I first met Herb McLaughlin to talk about money. Specifically, to discuss renewing the AIA San Francisco’s lease in the city’s historic Hallidie Building. I was executive director of the organization, and the office market was hot. We couldn’t afford much of a rent increase and Herb co-owned the building.
I was duly nervous preparing for the meeting.
When I met the lanky guy with the twinkling eyes and dressed in a threadbare crew neck sweater, he was sitting behind a desk strewn with Oaxacan figures decorated with artwork by his sons. It was then that I knew I was dealing with a true San Franciscan, despite his Ivy League pedigree and a birth certificate that indicated a birthplace of Chicago.
Although a contrarian by nature, Herb McLaughlin spent a life well lived until his passing on February 25 in San Francisco. Following graduation from Yale, he joined the Air Force, convincing his superiors to transfer him to San Francisco. As he once recalled, “one of the first things I did was write up a job description of a job that could only be done in San Francisco and for which I was the only suitable candidate.” In 1959, he married the “Debutante of the Year” Eve Pell, cousin of Senator Claiborne Pell.
After leaving the Air Force, he worked for less than a year for SOM before starting his own firm, KMD Architects, in 1963 with partner Ellis Kaplan. McLaughlin’s role, according to partner Jim Diaz, was “to be the prime mover, not the guy who put pencil to paper.” (The firm would become Kaplan, McLaughlin and Diaz in 1970.)
“He moved the firm into new markets and pushed everyone,” recalled Diaz. “He was prescient and could see the possibility of moving the firm into new directions.”
In true San Francisco style, he approached architecture projects with an unexpected eye. In the 1960s he employed the then-radical notion of asking the future residents in the Martin Luther King housing projects what they wanted their new homes to be like. “This resulted in family units being placed on the ground floor, with porches so that parents could keep an eye on their kids,” said Diaz. “And Herb then placed units for singles on upper floors, away from the clamor of the kids.”
At one time, McLaughlin was one of the largest renovation developers in the United States. His portfolio included the Cleveland Arcade, Chicago’s Dearborn Station, the Design Center, and the aforementioned Hallidie Building.
He is credited with resolving a developer’s quandary of what to do with the posh Two Rodeo Drive site in Beverly Hills. Although it was prime real estate, there wasn’t enough street frontage to pay for the development of retail shops. McLaughlin resolved that by creating a pedestrian street, which would double store frontage making the site doubly profitable. The firm undertook dozens of other projects over the years, including mental health facilities, hospitals, criminal justice, hospitality, mixed-use, and urban design.
McLaughlin would lead efforts to stem the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco and worked with U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and sculptor Paul Kos to create “The Poetry Garden” in downtown San Francisco. He would claim to have coined the terms “programming is design” and “placemaking.”
He was a “foodie” before that term was in vogue, authoring the book Good Eats in 1987. In the introduction to that book, he describes a particularly fantastic meal in France. “After a superb meal we managed to propel our gorged bodies up a hill behind the restaurant to a ruined castle and its graveyard,” he writes. “There we had the last bit of wondrous wine, admired the view, the perfectly silent day and then fell asleep on a Crusaders grave. Hopefully, something that good can happen to you (and still myself) in the Bay Area. I know of no Crusaders graves locally available, but Wyatt Earp is buried in Colma. Try it there. They may not only be ecumenical but understanding.”
And one final note, always the businessman, McLaughlin made AIA San Francisco a fair deal on that lease renewal.
Herb is survived by his wife Susan, daughters Grace and Gwendolyn, and sons John, Daniel, and Peter.