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Obit> Fred Schwartz, 1951-2014
Denise Scott Brown remembers the New York architect.
Fred Schwartz at Yosemite.
David Dehart

Fred came into our family life before he joined our office. In late 1972 we moved with our fifteen month-old to an Art Nouveau house in an old suburb. For the first year we watched and learned. The roof needed replacing, the dining room was a racetrack for Jim’s tricycle, and in the yard weeds seemed to grow as we watched. We looked for ways to get house and yard tasks done while we spent our days at the office. Who could be intrigued by this work? Who might accept free board and lodge and grad student hourly rates in return for weeding, pruning, and house maintenance in the summer? Architecture students!

We advertised at several schools in early 1975 and Fred arrived for an interview. He was dressed for office work in New York and we wondered how he would do at weeding, but an unruly mop of brown hair reminded us that he had recently been at UC Berkeley. We felt reassured. He joined us that summer as our first “handyperson”—neuter gender: women and men would do the work. Our 39th has just arrived.

Over the summer, Fred worked his way into our lives. Our son Jim, when asked at four, “who’s your best friend?” replied “Fwedwic.” At seven he would add that his best friend was 27. Because Bob and I had few family members nearby and because our aunts and uncles had been important to us, I looked for strong characters as surrogate family for Jim. Fred was the first and the relationship lasted all his life.

He helped define the job and was one of our best workers. He told us about his recent time at Berkeley and described his friendship with Joe Esherick, whom I had known there. Joe added, when he visited Fred, that he had been in our house before, with his uncle William Esherick, whose sculpture the owners had commissioned. Another Fred UC Berkeley story was of selling homemade hamburgers to charretting fellow students. It was a business with a social dimension—some people got hamburgers for free. Doing good while doing well was a Fred theme.

In his summer with us Fred was a laid-back Californian, with a huge zest for life. He spread fun around him and cared very much about friends and work. At summer’s end he returned to Harvard but would visit when he could. One summer my parents arrived bringing four grandchildren and a babysitter, and there was, as well, our second handyperson. Every night those two looked for places to sleep, given the crowd and the heat, and every evening Fred organized a barbeque and cooked dinner. Four more children gained an uncle, and Fred told me that he had found in Jim the little brother he had always wanted.

Back at school, he worked part-time with SOM, on a street project in Cambridge. Something took him to San Francisco and, while he was there, I suggested he tape an oral history of an old friend and colleague—really old: he had started teaching at Berkeley in 1911. He had built a house in the Berkeley hills and had found someone “to draw the blue prints of my design,” as he put it. “Who was the architect?” I asked, “Oh a funny old man, you wouldn’t know him–Bernard Maybeck.” I had visited his Maybeck house and remembered well my friend’s stories of life at Berkeley then. The Smithsonian had been taping the more famous dimensions of Charles Seeger’s story, but I felt Fred should catch the parts on architecture, especially as Charles continued with an account, rather weirder, of John Galen Howard.

So Fred made the tape. Then life caught up with him and the project was stowed. He told me the tapes were safe among his things, but they should be available for students and scholars. Charles Seeger chatting with Fred Schwartz about Berkeley in the 1910s, what a joy!

Fred worked in our office on several inner-city and small-town planning projects, outcomes of our Las Vegas and South Street studies. Fred’s indicative designs for our Princeton CBD project and his perspective drawing of our recommendations for the Miami Beach Deco District, are among the beauties of our office. In these, he collaborated with Bob and me but also with Steve Izenour on the work Steve did best, and he saw Mary Yee, a planner who could do anything, evolving social and economic recommendations for what is now South Beach.

These experiences supported his later global work, helping him become a rare architect whose creativity covered design and the intellectual challenges of urbanism. Even rarer, he understood my role as both architect and planner in the office and how the two came together. I think we helped him hone his combat skills, which he occasionally used to support me—at an urban design conference in New York, for example, when he corrected a panelist who called our Miami work “Venturi’s project.” It was, Fred said, “Scott Brown’s project.” The panelist, I forget which New York pooh-bah, had a fit and stalked off the stage, only to return and redirect his stalk. He had walked into a closet.

When our Westway project came up, it was clear Fred should be project manager. This meant returning to live in New York. He gave notice at his Philadelphia apartment, then the project was delayed. “Live with us a month or so, Fred, no need for another apartment.” This triggered a year with us at home, expecting to leave from month to month. It also cemented his friendship with Jim. In New York Fred set up our office. Westway involved design at all scales and more work, this time, with Bob who was deeply invested in evolving a water edge geography to meet New York human urban need, but missed striped bass sexual need. It was a wonderful experience while it lasted, but it helped me define “honeypot” projects—ones where private interests are masked as public concerns and no good can come of them.

