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Segerstrom Sees His Gift as Catalyst

His $40-million donation to the Performing Arts Center puts expansion project back on track. A new concert hall will bear his name and that of his late wife.

August 18, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Henry T. Segerstrom had a simple reason for giving $40 million to help build a new concert hall at the overbooked Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Progress on the $200-million expansion was stalled, building it was a "personal dream" too long deferred, and it was time to get going.

"I just decided I would like to be the catalyst," the 77-year-old developer and South Coast Plaza shopping mall magnate said Thursday after a news conference announcing his gift.

The 2,000-seat classical music venue will be named the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. It will add to Segerstrom's legacy as the county's most generous arts patron and serve as a memorial to his wife of nearly 20 years, who died June 7.

Segerstrom and family gave $11 million in land and money for the center's existing 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall, which opened in 1986; they also have given five acres valued at $16 million for the expansion, which includes a 500-seat music hall and is expected to open in 2004 or early 2005.

Segerstrom's gift was announced under the "Fire Bird," a gigantic abstract sculpture that stretches from outside the center through an upstairs lobby. The Segerstrom family commissioned the 60-foot-tall piece, and Renee Segerstrom gave it its name.

When center Chairman Roger T. Kirwan announced the donation, describing it as "the largest cash gift in the history of Orange County philanthropy," the gathering of more than 100 center backers, officers and representatives from arts organizations rose spontaneously and applauded for half a minute. Segerstrom stood facing the podium, beside his new wife, Elizabeth, whom he met and married last month in New York during a whirlwind romance.

After the ceremony, Segerstrom said that "there was a strong linkage, obviously," between Renee's death at age 72 and his decision around the same time to give the money.

But along with sentiment he pointed to some hard facts. Center officials had announced in July 1999 that they would seek a $50-million "naming gift" to kick off the expansion campaign, and said confidently that they expected to have good news soon.

No news came.

Segerstrom, a member of the project's steering committee, said he was "terribly disappointed" when design work stopped last October because financing had not been secured.

"We were backing away and regrouping," Jerry E. Mandel, the center's president and chief executive officer, said Thursday. "[Segerstrom] asked me one day a couple of months ago, 'What would it take to get this moving?' I said, 'A lead gift.' "

Segerstrom had been committed to the expansion since 1989, when a study he oversaw as the center's then-chairman concluded that a second theater was needed to relieve scheduling bottlenecks in Segerstrom Hall that have gotten tighter with time.

In June, he invited Kirwan to lunch at Pinot Provence, a restaurant in the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel near the center, and offered him the $40 million.

"He just about knocked me out of my seat," Kirwan said. "At that point I lost all interest in what I was eating."

Donation Comes With No Strings

Segerstrom, Kirwan and Mandel kept the news to themselves while final details of the gift were worked out; meanwhile, Segerstrom and other center officials went to New Haven, Conn., last month to talk to Cesar Pelli & Associates, the project architects, about stepping up design work.

Segerstrom met Elizabeth that weekend.

Mandel said the gift comes with no strings attached. It will arrive in three installments: $10 million this year to help finance the design phase, $15 million when ground is broken, and $15 million when construction reaches the midpoint.

Along with Segerstrom's donation, the center says it has $25 million in recent commitments from board members. The "silent phase" of fund-raising, when prospective mega-donors are approached personally, will continue until $100 million has been raised; after that the center will make a public appeal.

Mandel, a fund-raising officer at UC Irvine and other universities before becoming the center's chief executive, expects large donations to cover all but $25 million to $50 million of the cost.

Two other "naming gifts" are on the table--$25 million for the 500-seat theater and $20 million to name a plaza between the existing center and the new building. Segerstrom will take an active role, partnering with Mandel to court $5-million gifts that will gain donors admission to a "Circle of Honor."

Thursday's ceremonies, ending with a champagne toast to Segerstrom and the center's future, were filled with lofty encomiums to the arts and their leading local patron.

Pacific Symphony conductor Carl St.Clair gave the most eloquent and emotional speech. He envisioned a new, acoustically precise hall not only as a performing space, but as an instrument that will add its own brilliant tone: "The concert hall sits on the horizon and leads us to paths of greatness. It will be our Stradivarius."

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