Who Needs Cash? How a University Netted a Highly Coveted Conference Venue

We don't often see many gifts whereby a house or estate is the donation in question, but news out of Washington, D.C. fits the bill, and better yet, presents a nice juxtaposition to a previously profiled gift.

Let's start in our nation's capital. American University announced it has been given a conference venue in Northern Virginia known as the Airlie Center, a donation valued at about $15 million. The property, a well-known gathering point for diplomats and heads of state, includes the historic Airlie House, the village of guest rooms, and the meeting facilities. It stands about 48 miles from A.U.'s campus in Northwest Washington.

Now let's quickly travel 3,000 miles west to Los Angeles. Back in February, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) announced that real estate investor James F. Goldstein promised his home, its contents and surrounding estate to LACMA upon his passing. Needless to say, it's not your average house. Originally built in 1963, the house was featured in the Coen Brothers' 1998 film The Big Lebowski

The optics are perfect, aren't they? American University, firmly ensconced within the Beltway, receives an oak tree-strewn resort that housed civil rights leaders in the 1960s from the estate's austere board of directors. The LACMA, meanwhile, gets one of The Dude's old haunts from a "flamboyantly dressed" Milwaukee-born real estate mogul who goes to four or five NBA games a week in Los Angeles.

This stuff writes itself!

But both gifts also share important similarities. For starters—and most obviously—both recipients will tell you that a property can be just as good as cash. What's more, they both serve practical, utilitarian purposes. For example, American University spokeswoman Camille Lepre said the property could be used to expand AU's sustainability efforts, for new sustainability or business internships, for classes or field studies in physics, biology, astronomy, ornithology and insect ecology, or as the setting of conference and leadership institutes. 

And what about the whys surrounding the respective gifts? To the former, Goldstein explains that after interfacing with museum CEO Michael Govan, he was convinced that Govan appreciated "the history of the house and the role it has played in the cultural life of Los Angeles," and was sold on his "vision for continuing that tradition when the house becomes an important part of LACMA's collections."

To the latter, the backstory is actually rather interesting. Airlie leaders initially wanted to sell the property while simultaneously adhering to its mission of environmental stewardship. It turns out none of potential buyers and their respective plans sufficiently adhered to Airlie's vision. American University, meanwhile, has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020, a goal that strongly resonated with the Airlie's braintrust.

And so what was initially positioned as a sale became a tax-deductible donation.