Bruce James Abbey, dean of the Syracuse University School of Architecture from 1990 to 2002, passed away on October 26 at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, following a seven-year battle with cancer. He was 77.
As dean, Abbey is remembered for his efforts to reform the school’s curriculum and renovate its home, Slocum Hall. A professor as well as dean, he was an authority on Italy and its architecture and taught variously in Florence, Venice, and Vicenza. His retirement from Syracuse in 2016 was marked with a year-long celebration of his career.
“Bruce was a beloved dean, professor, and mentor to many students during his time at Syracuse Architecture,” said the school’s current dean, Michael Speaks. “As part of the year-long celebration of his career at Syracuse, we organized an exhibition of his work and he gave a wonderful final lecture at the opening… As professor and dean, Bruce Abbey made a profound impact on the quality of architecture education at Syracuse.”
“Bruce brought to the job a combination of the quiet pragmatics of his Vermont upbringing and the southern gentility of his adopted Virginia. It was an ideal combination that served well during his 12 years as dean,” said longtime colleague and retired professor Randall Korman, when Abbey retired in 2016.
Korman told a Syracuse University publication that Abbey’s legacy at the university included the creation of the Office of Career Development; founding of the Community Design Center; expansion of the visiting critic program, and establishment of the Seligmann Lecture Series.
When he stepped down as dean in 1992, “he left the school a much better place, and those of us that were fortunate to have been at Syracuse during his tenure as dean are most grateful,” Korman said.
“He made learning architecture fun yet he challenged us to do our best,” architect and former student Sandra Vicchio told AN. “He was a good man.”
Abbey was born in Burlington, Vermont, on May 18, 1943, and educated in public schools there. He spent his senior year of high school in Rome, Italy, at the Liceo Classico “Giulio Cesare” as an AFS-USA (formerly the American Field Service) exchange student.
In 1961, Abbey began studying at Cornell University, where he received a Bachelor of Architecture degree in1966. He later went to Princeton University, where he received a Master of Architecture degree in 1971.
Between Cornell and Princeton, from 1966 to 1969, Abbey served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia. He worked as an architect at the Bureau of Public Works in El Kef and moved from there to the town of Bizerte, restoring and documenting mosques for the National Institute of Art and Archeology. After Princeton, Abbey’s professional office experience included working for Dan Kiley, Michael Graves, and Geddes, Brecher, Qualls & Cunningham.
In 1974 Abbey started an academic career at the University of Virginia, becoming Chair of the Department of Architecture and Associate Dean. Building on his time as an exchange student in Italy, he also taught architecture in Vicenza and Venice for the University of Virginia.
After 16 years at the University of Virginia, Abbey became dean and professor at Syracuse. He returned to teaching full time at Syracuse in 2002 and retired from the faculty as Emeritus Dean and Professor of Architecture. While with Syracuse, he taught in Florence for several years and served as director of the school’s graduate program in Urban Design.
Other than his teaching positions, Abbey was a registered architect and a Peer Review advisor with the U. S. General Services Administration. He maintained a small architectural practice and created watercolor paintings, drawings, and murals.
The retrospective exhibit that was mounted the year Abbey retired from Syracuse, Compositions: 1966-2016, featured five decades of his work in architecture, painting, and drawing. No matter the medium, the starting point was always drawing, Abbey said in a statement that introduced the show.
“Drawing remains, for me, a necessary means of research and discovery, integral to the creative act,” he said. “ ‘Compositions’ reflects an attitude that all creative work demands a formal structure that organizes ideas and thoughts, while illustrating a problem to be recognized.”
On his experience as an undergraduate student at Cornell, Abbey said, “probably the most important values that I gained… were that teaching was an ‘honorable profession,’ and the work ethic that all of us had to develop in order to survive!” In a Cornell publication, he cited Lee Hodgdon, H. Peter Kahn, John Reps, Colin Rowe, Werner Seligmann, and John Shaw as the most influential teachers he had as an undergraduate, and credited the school with “allowing me to consider painting as a counterpoint to architecture.”
Abbey is survived by his wife, Linda Rowe Abbey; his son, Jason James Abbey; his daughter-in-law, Sally (Tusa) Abbey; a granddaughter Emily Spencer Abbey, and a sister, Faith Nichols Abbey.
The family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to AFS-USA (formerly the American Field Service) or The Abbey Endowment for Global Engagement at the University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont.
Speaks said in a message to students and faculty that Syracuse Architecture will have a celebration of Abbey’s life later in the school year.