History Philanthropy

  • Arts & Culture
  • 2006

Washington-area financier David Rubenstein, who has a passion for U.S. history, has focused his philanthropy in the national capital region. The goal of many of his gifts, he has said, “is to remind people of American history…. People know so little about our history…. That’s really why I try to do this.”

Many of Rubenstein’s efforts involve rehabilitation of patriotic sites. Take Arlington House. When Robert E. Lee sided with his state instead of his nation and took command of the Confederate army, the U.S. seized his family estate. It was located on a hill overlooking the nation’s capital from the south bank of the Potomac. Lee’s residence—which was modeled on the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens and built as a tribute to his relative George Washington—was turned into a military headquarters. The grounds became the home of several thousand liberated slaves. Then, in the third year of the war, the property was turned into a burying ground for men killed in the fight to preserve the Union. We now know it as Arlington Cemetery.

The residence, Arlington House, was designated a memorial to Robert E. Lee in 1925 and put under the protection of the National Park Service. But by 2014 it was tattered. To improve the experience of the 650,000 people who visit each year, David Rubenstein pledged $12.4 million to the National Park Foundation for restoration of the house and museum, the landscape, and the historic slave quarters.

A year later, Rubenstein made a $5.4 million donation to refurbish a more recent war memorial: the Iwo Jima sculpture which remembers the sacrifices of World War II marines. Then just days later came more spit and polish: a $10 million gift to the private foundation that maintains Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello residence for public visits. That donation will help restore outbuildings, roads, and landscaping to return the property to its appearance as Jefferson knew it. In 2016, Rubenstein donated $10 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and $19 million to restore the Lincoln Memorial.

Previously, Rubenstein provided $7.5 million to repair the Washington Monument after it was damaged in an earthquake, $10 million toward a new library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and a share of the $30 million pledged by a group of local philanthropists to expand the National Gallery of Art. Rubenstein is known for buying historic documents and lending them to educational institutions or museums. One of the 17 remaining copies of the 715-year-old Magna Carta, which he purchased, is now on display in the National Archives.

From 2006 to 2017, Rubenstein’s giving to landmarks and historic sites in the national capital region totaled $135 million.