After a few months of declining health, former cable mogul and prolific philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest died on Sunday. In his 88 years, Lenfest made a name for himself as a major Philadelphia benefactor.
Gerry Lenfest, alongside his wife, Marguerite, vowed in 1999 to attempt to donate all of their wealth before they died. And they did pretty well — in Gerry’s lifetime, the Lenfests gave more than $1.2 billion to Philly’s historic and cultural institutions.
The Lenfests were devoted to modernizing the historic city of Philadelphia. To them, that meant thinking up smart ways to sustain the city’s most valuable institutions. They funded newspapers, museums, universities and many other establishments.
If you name something that contributes to the public good in Philly — the Lenfests probably had a hand in it.
For many of the organizations that benefited, these contributions were transformational.
Here are eight Philadelphia institutions that wouldn’t be the same without the Lenfests’ generosity.
Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News
If there’s one thing this guy cared about, it was local journalism.
Lenfest — alongside a fellow investor, the late Lewis Katz — paid $88 million in 2014 to buy the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News and philly.com.
Katz was killed in a freak accident a few days after they made the purchase, and Lenfest bought out Katz’s son to become the sole owner. Then, in the midst of mass layoffs and financial turmoil in 2016 at the Philadelphia Media Network, Lenfest took control.
In a move that surprised many, he donated the Philadelphia newspapers to a new nonprofit he had founded, called The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. At age 85, Gerry Lenfest hoped to pioneer a sustainable future for local news.
“Of all the things I’ve done,” Lenfest told PMN at the time, “this is the most important. Because of the journalism.”
Philadelphia Museum of Art
To the PMA, the Lenfests gave generously. The couple donated $107 million to the museum, and Gerry Lenfest became chairman of the museum’s board in the early 2000s, helping marshal it through the rough time after beloved director Anne d’Harnoncourt died suddenly. Since then, he’s served as a trustee emeritus.
And not to be forgotten, the Lenfests have also donated individual artworks to the museum — namely this huge limestone squirrel.
Curtis Institute of Music
On their own, the Lenfests contributed $60 million to the Curtis Institute. That was enough to get an entire building named after them at the Center City music school.
And the building is a major one — Lenfest Hall on the Curtis campus includes:
- A giant rehearsal hall
- A fifth-floor garden terrace
- A dining hall
- Housing for half the student body
- An orchestral library and instrument collection
Lenfest was also chairman of the board at Curtis, and he was known to attend most of the school’s concerts in person.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the Lenfests’ contributions to Curtis inspired copy cats. When former Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell donated $15 million to the Philly music school, he said it was in part because Lenfest “twisted his arm.”
Museum of the American Revolution
Lenfest is the largest donor to Philly’s Museum of the American Revolution in its short history. After plans to build the museum in Valley Forge fell through, he forked over necessary funding to get the museum going in Old City, and he gave more than $63 million to the institution in his lifetime.
Lenfest served on the museum’s board since close to its inception, for 11 years, and he was able to attend the museum’s grand opening in person in April 2017 — greeting guests from a wheelchair.
The Lenfests donated $25 million to the Kimmel Center (alongside the William Penn Foundation, the Neubauer Family Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts).
That’s how much money the Kimmel needed back in 2008 to relieve the debt it had incurred from construction. Without the donation, the Philadelphia institution would’ve been in trouble.
Gov. Ed Rendell, who was in office at the time, called the elimination of debt “a monumental moment for the city of Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center.”
“It is now possible for the Kimmel Center to further fulfill its mission of hosting world-class performances for generations to come by relieving itself of its construction debt and increasing its endowment,” Rendell said in a statement.
The Barnes Foundation
At the time, the Barnes’ move from Merion, Pa. was somewhat controversial, as supporters argued it went against founder Albert Barnes’ wishes. But in the years since it has been open in its new home, it has been deemed a success, and is now an integral part of the Parkway museum cluster.
Temple’s Klein College of Media and Communication
The Lenfests made a very sizable donation to Temple’s school of media and communication — they’re basically half the reason for its name.
The couple made a seven-figure contribution to Klein College to fund its renaming after broadcast journalism pioneer and Temple benefactor Lew Klein.
Temple’s boathouse and rowing team
Without the Lenfests, Temple’s rowing team would have quite literally ceased to exist.
The East Park Canoe House — the headquarters of Temple’s rowing team — was condemned by the city in 2008 due to unsafe conditions for students. Without a boathouse, there can be no rowing team.
So the Lenfests stepped in with a $3 million donation, which funded a handful of renovations and new amenities:
- Locker rooms
- Room to store boats and oars
- Coaches’ offices
- TVs to review technique
- Room for the Philadelphia Police Department’s marine unit
Thanks to the Lenfests, the North Philly school now has a brand new, state-of-the-art boathouse.
Temple officials were so grateful for the Lenfests’ donations — both to the school and to the rowing team — that they named the university’s landmark Bell Tower after the philanthropic couple. Gerry Lenfest also served on Temple’s Board of Trustees.