March 26, 2003: A moment with...

Peter Lewis ’55

Photo by David Maxwell

Progressive Corp. Chairman Peter Lewis ’55 has given more than $117 million to Princeton — making him one of the university’s largest donors — including gifts for the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and a science library to be designed by Frank Gehry. Last fall, Lewis, a former Princeton trustee, made national news when he told the city of Cleveland he would no longer give money to any of its institutions until Case Western Reserve University overhauled its Board of Trustees. Lewis’s displeasure with Case Western arose because of huge cost overruns for a Gehry-designed building he financed on campus and what he saw as the university slipping in national rankings. In a letter to the New York Times last November, Case Western President Edward M. Hundert defended the university’s national standing, praised Lewis, and announced that changes had begun to be made in the composition of the board. Here Lewis talks with PAW’s Lolly O’Brien.

Are you a demanding donor?

No. But it depends on who you ask. I got this publicity from throwing my donor weight around in Cleveland. Ask Harold Shapiro and Shirley Tilghman if I’m a demanding donor. I’ve given a big number, and I don’t think I’ve demanded very much. I did seek to serve on Princeton’s Board of Trustees. I suppose I was originally motivated by some feeling that I wanted the recognition and I had earned it.

What rights does a donor have?

The facts are, he has none. Zero. What I’ve learned as a donor is you’ve got to get what you want ahead of time.

There has been talk about your demands at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where you are chairman of the board.

We’re in deep financial trouble, literally trouble, not just overspending. There is nobody around prepared to bail us out, but I’m chairman, and I’ve got the resources. So is it demanding when I say, “I will bail us out. You have a choice. You have to cut our staff and build a plan. You have to do things you never did before, and you have to do it right now, or I’ll see that you’re fired.”? Is that demanding? It is what it is. I could have let the institution fail. Which it would have done.

Will you talk about what happened in Cleveland and at Case Western Reserve University (C.W.R.U.)?

Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the country when I was born, and it was big league in every respect, and hot! And since World War II, Cleveland’s gone downhill. Most good businesses have left. It’s a community that doesn’t embrace change. I also say that C.W.R.U. has been going downhill. With my experience at Princeton, I can see what’s possible, so I say that this board’s got to go. In a meeting about the art museum I could see that a friend of mine, the president of the board of trustees of the museum, who is also on the board of C.W.R.U., was going to ask me, as the number-one philanthropist in town, to make the lead gift to build a huge addition to the art museum. I said to him, “Wait a minute, you are responsible for the university, change it. I’m not going to give anyone in town a dime, and I’m going to see what happens.” I was frustrated. I may never give another cent to Cleveland.

You have mentioned that you influenced Frank Gehry. How so?

I hired him to build an extraordinary house. My budget was $5 million. He started to get busy more or less when I hired him, and there were fits and starts in my process, in his process. But I said, “Keep going. At whatever rates.” And I kept paying him. And he kept designing. And I was happy. And the budget kept escalating and escalating. This was an 18-year period. About four or five years after I hired him, he got the Bilbao commission [Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain]. In fact the model of my house looks an awful lot like the model of the Bilbao museum. He did all kinds of experimental design on my ticket. I paid him about $6 million in architect fees, which he now refers to as his MacArthur grant. It allowed him to do the research on how to do curved walls, and all that stuff.

Are you happy with the way Princeton has changed?

I love the tradition at Princeton, and I love the dynamic that is going on now — building the Porphyrios collegiate-gothic college [Whitman College, being designed by Demitri Porphyrios *80] and the Gehry science library at the same time. Marrying change and tradition.

What do you say to alumni who have reacted negatively to a Gehry building on campus?

You’ll love it when it gets there. At least 70 percent of those people will want to take people there first. I’ve seen what’s happened in Cleveland. The anti-Gehry feeling in Cleveland, at the start, you can’t believe. And it was the best thing that ever happened to the town. It’s the first place you take a visitor. Someone once said to me, “Good art starts fights in bars.” If you get some disagreement, you’ve got something going.


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