LISSHistory.BIOGRAPHYRobertWDowling History

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BIOGRAPHY: Robert W. Dowling

Dowling College in Oakdale, New York, became an independent college in 1968, due to a generous donation made to the college by Robert W. Dowling, a New York City real estate developer with a passion for the arts and philanthropy.

Dowling was born on September 9, 1895, in New York City. He was the eldest son of Robert Emmet Dowling, a wealthy real estate magnate. Dowling did not attend college—he was “more interested in sports than books”—and at age 20, became the first person to swim around Manhattan Island.1

At the start of World War I, Dowling enlisted in the Army and joined the Columbia University Unit of the Balloon Training Corps. He later did “special service” for the Navy, developing a technique in which swimmers could be used to tow mines into enemy harbors. It was an inventive idea that was not, however, put into practice until World War II.2

After his discharge in 1919, Dowling returned to New York and entered the real estate business. He earned a solid reputation while working for several companies, and only became involved with his father’s firm, City Investing Company, after his father’s death in 1943.3 He retired from the company in 1972 after serving as president and, eventually, chairman of the board.4

Dowling was instrumental in the planning and design of noteworthy residential New York City developments, such as Parkchester, Stuyvesant Town, and Peter Cooper Village.5 Dowling favored “tall, slender buildings on spacious grounds, with every apartment sunny and open, all done in good taste….”6 He applied this same aesthetic to other buildings as well, transforming numerous corporate and research institutions into pleasant, light-filled “campuses.”7

Dowling’s real estate activities led to hands-on involvement in the arts. City Investing purchased and renovated several midtown theatres, and Dowling eventually became a producer for many notable Broadway shows and motion pictures. In 1950, he was appointed chairman for the fund-raising committee of the American National Theatre and Academy. As chairman of ANTA, Dowling visited Western Europe, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to “get acquainted with what European countries wanted in the way of United States entertainment…and what they had to export to these shores.”8 In 1958, he traveled to Moscow and met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to discuss “the exchange of United States and Soviet artists.”9 In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower tapped Dowling to head the Arts Advisory Committee of the National Cultural Center in Washington.10 Dowling proposed the design of the center, which later became the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.11

As a successful businessman, Dowling, was a member of “64 civic, cultural, educational and professional organizations.” Most significantly, he served as national president of the National Urban League (1950–1956), a group that advocated for equal economic opportunity for African Americans. He was a member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and director of Boy Scouts of America. He chaired benefit committees for several organizations, including the Children’s Village and Spence-Chapin Adoption Service. He served on the boards of many prominent businesses, such as the Waldorf-Astoria Corporation, R.H. Macy & Co., and Emigrant Savings Bank.12 He was also an early advocate for legalized off-track betting.13

Dowling received a great deal of recognition for his civic and philanthropic work. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy cited Dowling as a man whose “‘dynamic dedication to all that is healthy in man and society is an inspiration.’”14 Dowling also received an honorary degree from Adelphi University.15

A friendship with Adelphi’s dean, Dr. Allyn T. Robinson, eventually led to Dowling’s interest in Adelphi’s Oakdale campus. In 1968, Dowling provided Adelphi-Suffolk College with an endowment of over $3 million. The grant allowed the college to become an independent institution, which was renamed in Dowling’s honor in September 1968.16

Dowling spent most of his life in Manhattan and was married three times: first, to Ethel Robinson in 1920, whom he divorced in 1931. Dowling then married Alice Bevier Hall in 1934; the couple had a daughter, Ruth Alice. This marriage ended in divorce in 1968, and that same year he married Audrey A. Reber.17

Dowling remained active in the civic and philanthropic fields until his death on August 28, 1973.

Cited Sources

1 “Dowling, Robert W(hittle).” Current Biography. 1952.

2 “Robert Dowling of City Investing Dead; Spearheaded Civic and Planning Drives.” New York Times 29 Aug. 1973: 40.

3 “Planner & Patron: Robert Whittle Dowling.” Time Magazine Archives 2 May 1960. 20 April 2008 <http://www.time.com/magazine/article/0,9171,826403,00.html>

4 “Robert Dowling of City Investing Dead; Spearheaded Civic and Planning Drives.” New York Times 29 Aug. 1973: 40.

5 “Dowling, Robert W(hittle).” Current Biography. 1952.

6 “Robert Dowling of City Investing Dead; Spearheaded Civic and Planning Drives.” New York Times 29 Aug. 1973: 40.

7 “Planner & Patron: Robert Whittle Dowling.” Time Magazine Archives. 2 May 1960. 20 April 2008 <http://www.time.com/magazine/article/0,9171,826403,00.html>

8 “Czechs and Poles Rock to U.S. Jazz; R.W. Dowling Says All Things From Here Are Popular in Communist Lands.” New York Times 25 Feb. 1957: 10.

9 “Khrushchev Says Music Aids Amity; Feels Philadelphia Orchestra and Cliburn Strengthened U.S.-Soviet Relations.” New York Times 31 May 1958: 6.

10 “Eisenhower Picks 34 to Help Plan Cultural Center.” New York Times 12 April 1959: 79.

11 “Robert Dowling of City Investing Dead; Spearheaded Civic and Planning Drives.” New York Times 29 Aug. 1973: 40.

12 Anonymous. “Robert Dowling of City Investing Dead; Spearheaded Civic and Planning Drives.” New York Times 29 Aug. 1973, p. 40.

13 Bennett, Charles G. “Public Approval Seen for Bet Law.” New York Times 28 Oct. 1958: 37.

14 “Robert W. Dowling Cited by President.” New York Times 18 April 1961: 40.

15 “Adelphi Honors Five at 64th Graduation.” New York Times 16 June 1960: 18.

16 Clines, Francis X. “Dowling Endows a College on L.I.” New York Times 13 June 1960: 15.; “Former Branch of Adelphi Given Independent Status.” New York Times 29 Sept. 1968: 62.

17 “Robert W. Dowling File for Separation.” New York Times 27 Feb. 1968: 30.; “Robert Dowling, Producer, Weds Boston Woman.” New York Times 11 Apr. 1968: 40.


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