said naming the building after him was the library's idea and not his. But anyone interested in following in his nonanonymous footsteps can simply Google "naming opportunities."

Of course you can also inspire others with a big anonymous donation and no plaque. Universities have recently gotten astounding gifts from people who wanted no recognition. The admirable but un-spellable Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (alma mater of Brooklyn Bridge engineer Washington Roebling) received a $360 million anonymous gift in 2001. Amherst College and Baylor University got $100 million and $200 million, respectively, in the last couple of years from donors who didn't want public acknowledgment. Though I imagine they are welcome at the president's house.

For an institution, identification with one particular name can carry a risk. What if the billionaire who favors the institution turns out to have ill-gotten gains? A nonphilanthropic example is the Houston Astros, who used to play at Enron Field. Now it's Minute Maid Park.

I love the name the Metropolitan Museum of Art as much as I love the name the Main Library. There were plenty of big fortunes and big egos around in the museum's early years—railroad magnates, publishing millionaires, and bankers galore—yet they named it in a way that was welcoming, inclusive. When I mentioned my admiration for the Met, the development vice president of a Texas museum said, only half joking, "Just wait till the endowment takes a hit."

Rebecca, next time you go to San Francisco, in the northeast corner of Golden Gate Park, you will encounter a monument to exemplary donor behavior. The gigantic and magnificent conservatory glass house that used to be a wreck was restored, in part, with a $5 million gift from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. The gift came with the condition that it not have the Goldman name on it. The structure, erected in 1878 and always known as the Conservatory of Flowers, should retain that historic name.

You ask if you and your lottery money could erase Schwarzman's name. The answer is no. At the time of the dedication, according to the New York Times, "Paul LeClerc, the library's president, promised ... that there would never again be another name carved into the building's facade."

We must practice patience and fortitude, the names of the lions flanking the main library's Fifth Avenue steps.

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to Ask.my.goodness@gmail.com

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Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.

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