Dennis Alter and the Tragedy of Advanta

Construction of his new house? $80 million. Donation to Temple University? $15 million. Cranking up interest rates on his customers’ credit cards to nearly 40 percent? Shameless.

ALTER’S PERSONALITY ELUDES description. He enjoys a reputation as both a big-hearted philanthropist and an absurd spendthrift. He’s been called both a tyrant and a do-gooder. But throughout his life, the man has remained consistent in at least one sense: Whether squandering or selfless, he has distributed enormous sums of money.

Consider his house. It’s a 38,000-square-foot wonderland in Ambler, built by some of the world’s finest architects and designers in a style that mixes modern with medieval. Alter and his wife Gisela spared no expense, even twice flying a local tile man, Bob Capoferri, to Italy to oversee the selection of special marble for Gisela’s bathtub. Throughout the home, the furniture exudes taste and quality, and the walls display the Alters’ world-class art collection. Outside is a collection of secondary buildings, from guest lodgings to a pool cabana, and a recreation compound that boasts a sunken clay tennis court, locker rooms and a gym. Building the house took more than five years, and it reportedly cost, famously in some circles, a staggering $80 million. But it’s more than a house, in the same way the du Pont villas are more than houses. It’s a monument, a stone tablet carved as a testament to Dennis Alter’s time on earth.

The financier has also, perhaps more admirably, lavished money on charitable causes. One of his earliest large philanthropic maneuvers, through Advanta, was giving a million dollars to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for its Cézanne exhibit in 1996. A decade later, Advanta donated twice that much to the Dali exhibit, and it backed another Cézanne show earlier this year.

Local tennis has benefited as well. Alter discovered the sport as a boy after he tried out for the baseball team at his school; during a sprint test, he missed the coach’s starting signal, so he didn’t make the team. For years, Advanta has sponsored the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Manayunk, and the World TeamTennis league, including the Philadelphia Freedoms.

Alter’s most generous gift may have been the $15 million he donated to his alma mater, Temple University, toward the construction of Alter Hall for the university’s school of business. The building opened this year with a ribbon-cutting flourish, presenting students and staff with more than 200 works of art on display, a three-ton sculpture, and a 177-foot elliptical stock ticker.