James Madison’s family plantation of Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. Benjamin Franklin’s London townhouse. Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, just south of the capital city that bears his name. Abraham Lincoln’s cottage, his summer retreat in Washington, D.C.
These places share the common bond of hosting and providing sanctuary to the great men of American history, but they are also bound together by Robert H. Smith’s dedication to making them accessible to the public. Smith has supported significant projects at each one of these, from the obscure to the world famous. For the most part, his emphasis is on education and outreach, whether through visitor centers, scholarly resources, or professional development for teachers. These historic homes, as he sees it, offer a unique opportunity to pass on the heritage of the United States. “As a grateful American,” he says, “I want people to know where we came from, how we got there, what were their ideas.”
A Virginia-based developer and builder, Smith is best known for founding a distinctly different kind of urban setting—the futuristic Crystal City, a mixed-use complex in Arlington, Virginia, linked by underground corridors. For decades, full-time business duties kept him occupied, but “I was always interested in giving back,” says Smith. “My father was a big advocate of that.”
In the last dozen years, he has been able to do more, finding “tremendous satisfaction and pleasure” in wide-ranging philanthropy. A former president of the National Gallery of Art, he has also provided major gifts to the Mayo Clinic for Alzheimer’s disease research, to Johns Hopkins to research the prevention of blindness, and to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for an initiative to end world hunger. Smith, a graduate of the University of Maryland, funded the renewal and reinvigoration of the university’s business school, now the Robert H. Smith School of Business, and established the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, honoring his wife’s dedication to the arts.
Smith had always enjoyed reading biographies of the Founders; he has said that “they created a country that has given people more opportunity and hope in the past 230 years than any other type of government in the history of man.” His work on presidential sites began in the 1990s when friends approached him about a project at Montpelier, the home of James Madison, framer of the Constitution and the fourth president. Smith helped to fund an archaeological survey of the house, and later aided in a successful plan to preserve the estate’s two hundred-acre old-growth forest. Considering Madison’s role in drafting the Constitution led Smith to fund the Constitutional Village, a residential mini-campus on the Montpelier property consisting of renovated early twentieth-century farmhouses. Educators, among others, stay at the village as they participate in workshops and seminars on methods of teaching the Constitution. The village recently hosted an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop.
At Mount Vernon, Smith’s many projects have included the building of the two-hundred-seat Robert H. and Clarice Smith Auditorium. At Monticello, he permanently endowed the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. First established a decade earlier, the center is a residence and conference site for Jefferson scholars and teachers.
Smith has also supported sites that are historically important, but not as well known. Few Americans realize that from 1757 to 1775 (with the exception of a brief interval between 1762 and 1764) Benjamin Franklin lived in London, representing the Pennsylvania Assembly in what some have called the “first de facto American embassy.” Reopened in 2006, the townhouse is the only remaining Franklin home in the world. On the fourth floor, the Robert H. Smith Scholarship Centre offers programs for scholars and the public.
In early 2008, President Lincoln’s cottage, located on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D.C., also reopened to the public. The cottage, where Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency, was the summer residence of the Lincoln family. Over time, it had been limited to the public and largely forgotten. Visitors to the restored cottage now begin their tour at the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center, located in a 1905 Beaux Arts building beside the cottage. In addition to exhibitions, a reception area, and an orientation theater, the center offers an award-winning interactive gallery, “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions,” which explores key turning points of his presidency. The two buildings stand “side by side in perfect harmony,” Smith comments. “The past and present live together.”
Smith, whose latest project involves renovations at the New-York Historical Society, thrives on the challenges and interest of each new initiative. “The tragedy does not lie in failing to reach your goals, but in having no goals to reach,” he says. “It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”
By Esther Ferington