Remembering a great architect and mentor, Frederic Schwartz

Remembering a great architect and mentor, Frederic Schwartz

Frederic Schwartz in front of Robert Venturi’s Number 9 House.

The band came marching in at a quarter to six to tune up for Frederic Schwartz’s memorial. It was Wednesday, October 22. As I opened the door for Lucas De Hart, Schwartz’s godson and lead saxophonist of the De Hart Quartet, I accidentally slammed it into his drummer’s snare. I apologized, he nodded, we smiled, conscious of a shared understanding of place and circumstance.

We were there to honor Schwartz, a world-renowned architect with more limestone and steel to immortalize his name than most. He was a mentor to many, and a friend to all who knew him. Schwartz’s name carries clout, and then some. Consider the setting of a memorial: everyone expected a smoothness; a no-time-like-the-present moment that invites a reaching for total flawlessness; a taunting of the otherwise certainty for human error: here, a wine glass toppling, a bottle erupting, a door colliding with a drum kit. The expectations for a memorial, as architect and mourner Marc L’Italien put it, is a lot like that for an architect: perfection. “There is a pretension that permeates our field,” he said, speaking of the kind of error-free, solution-a-plenty arrogance in so much of the contemporary architectural workplace—a pretension that doesn’t permeate Schwartz. “Fred polarized people,” L’Italien said, explaining that they were either dumbfounded by this bearded man in a tweed jacket and ink-stained khakis, or they absolutely loved him. “People used to say, ‘is this guy for real?’”

David De Hart, one of Schwartz’s closest friends since they were floor mates at UC Berkeley, described Schwartz as “no bull, fun, and relatable.” Schwartz was a sartorial iconoclast in a profession mocked and lauded for its dress code of black, black, black, and black glasses. So I’m relieved, after my drum-door slam, that on the night we gathered to remember one of the world’s most respected architects—a man who wore a tie-dye shirt and bell bottoms to the dorm room’s football tryouts—we started off with a bang (pun intended) of the human element.

During De Hart’s talk, the audience bursts into hilarity, keen to the inside jokes and subtle characterizations of Schwartz. Although I never met Schwartz, De Hart’s stories are beginning to win over my heart. Once, one story goes, he brought Schwartz home to meet his grandmother, a pious woman who had not spoken a word in months. Schwartz walked in, bearded and heavily haired, and, as if invigorated by the power of God, she leapt out of her seat to exclaim, “Thank you darling, you brought Jesus Christ home to me.” We do not know if she spoke another word again, but heard she died satisfied a few weeks later. Hilarity? Try howling.

Many still took a more somber moment to remember Schwartz’s commitment: from students to colleagues, from clients to friends. As College of Environmental Design Dean Jennifer Wolch said, “Fred had an utter commitment to students, both as budding professionals and as human beings.” Brian Hong, a former student-slash-human-being, told of an email sent to Fred, turned recommendation letter (to Yale–he got in), turned friendship. In one of his final emails with Schwartz, in which they discussed work, life, and how to balance a checkbook, Schwartz wrote: “Before you can be a great architect, you must be a great human being.” The architect chose projects that benefitted the users first, his own legacy last. Hence Hong, playing on the theme of Schwartz’s catholic attentions, called Schwartz the “Robin Hood Architect.”

Tracey Hummer, Schwartz’s partner since 1999, brought us home with a legend. “Fred’s father, Seymour, dropped him off at the George Washington Bridge and Fred hitch-hiked his way out to California,” she said, and then warned: this could be Fred lore. There were many Freds, Tracey said, each with their own stories: Fred the joker, Fred the artist, Fred the thinker, Fred the builder. Each has been talked about this evening, each has a story to accompany, and each has touched someone here tonight. As we sit in the chairs, listening to celebrations of Schwartz’s life, his godson’s band played one last song—John Coltrane’s “In a Sentimental Mood”—taking us to its namesake, united in memorial for the great architect and humanist, Frederic Schwartz.

In 2009, while teaching in the Architecture Department as the Joseph Esherick Visiting Professor, he created The Frederic Schwartz Architecture Graduate Student Award to support high-achieving graduate students. Gifts to the fund can be made online here.