The Man Behind The Name On Arts Center

Posted: June 14, 2000

NEW YORK — In the old days, back when Sidney Kimmel was a boy in West Philadelphia and his father eked out a living driving a cab, the family would sometimes move clandestinely at night because they couldn't make the rent.

Now, the Kimmel boy has a sumptuous apartment off Fifth Avenue in New York, another elegant apartment off Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and a 15,500-square-foot house off the ocean in Palm Beach, Fla., that cost $40 million.

And to top it off, the new arts complex at Broad and Spruce Streets, which could become the most prestigious building in the city, today officially sheds its "Regional Performing Arts Center" name to become the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

"It feels kind of funny," Kimmel, 72, said in an interview Monday. "I woke up in the middle of the night saying, 'What right do I have to put my name on this building? Who the hell am I?' I had a lot of apprehension, frankly. I guess my wife, my friends told me I was a fool to think that way."

If he was, it was one of the very few things in life Kimmel has been a fool about.

Kimmel won the right to name the building by donating $15 million to the $258 million project - which will house the Philadelphia Orchestra and other groups - making him its single largest private donor.

The money is part of the vast fortune Kimmel has made as founder and head of Jones Apparel, the women's clothing company that did $3.13 billion in sales in 1999. Kimmel personally is worth well more than $1 billion, and he says he plans to donate virtually all of it to charity.

So far he has committed himself to giving away more than $80 million.

"I hope I can live long enough to give it all away," he said in his garment-district office. "You don't want to make a mistake; you don't want to feel like a fool five years later. I want to put money where it helps and works."

Kimmel says he will end up giving more to cancer research than to the arts. While Kimmel has been very close to some cancer sufferers, he says his main impetus is "strictly a businessman's common-sense approach to a scourge" that kills 550,000 people every year. He has already committed $25 million for a new cancer research center at Thomas Jefferson University, $4 million to a cancer center in San Diego, and a total of almost $8 million to 40 young cancer researchers.

In other realms, he donated $5 million to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and smaller amounts to other causes, including $5,000 to help bring the Republican National Convention to Philadelphia.

But Kimmel isn't one of those philanthropists who gives money, has his moment in the sun, and then moves on. He looks upon a donation as an investment, and he tends his investments carefully. He can speak knowledgeably about cancer research and the arts center project, and he has strong ideas about how each should be done.

He was instrumental in the design of the arts center, and he is now concerned about its need for a greater endowment, its potential function as an education center for children - and even its programming.

"One day I might invite Elton John to play at this facility," he said. "I think it would be fantastic. But that's not what its intention is, of course."

Through more than a dozen meetings with New York architect Rafael Vinoly, Kimmel made sure of getting a design he was comfortable with for the new orchestra hall, the new recital hall, and the glass barrel-vault superstructure that will encase them both.

"We would just sit and have meetings, and I said you can't just have a blank brick wall along an entire city block along Spruce Street, it'll look like a prison, it'll look ugly."

But Kimmel is often modest, almost universally admired as a nice guy - "Sidney is far ahead in being the nicest successful person I know," former Mayor Edward G. Rendell said - and hesitant to overstate his role. "It's not that I forced my thoughts on anyone. Everyone readily agreed - we want a building that looks good from all views, even 15th Street."

Kimmel said he asked for warm wood surfaces inside the complex. Now, he is discussing colors with Vinoly.

Kimmel may be modest, but he is also forceful. When he did not get along with Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, the previous architects of the concert hall project, Kimmel made sure they were not considered for the job when the project was reconfigured into a larger arts center.

Kimmel is also concerned about the success of the arts center long after its opening in December 2001.

"The [$10 million] endowment is much smaller than I would feel comfortable with, and I hope that I'll be part of the continuing fund-raising to increase the endowment as the years go on," he said. "I'm interested in this being a successful building, not just a pretty building. I'm not going to walk away from the project just because the building is finished. It's a major commitment. And I just hope that more and more Philadelphians with the means will recognize its importance."

All this from a man who lives in Philadelphia only four or five weekends a year, who speaks more intelligently about Annie Lennox and Sting than Brahms, a man who speaks passionately about the musical education of a future generation but, regretfully, has no children himself. ("I wish I had grown children to enjoy," he mused in a 1998 interview.)

The question nags: Why? Why has Kimmel been so generous to the arts center, when its mission seems so far removed from his personal interests?

"I have a very strong interest in the economy of the city, and I could see other cities were doing the right thing - Dallas, New York, Washington, D.C., Milan - all of those cities have great symphony halls while Philadelphia lacked one. I think economically it was the right thing to do."

Kimmel earned a lot of money for many years, but he didn't become Forbes 400 wealthy until 1991, when Jones went public. Within two years he had started the Sidney Kimmel Foundation and started giving it away.

While he undoubtedly enjoys his wealth (he has amassed an impressive art collection and flies around in his own plane) and the ability to give large sums to charities, he has never been particularly at ease under the spotlight that comes with the territory.

"From the very beginning I wasn't sure that I was going to use my name on this building," he said in discussing the performing arts center. "It's being in the limelight. It's a show-off thing. If someone had come along and made a much larger donation and they said, 'Would you mind stepping back?' I would have stepped back."

Last year, after a lengthy profile of Kimmel appeared in The Inquirer Magazine, he received about 500 letters from people, most of whom wanted something.

"Some person sent pictures of their four kids and said, 'Would you please adopt them, I love my kids but I don't have any money to feed them,' " he recalled, obviously pained by the memory.

"You can go crazy with all this stuff."

While Kimmel's great fortune was made in producing high-quality, fashionable clothing for working women, Jones is not his only business. He has produced several movies, he owns a hotel on Wall Street in New York called the Regent Wall Street, he's a partner in a restaurant business, and he even owns a small piece of the Miami Heat basketball team.

Kimmel has always been a relatively private man, although his 30-year romance with Rena Rowan, the fashion designer who was also his partner, was well known, and their breakup received a lot of publicity. The partnership ended in 1996 when Rowan moved out and married singer Vic Damone.

Last December, Kimmel married Caroline Davis, the former wife of Leonard Tose, and he says now that marriage is "wonderful."

The couple have traveled to Italy a few times, and Los Angeles, where her family is from, but they have spent a lot of time in Florida where Kimmel has been recuperating from a ruptured muscle above the left knee.

While day by day, more steel girders heighten the profile of the new Kimmel Center, it is still not fully funded. About $21 million more is needed to complete the fund-raising campaign. Arts center insiders speculate that Kimmel might help fill the gap.

Kimmel says he is not overly concerned. "Once the building is close to completion, then people will finally believe. I think it will be an ongoing process.

"But it's very exciting to know that we'll have a first-class operation."

Peter Dobrin's e-mail address is pdobrin@phillynews.com and Stephen Seplow's e-mail address is sseplow@phillynews.com

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