It’s time for Philadelphia to put a Lenfest statue in the Courtyard at City Hall
Walking by City Hall, you see a few statues situated on the perimeter of the building. Some of these men (they’re all men) are national political figures, like McKinley, McClellan, and Bullitt, but a couple are Philadelphia business figures: John Wanamkaer and Matthias Baldwin.
HF “Gerry” Lenfest should be honored among these titans of commerce, and a statue should be erected in his honor at City Hall to remind future generations of this man who made it his mission to give away as much wealth as possible before he died (he was a signer of the Giving Pledge).
Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, donated $1.2 billion to cultural institutions, primarily in Pennsylvania. He personally made possible the Museum of the American Revolution, the unique Inquirer ownership situation, and the Barnes on the Parkway. Lenfest wanted the control over his philanthropic legacy; he told the Inquirer in 2014, “During your lifetime, you can direct how your wealth is spent for the most good. But after your death, it is problematic. You don’t have the control.”
Lenfest is the type of business leader we should tell our children about. Living much of the time in a house the couple purchased in 1966, the Lenfests held their wealth with grace, and their 2017 acceptance video of the Medal of Philanthropy is a testament to their philosophy of philanthropy (3 tenets: Don’t create a foundation in perputity, Have professional management, Never have a family foundation.)
It took 15 years for the Octavius Catto statue to be realized. (Or, nearly 150 years, depending how you look at it.) So don’t expect this process to go quickly.
In sculpting Catto, artist Branly Cadet sought to embody Catto’s values of respect, growth, fairness, education, and civic engagement. What values would Lenfest’s statue embody?
Perhaps this could be a topic of conversation at Lenfest’s memorial service later this month.
One way to fast track the statue would be for Comcast or another Lenfest legacy organization to donate the statue; this would make the decision easier for the pholks at Phila.gov (and this is the precedent set by the Baldwin statue, donated by his namesake company).
The biggest caveat to my recommendation is that the courtyard has an awful shortage of statues honoring women, especially historical women (true for the city at large, although Philly is not as bad as New York or DC). While this gap doesn’t reduce the merit of a Lenfest statue, it’s an important issue to note whenever discussing the City Hall courtyard.
None of the statues feature multiple people today, but I would be in favor of memorializing Marguerite too— she is proof of the old adage, behind every great man is a great woman. In a Cable Center oral history, Edgar Masinter (NYC attorney and Mercersburg classmate/now chair of the board) remarked, “Gerry’s success would not have happened without her. She can trim his sails when nobody else can. And she also believes in him at those moments when he might think no one else has a reason to. It’s very much a partnership.”
In a letter to Melinda Gates written in 2010 after the couple signed the Giving Pledge, Gerry explained:
One is not measured by how many homes, yachts or airplanes you have. The ultimate achievement in life is how you feel about yourself. And giving your wealth away to have an impact for good does help with that feeling.
Philly should honor Lenfest for his ultimate achievement by erecting a statue in his honor at City Hall.
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