Richard Gilder, Donor to Parks, Museum and History, Dies at 87

Richard Gilder, a billionaire investor and benefactor who was instrumental in revitalizing two neglected exemplars of American democracy — the study of American history and Central Park — died on Tuesday at his home in Charlottesville, Va. He was 87.

His wife, the actress Lois Chiles, said the cause was congestive heart failure.

Mr. Gilder, a conservative, pro-growth Republican, formed an unlikely partnership in 1974 with George Soros, the liberal philanthropist, to rehabilitate Central Park, laying the foundation for what became the Central Park Conservancy in 1980.

He began his history restoration project in the late 1980s, teaming up with Lewis E. Lehrman, who had left academia to run Rite-Aid, his family’s drugstore chain, and had run for governor in 1982 as the Republican-Conservative candidate, barely losing to Mario M. Cuomo. They amassed a collection that would eventually consist of 70,000 original documents, letters, pamphlets, diaries and other primary sources that illuminate American history.

They then deposited them in a specially built $1 million vault in the basement of the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan to exhibit and share with scholars and educators.

One of Mr. Gilder’s passions was collecting battlefield maps, although Mr. Lehrman admonished him at one point, telling him, as he recalled in an interview, that “the battles were about the ideas in the documents, and you can’t move the battlefields into the classroom.”

In an interview, Dr. Futter called Mr. Gilder “a provocateur who encouraged us to think big, aim high and optimize what things could be.”

Mike Wallace, the City University historian and author most recently of “Greater Gotham” (2017), recalled in an email that there had been concerns among some historians that the Hamilton exhibition venerated conservative monetary policies. But to his credit, Mr. Wallace said, Mr. Gilder proved willing to turn over programming to Dr. Mirrer and her curators.

“His project was never political,” Dr. Mirrer said, “and those who declared that it was clearly didn’t know Dick.”

Richard Gilder Jr., a fifth-generation New Yorker known for his tweedy professorial appearance, was born on May 31, 1932, in Manhattan, the great-great-grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Bohemia. Richard Sr. was a property manager for a real estate company. Mr. Gilder’s mother, Jane (Moyse) Gilder, was a homemaker.

As a teenager Richard left the Bronx High School of Science after a semester because of disciplinary problems and completed his secondary education at the Mount Hermon School for Boys (now Northfield Mount Hermon) in Massachusetts. At Yale, he switched majors from economics to history and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954. He lasted a month or two at Yale Law School before dropping out.

Mr. Gilder’s marriages to Britt-Marie Lagerljung, Virginia Chromiak and Teresa Maria Dempsey ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. Chiles, whom he married in 2005, he is survived by four children from his first marriage, Ginny (an Olympian rower), Peggy, Britt-Louise and Richard Gilder III; a sister, Peggy Tirschwell; and 10 grandchildren.

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