Today the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously agreed to put the New York Public Library’s biggest private donor in history, Steven Schwarzman, on a pedestal–or, more accurately, allow his name to be inscribed on the two most prominent stone pedestals flanking the main entrance on Fifth Avenue and three other B-list locations.
What, you were expecting some giant crab claw statues instead?
We think they made the right move. Who knows what the repercussions would have been for the NYPL had the Blackstone CEO not received top-billing for the $100 million donation he made on March 11?
Samuel LeFrak withdrew $10 million of funds promised to the Guggenheim in the 1990’s, after the LPC refused to carve his name in the museum rotunda. And don’t forget when Edith and Henry Everett reneged on a $3 million gift to the Children’s Zoo back in 1997 after the Central Park Conservancy refused to name the branch after them.
Thankfully, we’ll never know what kind of ripples a no-vote might have sent through New York City’s philanthropic community. Really, if $100 million doesn’t earn you the right to carve your name in stone on a landmark building, then what does?
Community Board Five urged the LPC to deny the NYPL approval to fulfill its agreement with Mr. Schwarzman, and proposed instead that his name be carved in 1.5 inch letters on only three of the proposed sites—the supports flanking the 42nd Street entrance and the stone floor rosette at the Fifht Avenue entrance.
“Although the style of lettering is consonant with other historic lettering and the attribution to the donor is deemed important by the Library, Community Board Five considers the number of carvings excessive and unnecessarily intrusive to this iconic façade,” the CB Landmarks Committee said in a letter to the LPC Chairman on April 11.
Today the LPC ignored their suggestion, but let’s be clear they did not green light some bronze plaque or gaudy, gold Trump-style block letters. Mr. Schwarzman’s name will be carved in diminutive, 2.5 inch letters—smaller in scale than his donation, the 18 inch NYPL letters on the building’s entablature, and even the 12 inch-high letters of the original library founders Tilden, Astor, and Lenox.
The NYPL admitted in a statement that Mr. Schwarzman’s gift is “by far the largest single donation in the Library’s history, and, indeed, is the largest outright, unrestricted gift by an individual to any cultural organization in New York City.”
A less magnanimous man might even be offended by having his name appear seven times smaller, below the trio of founders. "Are you implying that I am seven times less important than John Jacob Astor?”, a lesser man might ask.
To put the size of Mr. Schwarzman’s gift in perspective a look at private donations to art institutions in the 2006 fiscal year ending in July—the most current data available—is instructive. The MoMa ranked second place in the US and first in the city with $133.5 million raised in 2006, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center followed with $114.8 million; Private support for the Metropolitan Museum of Art rose nearly 13%, to $108.9 million; donations to the Metropolitan Opera grew 21.6%, to $113.6 million; and fundraising at Lincoln Center jumped 157%, to $120.9 million.
The Metropolitan Opera gives permanent plaques to donors who contribute gifts of $2 million or more. Even donors of $100,000 or more are recognized according to the value of their gift with a petite plaque on the Grand Tier of the Opera House.
Anything less than five shout outs to Mr. Schwarzman’s generosity on the building façade would have been an outright snub.