Developer and Philanthropist Dr. Cyrus Katzen Dies at 91

Cyrus Katzen funded American University's arts center and endowed a cancer research center at George Washington University.
Cyrus Katzen funded American University's arts center and endowed a cancer research center at George Washington University. (Undated Twp File - Undated Twp File)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

Cyrus Katzen, 91, a self-made millionaire many times over who helped develop Tysons Corner and Crystal City and donated more than $30 million to local universities, died July 12 in his Chevy Chase apartment. He had adrenal cancer.

Dr. Katzen trained as a dental surgeon but was better known for his business acumen and philanthropy. He grew up in the District and became wealthy through real estate investments. He built and owned a number of McDonald's restaurants in Puerto Rico, the Embassy Row Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue NW and the Culmore Shopping Center in Baileys Crossroads and was involved with more than 70 other developments around the world.

He also helped broker the contracts that created the Tysons shopping mall complexes, Crystal City and Rosslyn. He later funded American University's 130,000-square-foot arts center and endowed a cancer research center at the George Washington University Medical Center.

In 1972, Dr. Katzen's business dealings came into question after he paid a Republican Party aide to arrange a $500,000 loan from a prominent New York bank through a Postal Service executive. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward revealed that a $5,000 check made out to Douglas Inglish Jr., special assistant to the Republican National Committee co-chairman, had come from Dr. Katzen's account. The check had been written by Dr. Katzen's business associate, Cyrus Anderson, a lobbyist then about to go to trial on charges of bribing former senator Daniel Brewster (D-Md.).

Dr. Katzen claimed he did not know a government official had been involved in the process. He told Woodward that the aide's payment had been nothing out of the ordinary for arranging a loan.

Dr. Katzen's foray into the hotel business also came under criticism. In 1971, he built the Embassy Row Hotel, now owned by the Hilton chain, about three miles from where the Katzen Arts Center sits at American University. The Post's architecture critic, Wolf Von Eckardt, called the hotel "camp, and distressing" with a "total disregard of proportion and articulation" that was "pathetically out of place."

Dr. Katzen found the review distressing. He wrote a rebuttal to Von Eckardt, who reprinted it in The Post two weeks later as a courtesy, he said, from one neighbor to another. Von Eckardt lived two blocks from the hotel.

During construction, Dr. Katzen wrote, "a couple of hard-hats" were boorish in their admiration for two bikini-clad young women who were sunbathing atop Von Eckardt's home. While Dr. Katzen took responsibility for the workers' inappropriate actions, he did so begrudgingly.

"According to my Middle American standards, it is no sin to steal a glance at a pretty girl, even when somebody is paying you an impressively high hourly wage to be putting up a hotel," he wrote. "But, as I said, we want to be good neighbors."

Although Dr. Katzen rarely practiced dentistry, he offered to make an exception: "Should neighbor Von Eckardt desire me to do so, I would be glad to see him in my capacity as a dentist to extract his foot from his mouth at his earliest convenience."

In his later years, Dr. Katzen became well known for his philanthropy. In 2005, he donated $15 million in cash and art for the AU Arts Center, named in honor of Dr. Katzen and his second wife, Myrtle, who took art classes at AU and is a painter.

In 2008, he donated $10 million toward the Dr. Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Cancer Research Center at GWU. It was the largest gift from an individual in school history. Dr. Katzen's first wife, Sylvia Berlin, died in 1980 after a 10-year battle with cancer. She underwent most of her treatment at GWU Hospital.

Dr. Katzen, who also kept a residence in Palm Beach, Fla., enjoyed sailing on the "MY-CY," his 76-foot yacht. According to his will, the yacht has been donated to a charity working with underprivileged boys.

He was born to Russian immigrants in Philadelphia but moved to the District as an infant. He attended what is now Cardozo High School and graduated at the top of his class from Georgetown University Dental School in 1941. He received early recognition for inventing a high-speed automatic X-ray developing machine in 1951.

Survivors include his second wife of 26 years, Myrtle Scheffres Katzen of Palm Beach; two children from the first marriage, Linda Katzen Swartz of Boston and Dr. Jay Katzen of Potomac, and two stepchildren from the second marriage, Holly Bolter of Potomac and Michael Scheffres of Rockville; a brother, Dr. Bernard Katzen of Chevy Chase, and a sister, Sally Cohen of Bethesda; nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company