Museum of the American Revolution': How Gerry Lenfest made it happen

It’s not as though H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest were moping around the house in 2005 with nothing to do.

He was in the throes of giving away the bulk of the $1.2 billion he'd made on the sale of his cable company just five years earlier. There was $100 million for his old law school at Columbia University and $10 million to build a Philadelphia gallery for the Barnes Foundation, near bankruptcy in Merion.

He was also chairing the board of trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was gearing up for a transformative construction project.

Then, toward the end of 2005, Warren V. “Pete” Musser, founder and chairman of Safeguard Scientifics in Wayne, came calling, asking Lenfest to join the board of the American Revolution Center (ARC) at Valley Forge National Historical Park. The museum project was mired in bureaucratic infighting, community sniping, and lackluster fund-raising.

“Gerry agreed to do that,” Musser said. “He’s prone to say yes, and he has a wonderful interest in history and the growth of America.”

Lenfest, now 86, says Musser stood up “in the middle of the, I think, the first [board] meeting and said, ‘We’re going to call a vote. The vote is we’re electing you chairman of the board.' "

“And he got up and walked out. And they voted yes! So there I was, chair of the board. I didn’t know a damn thing about it. That was Pete Musser, whom I revere.”

Then-Gov. Edward G. Rendell had a hand in it, too. He had thought of bringing Lenfest on to the ARC board in the first place and strongly backed him as chair.

“The board was a mess," said Rendell. “Gerry jump-started it.”

ARC had problems raising money, and it had innumerable problems trying to coexist within Valley Forge Park. Lenfest’s arrival heralded big changes.

“Gerry,” said Musser, “is a difference-maker.”

“I began to learn about it, and the more I learned, the more intrigued I got,” said Lenfest, a former owner of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com. “There was no museum in the United States dedicated to the American Revolution. It was a very needed, I thought, museum in the fabric of this country’s history. The more interested I got, the more involved I got.”

In fall 2007, Lenfest ponied up $4.1 million for a 78-acre parcel within the boundaries of the park that the federal government didn't own.

ARC plans expanded. The museum for the new site would be 130,000 square feet. There would be a hotel. A conference center. A restaurant. The price tag ballooned, and so did community opposition. The whole endeavor produced more migraines than funding.

“Salvation came when Gov. Rendell was driving around in Philadelphia and looked up the old visitor center of the park,” said Lenfest.

 “We decided it was too old and rickety to just get the building,”  Rendell said, referring to the visitor center. But the location at Third and Chestnut Streets “was perfect.”

A deal was cut between the would-be museum and the feds: 78 acres in Valley Forge for less than an acre in the Historic District.

A new fund-raising plan was drawn up.

“The rest is history,” said Rendell. “Gerry has, at this point, given $60 million. Members of his family have given $20 million. The state all told, Gov. Schweiker and I, gave $33 million.”

Gov. Tom Corbett released the state funding.

The $120 million museum’s fund-raising goal has been reached, and $30 million more has been raised for endowment.

All this for a museum Lenfest once said he knew nothing about.

“I talked him into it,” said Rendell, “but this became his bucket list. I raised a lot of money for this museum by going to people like Joe Neubauer. Joe Neubauer said, ‘Ah, we don’t need a new historic museum.’ I said, ‘I think we do. It’s a war museum. Every war museum in the country makes money.’ But I said, ‘Besides, Joe, when you needed money to make the Barnes a reality, who’d you call? Gerry. We owe this to Gerry.’ "

That fund-raising pitch, Rendell said, worked with nearly everyone. "We owe this to Gerry."

Lenfest says he came to believe the museum represented a missing element in the region’s presentation of the nation’s founding.

“It gives me a lot of personal satisfaction to see it come into existence,” he said. “Whether you like wars or not, it’s got an interesting story that will attract people.”

But more important for Lenfest, the museum tells the story of what people were willing to do for important principles.

“It may be a war museum," he said, but the American people "risked their lives because they believed in freedom and bringing this country into existence.”

Museum visitors, Lenfest said, "will realize the burden of responsibility of continuing this country on the principles originally espoused.”