Millions in gifts behind Weinberg name

Foundation has become one of 25 largest in U.S.

December 07, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is becoming the town that Harry and Jeanette Weinberg built -- or, at least, a town covered with their names.

Mercy Medical Center boasts a new Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center to house its women's health and medicine program. In Waverly, a Harry and Jeanette Weinberg YMCA is to open next year. The Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates from a Weinberg center, is getting a new Weinberg pavilion.

Buildings at almost all major medical institutions in the city and Baltimore County bear the Weinberg name, from a cancer center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, to a planned behavioral health center at Kennedy Krieger Institute, to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Cancer Institute at Franklin Square Hospital Center.

The University of Maryland Medical System has two buildings named for the couple. The newer, recently dedicated, contains operating and emergency rooms.

All of those names are no accident. Before his death in 1990, Harry Weinberg, landlord and philanthropist, decreed that any building for which his charitable foundation gave more than $250,000 would have the couple's name on it somewhere.

The size of the Weinberg foundation's assets has since doubled, to nearly $2 billion. It gives out nearly $100 million a year in grants. Weinberg required that half of the money go to building projects, and that makes for lots of Weinberg edifices -- so many that even the foundation staff can't say how many there are.

Bernard Siegel, a longtime Weinberg associate who became president of the foundation, estimated that his friend's name is on at least 65 buildings in the Baltimore area and that about a dozen more projects are in development.

"I said to him, `At some point, Harry, every building in the world is going to have your name on it,'" Siegel recalled. "And he got a big smile on his face."

There's a Weinberg residence at a hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia, a Weinberg independent living center in Kiev, Ukraine, and a Weinberg home for elderly women in Bombay, India. In Jerusalem, a Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Rooftop Terrace overlooks the Western Wall. In the United States, there are buildings named for the couple from Arizona to Massachusetts.

There is a long tradition of naming buildings for benefactors. That's how the Johns Hopkins University, Sheppard Pratt Hospital and the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre got their names.

Libraries across the country bear plaques with the name of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who donated the money for them at the turn of the 20th century.

But it is rare, experts say, for a foundation to require naming as specifically as Weinberg did. Betsy Nelson, executive director of the Association of Baltimore Area Grant Makers, said she knows of no other local foundation with such a rule.

"Others may say, `My name is there enough,"' Nelson said. For the five trustees who manage the Weinberg money, she said, "it's an interesting position to be in."

With or without names attached, brick-and-mortar giving has become less common among the nation's largest foundations. The trend is toward paying for research or programs that experiment with social change.

The nonprofit groups that have benefited from Weinberg's largess don't seem to mind taking on his name. A school for children with learning disabilities became the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Academy this year after winning a gift for its new campus in Randallstown.

Executive Director Brian Caplan said the school wanted to change its name -- which stood for Parents for Torah for All Children -- to reflect a broadening of its program to include all Jewish children, not just those from Orthodox families.

"Because it's a large foundation, it would enable us to create this new image and allow us to enhance our credibility," Caplan said.

James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, acknowledged that there could be confusion between the new Harry and Jeanette Weinberg pavilion at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park it is developing and the Weinberg center built several years ago on Living Classrooms' Fells Point campus.

But Bond said it's a good problem to have.

Siegel said Weinberg admired philanthropists such as Carnegie and Hopkins. He also wanted to follow exhortations in the Torah to leave a good name.

In life, Weinberg's name did not always elicit praise. He made his fortune buying commercial real estate in declining areas such as Baltimore's Howard Street and was criticized by city officials for failing to develop it. He also became one of the largest private landowners in Hawaii, where he spent most of his last years.

Although fabulously wealthy, Weinberg insisted on privacy. (He even shielded his resting place at a Baltimore cemetery with 72 plots around it.)

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