Robert H. Smith, 81

Robert Smith, 81, dies; created Arlington's Crystal City

By Matt Schudel and T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, December 31, 2009

Robert H. Smith, a real estate mogul and philanthropist who created the sprawling government and commercial center of Crystal City in Arlington County, and who built his family's company into the single largest property owner in the Washington region, died Dec. 29 at Winchester Medical Center in Winchester, Va. He was 81 and had a stroke.

Mr. Smith took over his father's businesses, the Charles E. Smith companies, in 1967 and ran them for many years with his brother-in-law, Robert P. Kogod. Together they transformed the family-owned construction firm into a multifaceted real estate empire, building office complexes and apartment houses and eventually becoming Washington's largest commercial real estate landlords.

Having amassed a fortune in real estate, Mr. Smith devoted increased attention in recent years to philanthropy, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to universities, museums and historic landmarks. He was the single largest donor to his alma mater, the University of Maryland, which named its business school after him in 1998. Another bequest led to the university's naming its performing arts center for his wife, Clarice Smith.

Mr. Smith and his wife were noted art collectors who have given many important works to the National Gallery of Art, and their collection of Italian bronze Renaissance sculptures is considered one of the finest in the world. For 10 years, Mr. Smith was president of the National Gallery's board of trustees.

But it was as a visionary builder that Mr. Smith left his greatest mark on Washington. He first began working with his father as a teenager and went against his advice when he saw possibilities lurking beyond the Potomac River in Arlington. When Mr. Smith first surveyed the area in 1961, it was a dilapidated, somewhat desolate neighborhood far removed from the District's corridors of power.

"It was a conglomeration of places that sold junk, used tires, a drive-in movie theater, a run-down ice skating rink, second-hand materials -- it was very unattractive," he told The Washington Post in 1996. "I did see that there was an airport, there was the Pentagon, and that driving to D.C. was a pretty short distance."

Negotiating a 99-year lease with a brick company, Mr. Smith launched the construction of two apartment buildings. He put a crystal chandelier in the lobby of the first building, which he named Crystal House. A one-bedroom apartment rented for $145 a month, including all utilities.

The next few buildings the Smith family developed in the area all contained the name Crystal: Crystal Gateway, Crystal Towers, Crystal Square, Crystal Plaza. Many were on Crystal Drive, where Mr. Smith lived in a penthouse apartment.

In 1964, the first office building went up in Crystal City, and Mr. Smith conceived of a plan to lure government offices by offering bargain lease rates of $4.09 a square foot, promising not to raise the rent for 10 years. Over the next 20 years, his family's business put up more than 40 buildings in Crystal City.

"Now, at the time, none of us dreamed that these two buildings would be the entree to a 42-building complex," Mr. Smith said.

"He identified Crystal City before anyone else," said Benjamin R. Jacobs of JBG Companies. "His career is nothing short of astonishing."

"Bob Smith and the Charles E. Smith Companies -- along with Oliver Carr, the Cafritz family, the Gewirtz families -- set the framework of modern Washington. If you go back in time to the '60s and '70s, they began the investing in what we now know as the modern downtown Washington," said Rich Bradley, executive director of D.C.'s Downtown Business Improvement District.

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