Gifts beyond the grave

Virginia institutions benefit from couple who died in the 1950s

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Print this page by Richard Foster

Arthur and Margaret Glasgow bequeathed the largest philanthropic gift in Virginia in 2011 (and the ninth largest in the nation), totaling $125 million. If you’re drawing a blank on these native Virginians’ names, however, you’re not alone —  the Glasgows died in the 1950s.

News The brother of Pulitzer Prize-winning Richmond novelist Ellen Glasgow, Arthur Glasgow was a well-known engineer who held numerous patents and made his fortune building gasworks plants. He died in 1955 at age 90, three years after the death of his wife, Margaret Elizabeth Branch Glasgow, heiress daughter of one of Richmond’s wealthiest and most prominent bankers and financiers.

During the 1940s and ’50s, the Glasgows established investment trusts worth more than $9 million, naming several Richmond-area institutions as beneficiaries. (See list on page 32.) The trusts terminated last year when the Glasgows’ last living heir, their wealthy son-in-law, Ambrose Congreve, died in London at age 104. In the intervening half-century, the Glasgow trusts ballooned to $125 million.

The Glasgows left about $70 million to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for acquiring new artwork, and the couple bequeathed approximately $45 million to Virginia Commonwealth University to support research seeking cures for cancer and other degenerative disease. The remaining $10 million was divided among several nonprofits (most from Richmond and Virginia) including Sheltering Arms Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Richmond, the Virginia Historical Society and Washington and Lee University.

The Glasgow en­­dowments ranked as the nation’s ninth-largest char­­­­­i­­­­­table gift in 2011, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 50 list.

“It’s staggering … fabulous,” says Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Not only was it the largest philanthropic gift in Virginia [in 2011] but … the gift was the largest to any art museum in America last year.”

NewsIt is made even more notable by the fact that the Glasgows “died before I was even born,” Nyerges says. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts itself was just a spry 19 years old at the time of Arthur Glasgow’s passing.

The massive gift and all the good it will do remain as “testimony to the Glasgows’ generosity and, more importantly, their foresight,” Nyerges says. “Having the foresight to do something that took 60 years to come to fruition, it is the ultimate in planning.”

With the addition of the Glasgow funds, the museum has increased its annual budget for art acquisitions from $5 million to $8 million. “That places us as No. 5 among all art museums in the United States,” says Nyerges. “That’s a nice stratosphere to live in.”

The museum has not yet decided what works it will purchase with the new infusion of funds. “We have 15 different curators and a fairly vast collection,” he says, “and we’re looking for works of art that will add in a significant way to the collection. … What we’re looking for are works of art that have impact, that are significant on a global scale.”

Virginia Commonwealth University also has yet to decide how to best spend its windfall, but John I. Blohm, vice president for development and alumni relations, says the university will use the majority of the funds to further cancer research and will seek matching grant dollars to maximize the gift’s potential.

“It is the goal of the university that this be truly a transformative gift,” Blohm says. “A gift like this can ensure that this university will have the opportunity to retain those great scientist researchers we have in place and also give us an opportunity to compete for recruitment of physician scientists. The great ones go to the great universities and coming into an endowment like this puts us in a favorable position to attract the very best.”

While some say that Margaret Glasgow or perhaps one of her family members suffered from cancer, it’s difficult to say why exactly the Glasgows chose the beneficiaries they did. Unfortunately, now that Congreve has died, there are no friends or family members left to speak for them.

Letters from Arthur Glasgow can be found in the archives at Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library, but library researchers are much more versed on Ellen Glasgow than her lesser-known sibling, Arthur, who is mentioned only briefly in her biography. (Interestingly, the VCU library is named after Margaret Glasgow’s cousin, a prominent novelist in the early 20th century.)

Though the Glasgows lived in London and Palm Beach, Fla., they visited Richmond frequently and maintained close ties with friends and family in Virginia. They donated paintings to the fledgling Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Arthur Glasgow was involved with the preservation of Richmond’s Ellen Glasgow House, his sister’s former home, now a National Historic Landmark. During both world wars, they lived in Washington, D.C., where they lobbied for U.S. military support for America’s European allies. Arthur and Margaret Glasgow are both interred in Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, final resting place of U.S. presidents James Monroe and John Tyler.

Born in Botetourt County in 1865, Arthur Glasgow was a groundbreaking engineer who worked at gaslight firms and helped establish Richmond’s modern natural-gas infrastructure. In 1892, he and a partner opened an engineering firm in London, Humphreys & Glasgow, which evolved into a major gasworks and petrochemical engineering corporation.

In 1901, Glasgow married Margaret Elizabeth Branch, daughter of Richmond banker John Patteson Branch. (Margaret’s brother, John Kerr Branch, built the stately John Russell Pope-designed Branch House, a landmark manor on Richmond’s Monument Avenue and now headquarters of the Virginia Center for Architecture.) Their only daughter, Marjorie, who died in 1993, married Ambrose Congreve, who took over Humphreys & Glasgow from 1939 to 1983, when it was sold to an American company and dissolved. Congreve was a world-renowned gardening enthusiast, and his Irish country estate boasted one of the globe’s largest rhododendron collections.

At one time, the Glasgow name was one of the best-known in Richmond, Nyerges says. Thanks to Arthur and Margaret Glasgow’s forward-thinking estate planning and generosity, it lives on, long after the couple’s demise. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently rechristened its planned-giving group as the Glasgow Society in honor of the couple.

“There are so few remnants left of the Glasgow legacy,” Nyerges says. “We thought it was a very important thing.”

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