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Getting to know Tom Payette FAIA

It’s dreary, cold, and raining as I walk the few blocks from Milk Street in Boston (near the old BSA space) over to Congress Street and the offices of Payette (above the new BSA Space). As I walk, my collar turned up against the cold and rain, I wonder why the BSA asked me to interview Tom Payette FAIA. I’ve never written an interview for the BSA, and although our two firms have worked together for decades, I’ve never even met him.

After a very brief wait at the receptionist area, Tom greets me warmly and congenially at the front desk, almost as though we were long-lost friends. He leads me on a tour of the office with the energy and enthusiasm of a gung-ho college student leading a group of prospective students and parents on a tour of the campus. Tom occasionally stops here and there at a model or pinned-up drawings to tell me a bit about a particular project. At each stop, his pride in his firm’s work is clear. I notice that he never uses the words “I” or “my”—it’s always “we” and “our” in describing his firm’s work. That’s true even for the firm’s early work he shows me that must’ve been largely his own hand and his own ideas, such as the masterplan for the Aga Kahn University.We haven’t even sat down for the interview yet, and it’s already apparent to me that he’s the kind of leader who takes more pride in the successes of those around him than he takes in his own.

We sit down in a small conference room looking out through the dismal weather across Boston Harbor toward Logan Airport. The rain trickles down the windows, the choppy water of the inner harbor the same cold grey as the concrete control tower at Logan in the distance. By way of contrast, the wall of the conference room is a bright, cheerful, lime green—almost the same shade of green as the tie Tom’s wearing, I notice as he leans back against the wall. Tom tells me he’s really not very interesting, and suggests that the focus of the article I write should be the other people he’s worked with, at the BSA and at Payette.

I feel a sense of déjà vu as Tom tells me a bit about his background growing up and starting out. He talks of his experiences working in carpentry and construction as a young man, his time spent swimming competitively, majoring in engineering as an undergraduate, then later going to graduate school for architecture, and his good fortune in landing a job straight out of graduate school with a good firm where he is essentially still working today. Oddly, these are all things he and I share … I have to wonder if this is just pure coincidence, or if the BSA somehow knew we had much in common when they asked me to do this interview.

Tom grew up not far from Traverse City, Michigan, in a small town where the largest industry was cherry farming. During the summers in high school he worked at a lakefront church camp, doing hands-on construction and remodeling. They eventually made him head of grounds. Later, he built a cottage at the camp, clearing the site, excavating for foundations, placing concrete himself, and drilling the well himself with a tripod he lashed together with some cedar trunks and a gas tank and other parts from an old Ford Model T. He attended Michigan State University (MSU) and studied structural engineering (MSU did not have architecture at that time). Tom was captain of the MSU swim team as an upperclassman, and once ranked second nationally in his best event, the freestyle sprint. He was enrolled in ROTC as an undergrad, but he never cashed a single paycheck from them. “I was a pacifist,” he explained. Tom tells me that he doesn’t know why Harvard GSD accepted him for graduate studies. Although he did some artwork and included it with his application, most of the portfolio he submitted was photos and drawings of the things he had built at the lakeside camp. Modestly, Tom says that he still doesn’t know why the GSD accepted him.

Tom married his high school sweetheart and they arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with their son. Moving to Cambridge in 1956 from rural Michigan was a real eye opener for them both—“There was no going back.” With the relatively small amount of money they got from selling the lakefront cottage in Michigan that he had built, they bought themselves an old fixer-upper in Cambridge. (Apparently, that was still possible circa 1956.) During his years at the GSD, Tom and his wife burned the candle at both ends—and in the middle too. Tom worked in the Back Bay architectural office of Arthur Brooks each day until around noon, then dashed across the river, sandwich in hand, for afternoon classes and studio at the GSD. Then he’d get home late at night and work on fixing-up the fixer-upper and parenting. By the time he graduated in 1960, he and his wife had three children!

Near the end of his time at the GSD, Tom was assigned a studio design project for a hospital in Cambridge. One of the three Boston architects invited to serve on his jury was Fred Marcus. Impressed with Tom’s project, Marcus invited him to his office to meet his partner Paul Nocka (Marcus and Nocka had founded a small design firm almost 30 years earlier that had pioneered in efficiency in hospital design projects through the use of time-motion studies.) They offered Tom a job, and also offered him $275 for the model he’d built for his hospital studio project. He accepted both. On his first day of work for Marcus and Nocka, Tom, then father of three children, asked Paul Nocka for an advance of $50. When Paul asked why, Tom replied, “We like to eat.” Paul wrote him a check on the spot. Tom flourished at the firm, designing hospitals and becoming a partner, and that firm eventually grew into what is now Payette.

That’s how it began for Tom Payette, the aspiring young architect from rural Michigan. Tom has now been in the Boston area for more than half of a century. He arrived before the Celtics won their first NBA title, before Jack Kennedy announced his candidacy for president, before an African-American first took the field for the Boston Red Sox, and before either the Central Artery or Government Center were completed. It occurs to me that Tom has been a rock of continuity, in the best possible sense, in an ever-changing city. Despite the city’s waves of dramatic change and despite his own remarkable success, he’s still the same modest small-town guy from a rural area full of cherry farms, still married to his high school sweetheart, still living in the same house they bought when he was in graduate school, still working at essentially the same firm that hired him fresh out of school in 1960. The same mantra that guided his work a half century ago—“Architecture is for people, not for the gratification of the architect”—still guides his work today, and, moreover, continues to influence generations of new young architects at Payette.

As I wind down the interview, Tom tells me again how uninteresting he is, and how I should really make the focus of this article people other than him. He tells me in great detail about his colleagues that he worked with during his term as the BSA president in the mid ‘80s, naming many and describing the tremendous contributions of each to the BSA. It dawns on me that my interview with Tom is concluding exactly as it began (yet another example of that hallmark Payette consistency): with Tom modestly giving all the credit to those around him, and ushering those around him into the spotlight of center stage to take the bows, while he quietly and discretely slips away. Not this time, Tom.

Matthew Bronski PE is an associate principal at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, where he specializes in the exterior rehabilitation of historic and significant modernist buildings. His projects include H.H. Richardson's Hampden County Courthouse Tower in Springfield, Frank Lloyd Wright's Zimmerman House in Manchester, NH, and Josep Lluis Sert's Peabody Terrace Graduate Student Housing Complex in Cambridge.