Robert H. Smith

Sunday, January 3, 2010

DEVELOPER AND philanthropist Robert H. Smith was a dreamer, and proud of it. "It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled," he observed in a 2008 commencement speech at his beloved alma mater, the University of Maryland. "But it is a calamity not to dream." Mr. Smith, who died Dec. 29 at the age of 81, saw early on the opportunities for lucrative real estate investments in downtown Washington and across the Potomac River. Just as important, he envisioned the lasting impact that philanthropy could have on the fabric of the region. He made this his mission, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to universities, the arts, historic sites and civic activities.

His interest in development ventures began early as a high schooler working for the successful construction firm built by his Russian-born father, Charles E. Smith, and then in the University of Maryland's School of Engineering and later its business school. Five days after graduating in 1950, he returned to the firm, brimming with ideas. One was to turn the company from a builder into a diverse real estate operation that would continue managing buildings after constructing them, bringing in a steady stream of income. In 1967, he and his brother-in-law, Robert P. Kogod, took over the firm and turned it into the Washington area's largest commercial real estate landlord.

A cornerstone of the firm's success sprang from Mr. Smith's foresight in creating Crystal City out of a run-down stretch of Arlington County. Inspired by a crystal-theme apartment house he had visited in Miami, Mr. Smith called his first apartment complex Crystal House and put the Crystal name on other buildings as well. Mr. Smith and Mr. Kogod also built apartment houses downtown and in Northern Virginia.

Picking up on his father's interest in charity work, Mr. Smith stepped up his own focus and contributions. He gave nearly $100 million to U-Md., including $30 million each to the performing arts center and the business school. In 2004, he contributed $15 million to establish the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and donated to numerous other historical organizations. Bob Smith's remarkable generosity and vision for development are lasting achievements, to be savored for generations.

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