Robert Smith was a prominent real estate developer in the greater Washington metropolitan area, best known for leading the development of Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia. He was also a leading benefactor to prominent local institutions in the national capital, with significant donations to the National Gallery of Art, the University of Maryland, and a number of sites of historic importance, including (among others) Mount Vernon, Montpelier, and Abraham Lincoln's summer cottage.
Born in 1928 to a family of recently immigrated Jews, Smith spent his earliest years in New York City. During the Second World War, his father, a homebuilder and property manager, moved the family to Washington, D.C. Robert Smith graduated from the University of Maryland in 1950, and immediately went to work for his father’s company. He expanded the portfolio of the Charles E. Smith Company, adding commercial properties to their existing stock of residential properties.
In 1961, Smith inked what came to be his signature deal: a 99-year lease on 20 acres of rundown land near Washington National Airport. In exchange for 3 percent of gross profits, he had the rights to the land on which Crystal City was built. Six years later, his father retired, and Robert, with his brother-in-law Robert Kogod, took charge of the company. One successful deal followed another. Shortly before a 2002 merger, the Charles E. Smith Company managed over 15 million square feet of office space and more than 30,000 residential units in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Florida, Chicago, and Boston.
In 1952, Smith married a painter named Clarice Chasen. She taught him to appreciate art, and helped assemble the couple’s superb collection of Renaissance-era bronze sculpture. In 1972, they made their first major donation to the National Gallery of Art. They befriended Paul Mellon, son of the gallery’s founder, Andrew Mellon. When Paul Mellon retired from the board, he asked that Smith replace him as a trustee. Smith accepted, and soon was leading a $123 million fundraising campaign; from 1993 to 2003, he served as president of the board. In 2008, the Smiths announced their intention to donate their entire collection to the National Gallery.
In the mid-1990s, the University of Maryland approached Smith about a naming opportunity at the business school. He asked for a concrete, multi-year strategy for raising the school’s stature, Smith gave the business school a $15 million gift in 1997. The Robert H. Smith School of Business has since shot up in the rankings, reaching the top 20 nationwide—and the top five among public schools. The Smiths gave the school another $15 million to complete the 318,000-square-foot Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. They donated another $30 million more to the university in 2005, making the family the largest benefactor of public education in Maryland’s history.
But their patronage of higher education extended beyond College Park: the Smiths were the lead donors to the Wilmer Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which is intended to become the nation’s leading treatment and research center for the prevention of blindness and other eye diseases. At Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whose board Smith chaired from 1981 to 1985, they made major gifts for plant science and agricultural genetics research, and for expanding interdisciplinary research among those disciplines and animal sciences, biochemistry, nutrition, and environmental studies.
But Smith is perhaps best remembered for his leadership in preserving sites of historic interest. In the mid-1990s, he was asked to help fund an archeological survey at Montpelier, the bucolic plantation home of James Madison. Smith had been reading biographies of the Founders, and felt a great respect for Madison, the co-author of the Federalist Papers, driving intellect behind the Constitution, and 4th president of the United States. Smith helped fund the archeological dig, and then led the effort to conserve more than 200 acres of old-growth forest on the property. He put up a $10 million challenge to increase the capacity of the Constitutional Village, a facility at Montpelier that hosts weeklong seminars and workshops on the Constitution.
In 2000, Smith took on another preservation project: Mount Vernon. Working with executive director Jim Rees, Smith made a number of donations that helped build theaters and auditoriums, endowed a senior curator position, created a book-publishing fund, and made possible a total redesign of Mount Vernon’s website. He conceived and underwrote the “big tree program,” in which 65 mature trees (some over 40 feet tall and weighing over four tons) were planted to create a natural barrier between newly constructed facilities and the historic grounds. The trees are species known to have existed in 18th-century northern Virginia: elm, maple, tulip poplar, oak, beech, or American holly. Most recently, the Smiths played an instrumental role in preparing for the construction of a presidential library for George Washington.
Smith took charge of restoring the Benjamin Franklin House in London, which opened on January 17, 2006—Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday. It was at 36 Craven Street—steps from what later came to be known as Trafalgar Square—that Franklin served as deputy postmaster for the colonies, published the Craven Street Gazette, and befriended many of the most important political and intellectual leaders in the British Empire. Smith not only worked to restore the townhouse, he also funded the Robert H. Smith Scholarship Centre, to encourage research into Franklin, his contemporaries, and the topics that interested him.
When Abraham Lincoln’s summer cottage in northern Washington, D.C., was re-opened to the public in February 2008, the Smiths had paid for more than $7 million of the $15 million restoration. At Monticello, they permanently endowed the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies with $15 million. Smith was a major benefactor of Gettysburg National Military Park and helped fund renovations at the New York Historical Society. The list goes on.
Smith was arguably America’s most important benefactor of efforts to preserve historic sites associated with the Founders. He always considered his support a token of his gratitude. “My family has had tremendous opportunities because we live in this free, democratic society, for which I am thankful,” Smith said when President George W. Bush awarded him a National Humanities Medal. “One who has forgotten to be thankful has fallen asleep in the midst of life.”
~ Christopher Levenick