As Westway ended, Fred arrived at our Philadelphia office with a long list of ticked off items and a few left to discuss. “Thank you deeply for all you do” we said, and he replied, “I’m leaving.” After years of practice, I knew we must accept that people would leave. Fred was obviously headed toward a good future and we had to let him go. But this did not alleviate our sadness, or Fred’s, as you could see from his face. Yet he said there would be many ways of working together and there were, most initiated by him.

We were all involved with decorative arts designs for Knoll and Swid Powell, applying universals of urbanism and architecture (appropriately, we hoped) to a universe of everyday objects, and “mixing metaphors” to join commonplace and high culture. From these principles we evolved the “Grandmother” fabric, where flowers from an old kitchen tablecloth were overlaid with a standard office stationery pattern. The tablecloth was literally from a grandmother—Fred’s.

From age 12 we allowed Jim to travel to New York alone to meet Fred. Only later did I find a map drawn by Fred, showing him how to take the subway on his own to a cool barber that he liked. When Fred went to the American Academy in Rome, we put him in touch with Carolina Vaccaro, whom I first met careening in her walker through her father’s studio, when we worked for him. Now an architect and teacher she widened the circle of “family” around Fred and as they became friends, he renamed himself Schwartzini. Then we sent Jim, age 14. Unknown to the administration, he slept on the floor in Fred’s studio and ate in the kitchen, to the joy of the staff, who adored the towheaded young American, as they had adored Bob when he was a Fellow there. Then word got out. “Where did you go, Jim?” we asked, “To Francois.” And where was that?  “At the French Academy.”  Our child was moving in elevated circles. “Francois” was Jim’s mispronunciation of Francoise Blanc, a beautiful French architect, friend of Fred and Carolina, who worked in New York and was later a collaborator with us in Toulouse. Fred, Carolina, and Francoise cared for Jim in Rome, and the dynasty continues today into the third generation.

At 16 Jim left high school and worked in a pizza parlor. At 18 he announced he was going to New York. “Not on your own,” we said. Well then to Fred. Poor Fred! He owed us one for the year at home but not the presence of a rebellious teenager. Yet he found ways to protect his social life. Meanwhile Jim, whose rebellion subsided among ambitious young professionals, set up Fred’s office computer systems and did the same for several small New York architecture firms.

Fred was sine qua non to my “Architecture of Well-being” studio at Harvard, and our firms joined to enter a competition for the Whitehall Ferry Terminal.  When we won it we walked together into another honey pot. For this and related reasons we removed ourselves from the project, leaving Fred the architect. We disagreed with his choice to stay and felt that the building, which should have been a bright postage-stamp at the foot of Manhattan, had missed an opportunity. This situation caused tension, but so did much else—architecture is full of them—and we got on with the major opportunities occurring in our lives. Jim kept the communication open.

Fred’s project for the World Trade Center, New York’s biggest honey pot, did not win, but Fred’s role in it gave him a mysterious authority. Even without it, something about Fred made people trust him. So he could practice and lecture worldwide. Then we heard that he was sick. Fred did not want it known. His professional life was expanding and though darkness inevitably hung over him this seemed to spur his energy and he took on myriad tasks: New Orleans, airports in India, memorials and commemorations, somber but with a lilt. Some projects, saving the Lieb House, for example, you could call quixotic. Watch the film Fred and Jim made of the move. Fred is bald, tired, no more a laid-back Berkeley student, but a hard-bitten New Yorker. He holds the phone as if it’s part of him. Tracey, his beautiful and brave partner in life and work, is helping. “Well how much insurance do you want?’’ he asks over the phone, “$100,000 in case it falls into the water? It ain’t going to fall into the water.” His passion conveys urgency and New Jersey Government and agencies meet the challenge.

Fred was doing God’s work in the nitty-gritty. “I’m good at these things,” he said as he agreed to take on strategizing to change the conditions of the AIA Gold Medal. Our years of sending in our nomination only to have it returned unopened because it was for both of us, might be over now. This was because close on 20,000 petitioners worldwide had asked that the Pritzker prize reconsider their decision to make their award in 1991 to Bob without me. Perhaps the tide was turning. Fred set about canvassing state AIA chapters, finding a majority at the edges rather than the center, and when the vote came in they had gone for the change. Up to two people could be awarded so long as the creativity came from both of them. Fred’s strategies had succeeded where other’s equally devoted had not. But we are so grateful to all of them. Fred had worked hard with an equally spirited AIA group that included George Miller, the president of the AIA at the time, and various chapter presidents from across the country. It was his parting gift to me and perhaps the AIA’s to him.

I saw him at a small meeting in New York last summer. His beard was very long and grey and he wore a small black pill-box cap, Moorish in tone. He looked like an Old Testament prophet. After that we spoke about strategy by phone. Then I merely said, “Just float. Think of all the good you’ve done.” Then I left messages from Bob and me. In the last week Jim was with them much of the time, for Fred and to help Tracey sort things out. I hope there’s a corner in heaven where Fred can follow his interest in how some people beset by tsunamis manage to live on floodplains.

Denise Scott Brown