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The Last Word, Indeed

Don’t go to architecture school,” Jim warned. “It will ruin your mind.”

Jim was James Morrett, my first architecture professor. I had enrolled in his community college program in Pennsylvania while deciding whether to attend architecture school. Jim was sure his drafting-oriented program provided all the education I would need. He had not completed architecture school himself; presumably, he dropped out when he sensed ruination was imminent.

Jim’s curriculum was surprisingly rigorous, with courses in physics, structural design, and building technology. And as the first architect I had met, he provided a compelling template: smart, good looking, hilariously contrarian, and apt to provide the convincing last word in any debate. During our marathon drafting classes, he turned off our rock music, set the dial on a classical station, and pontificated good-naturedly on conservative politics. At lunchtime he vanished; hours later he’d return, trailed by the scent of cigarettes and Drambuie.

One day, Jim took my classmate Steve and me to one of his marathon lunches. On the return trip, he stopped his Jaguar near the State Capitol in Harrisburg. He pointed to a set of gates he had designed, each an intricately gridded composition in bronze.

“You see that bar near the bottom right?” he asked.

“It’s crooked,” I said. “Why did you do that?”

“So I could drive by here one day and show you.”

• • •

By the time I graduated from Jim’s program, its limitations had become evident. Jim taught the how of making buildings, not the deeper, broader why. Steve and I moved to Boston to enroll in architecture school, where we gained insights into the built environment that Jim could not have provided us. But as my interest in architectural theory deepened, professional practice grew boring. Eventually, I became unemployable. Perhaps architecture school had ruined me.

At my nadir, Jim called. The president of the community college wanted to start a “real” architecture program. Was I interested in running it?

The opportunity was a gift. I imagined Jim and me working side by side in our respective programs, kibitzing over coffee and sharing Drambuie-punctuated lunches.

An enthusiastic interview landed me the job. But although Jim and I shared an office, I saw him rarely. One morning I spied him in the hall and invited him to visit my design studio. He accepted. I was sure that upon seeing my students’ work, Jim would discover within himself an intuitive appreciation for their explorations in figure-ground theory.

Jim was a no-show. For the rest of the term, he avoided me. The next semester, he shifted to a half-time schedule, and I rearranged our office.

“What happened here?” he asked the next morning.

“I renovated,” I offered meekly.

“Well, renovate it back.” 

• • •

Jim retired at the end of the school year and went in search of warmer weather. A few years later, I returned to Boston while my friend Steve moved back to Harrisburg. Steve and I fell out of touch, but in 2010 he called to ask me to be his best man. We rehashed our favorite Jim Morrett stories, and I searched for Jim on the Web. Jim had moved to North Carolina. A second search told me he had died two years earlier. His widow was a former student I had known well.

Steve reported from time to time on his and his fiancée’s search for a house. They were becoming disillusioned by the choices in their price range. But, eventually, they stumbled upon a compelling mid-century Modern ranch: gently sited, well-proportioned, airy, simply and honestly executed. It was a house any architect would be proud to live in. A house perfectly suited to the wedding reception it hosted later that year.

Curious as to the house’s history, Steve asked the previous owner about a modest renovation she had performed a few years earlier. She sent over the renovation drawings. Under them, Steve found the original construction drawings from 1966. From the title block, the name of the house’s creator looked up at him: James Morrett, Architect.