Noted educator and architect William “Bill” McMinn passes away at 89

Remembering A Great

Noted educator and architect William “Bill” McMinn passes away at 89

William McMinn (left) pictured in Rome with then-dean of Cornell AAP Moshen Mostafavi in 2007. (William Staffeld/photo provided by Cornell AAP)

William G. “Bill” McMinn, an architect and educator who served as dean of three architecture schools, died August 21 in Asheville, North Carolina, of complications from a stroke. He was 89.

In 1974, McMinn was named the founding dean of the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University (MSU), part of the College of Architecture, Art and Design, and stayed there until 1984. In 1997, he was named founding dean of the School of Architecture at Florida International University (FIU) now part of its College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts.

In between, from 1984 to 1996, he served as dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP) at Cornell University. While at Cornell, he founded the Cornell in Rome Program for students, taking advantage of the expertise of Professor Colin Rowe and others, and was instrumental in establishing an undergraduate program in the college’s Department of City and Regional Planning. He also helped raise funds to improve the college’s facilities and served on the board of the I. M. Pei-designed Herbert F. Johnson Museum on campus.

“Bill McMinn’s contributions to the stature of the college cannot be overstated,” write Meejin Yoon, Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of AAP, in an article posted on the school’s website.

“As a founder of the Cornell in Rome program, he enriched the lives of so many as the program has grown into a vital component of many architecture, art, and planning students’ education. He was a practitioner as well as an educator, and his influence will continue to be felt beyond scholarship to the underpinnings of the culture at AAP and well beyond.”

According to the Cornell article by Patti Witten, McMinn was modest about his accomplishments as an educator, insisting that colleges can’t really teach architecture. “At best,” he would say, “we provide a place for students to discover it,” Witten wrote.

William McMinn
William McMinn pictured during his tenure as dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. (Bruce Wang/Cornell University Photography/photo provided by Cornell AAP)

“Bill was the right person to start a program in Mississippi,” said Robert V. M. Harrison, an early faculty member and founder of the school’s advisory board, in an article on the MSU website.

“He was a people person and brought in the right people. He had the knack to communicate with everyone. Architectsaccreditation teams and legislators respected him. He got a full accreditation for the school at the earliest possible date, which is miraculous. A miracle worker.”

As part of his effort to give the new Mississippi school a national presence and broaden the students’ perspective, former students and faculty members say that McMinn established a lecture series that brought big-name architects and critics to campus in the 1970s and 1980s, including Stanley Tigerman, Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, Charles Moore, and writers Ada Louise Huxtable and Paul Goldberger.

One story that has made the rounds for years is that McMinn was so eager to bring luminaries to campus that he would play one architect off the other, calling Michael Graves and telling him that Peter Eisenman was coming to campus and then calling Eisenman and telling him that Graves was coming.

McMinn was a strong supporter of architects who wanted to use their education to influence other fields, said alumnus Janet Marie Smith. She used her MSU degree to carve out an unconventional career in sports architecture, building or renovating stadiums including Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Fenway Park in Boston, and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

After 12 winters in upstate New York, McMinn moved to Florida in 1996 to become director of FIU’s program in architecture, then part of its School of Design.

A year later he was named founding dean of the FIU School of Architecture. Under his leadership, the school earned full accreditation from the National Architectural Accrediting Board, changing its status from a department to a school. McMinn initiated a competition that led to the construction of the Bernard Tschumi-designed Paul L. Cejas School of Architecture Building on the FIU Modesto Maidique campus.

According to FIU, the curriculum under McMinn incorporated pre-professional undergraduate programs in architecture and interior design, graduate programs in architecture, landscape architecture and environment and urban systems, and study-abroad programs. McMinn stepped down as dean in 2000 to return to teaching. He retired in 2004 and moved to North Carolina.

Born in Abilene, Texas, McMinn earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1953 from Rice University and a Master of Architecture degree in 1954 from the University of Texas–Austin. He began teaching in 1956 at Texas Tech University and then held teaching or department leadership positions at Clemson University, Auburn University, and Louisiana State University.

In 2006, he received the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), the highest award for outstanding contribution to architectural education in the U.S.

A Fellow of the AIA and the American Academy in Rome, McMinn received the ACSA’s Distinguished Professor Award in 1991 and the Educational Leadership Award in Architecture from the AIA Miami chapter.

According to the AIA, he helped establish a School of Design at King Fahd University in Saudi Arabia, was a U.S.-appointed consultant to the School of Architecture at the University of Jordan, and helped improve the curriculum at Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul.

“Bill McMinn has, throughout his career, served as a strong bridge between practice and education. His vision has always been to provide a seamless transition between the two realms,” said John McRae, then-dean of the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design, in nominating McMinn for the Topaz Medallion.

“I have known dozens of deans,” said FIU president Modesto Maidique in his nomination letter. “Seldom have I found one with the passion, dedication and sophistication that Bill exhibited during his tenure.”

In addition to his teaching career, McMinn practiced architecture professionally from 1968 to 1971 as director of design at Six Associates in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1980, he was appointed to the National Architectural Accreditation Board and was elected NAAB President in 1983. He chaired NAAB reviews of 24 architecture programs, including those at Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Following his retirement to North Carolina in 2004, McMinn continued to advise on architectural design competitions and projects. He served as the professional advisor for a national competition to design a Performing and Visual Arts Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, a contest that drew 58 entries. In 2004, he helped select the dean of the architectural school at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Of all his achievements, one that made him especially proud was the Cornell in Rome program and the creation of the Cornell Center in Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, dedicated in 1997. In addition to Colin Rowe, early faculty members included architecture professor John Shaw and sculptor and fine arts professor Jack Squier. Roberto Einaudi was Cornell in Rome’s first director.

“Bill was firmly convinced that Rome, this most ancient and complicated of cities, is the ideal laboratory for the disciplines of architecture, art, and planning,” said Jeffrey Blanchard, the current academic director for Cornell in Rome, according to the AAP article. “While Bill’s distinguished career as an educator unfolded in a number of institutions and was marked by many achievements and awards. I believe he always considered the creation of Cornell’s Rome program to be one of his most important and enduring accomplishments.”

McMinn is survived by his wife of 64 years, Joan; his son Kevin, and his daughter Tracey.