Gray may describe station, but don't name it that

Posted: August 11, 2014

What's in a name? Apparently, millions. With such lucre, a medical school or theater would smell as sweet, possibly sweeter.

The region's nonprofit organizations are in an arms race to place Your Name Here, especially if that name is attached to a significant checkbook. It seems as though everything is up for sale, and our city as we know it may be rendered unrecognizable from all the new labels.

Even when it's not a matter of money, some people want to tamper with a perfectly good brand, like Rep. Chaka Fattah, who wants to rebrand 30th Street Station (yes, once also known as Pennsylvania Station at 30th Street) after the late Rep. Bill Gray, his predecessor in Congress.

Folks, this is a terrible idea.

Who wants the majestic classical revival building to be known grimly as Gray Station? It will never take, in the same way residents have never stopped saying West River Drive (and older residents, East) and Delaware Avenue.

We're used to sports and entertainment venues changing with every bank merger. But what happens to a troubled theater, the Prince, or Suzanne Roberts, if it changes hands?

The Kimmel Center recently launched a fund-raising drive "well north of $100 million," said its president, Anne Ewers, with enough naming opportunities to rival a NASCAR competitor's jumpsuit. Even Commonwealth Plaza, which acknowledges Pennsylvania taxpayers' generous contributions (even if few of us regularly use it).

The urge to tattoo the family name in granite may seem new (or nouveau), the Gucci bag of charity, but the National Philanthropic Trust's Eileen Heisman said she saw names chiseled on the remains of an ancient library in Turkey.

"Philanthropy is a different commodity that brings an internal satisfaction," Heisman said, and sometimes that comes with the name. "Many philanthropists are ensuring there's a legacy and perpetuity for their family generosity." While Benjamin Franklin didn't place his name on the many institutions he founded, Stephen Girard did. For every Philadelphia Museum of Art, there's a Barnes and Frick.

The 12th-century philosopher Maimonides may have championed giving anonymously as among the highest forms of charity, but that doesn't work for everyone. Said Kelly O'Brien, the Art Museum's executive director of development: "Philadelphia has had a quiet tradition. It's been a quiet philanthropic town compared with Dallas, Houston, Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles."

Well, compared with almost everywhere.

"The need for funding has increased so significantly, you have to look at every way possible to make it compelling to the donor," O'Brien said. The question is often at what price? Some buildings have been named for $5 million, a relative bargain.

In recent years, medical schools - long generically known as just that - acquired gorgeous donations and new appellations, including Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, though why it isn't called Dr. Seuss School of Medicine is surely a missed opportunity.

A record $225 million gift from Raymond and Ruth Perelman resulted in the University of Pennsylvania's naming its medical school for them. After Lewis Katz pledged $25 million to Temple's medical school, the largest single pledge in the school's history, that university announced it would name the school after him. Katz, a former owner of The Inquirer's parent company, died in a plane accident in May.

A $110 million gift from Sidney Kimmel to Thomas Jefferson University prompted the institution to alter the name of its Medical College from the founding father to the garment tycoon. (The university and hospital will remain Jefferson.)

While grateful for Kimmel's gift, several alums are less than pleased. "It reflects badly on society when reverence and respect for tradition are displaced by the competitive need for bigger and better things," wrote graduate Harry D. Carrozza to The Inquirer, and "has created sorrow and disappointment among many graduates of Jefferson."

Money changes everything. It's not easy to be true to your school when it becomes something else. Or to recognize a train station if it becomes another shade of Gray.

215-854-2586 @kheller

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