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One For The Road: Happy Birthday Henry Crown

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jun 13, 2012 11:00PM

Photo by Art Shay

Think of the family names synonymous with Chicago's foundation for a moment: Daley, Pritzker, Field, Wrigley, McCormick. And Crown. On this date in 1896, Henry Crown was born. From modest means—he was the third child of sweatshop worker Arie Crown (formerly Krinsky) and Ida—Henry Crown went on to become a billionaire. He started the Material Services Corporation with $10,000 in borrowed money in 1919, selling gravel, sand, lime, and coal to builders throughout the Chicago area. By the time he gained a controlling interest in General Dynamics 40 years later and merged the two companies, Material Dynamics was worth $100 million.

Art Shay, of course, was well familiar with Henry Crown

I had suggested a story to Fortune Magazine on Henry Crown, who built Material Services and at one point owned the Empire State Building all by himself. Following Crown around with my Leica, I found myself in the office of superbanker Edward Eagle Brown. "Take it easy on this guy," Crown said out loud. "I owe him 16 million dollars." At which point, while backing up to get both men into the wide angle frame, I accidentally kicked Brown's 100-year-old spittoon. Both men laughed as if they'd seen a great comic bit. Luckily the saliva and disinfectant settled down and, from then on, each time I photographed Crown again, he told the spittoon story. "If that spittoon could speak," Crown muttered as we crossed La Salle Street, it would tell the story of Chicago's finances better than Fortune could."

Crown was known as a shrewd businessman and a generous philanthropist. Some of his beneficiaries include the University of Chicago, Brandeis, Stanford, Northwestern and the St. Lawrence University student investment fund. The Museum of Science and Industry's Space Center is named after him. So is the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion at Northwestern University. The Arie Crown Theater is dedicated to his father, and the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park was dedicated in honor of the Crown family