Robert J. Swaim was born in 1930 in Iowa. He attended the University of Iowa and received a bachelor of Architecture from the University of Nebraska graduating in 1953. He served for two years with the Army Corps of Engineers in Korea as a first lieutenant. Swaim married Donna Elliott, from Mitchell, Nebraska and who had graduated the University of Nebraska with a Bachelor of Science. The Swaims moved to New Mexico and Robert worked as an architectural designer in Albuquerque for Flatow, Moore, Bryan & Fairburn, before moving to Tucson in 1958. Swaim worked in Tucson for prominent architectural firms including Nicholas Sakellar and Friedman & Jobusch.
The Swaim family moved to Lusk designed neighborhood of Indian Ridge and were actively engaged in the Tucson community. Swaim served as a charter member of the Tucson Men’s Garden Club, a member of the Southern Arizona Chapter of The American Institute of Architects, on Tucson Fine Arts Association, the Tucson Symphony Society, the Phi Gamma Delta Social Fraternity and served on the Board of Directors of the Unitarian Church of Tucson.
In August 1961, at the age of 31 Swaim joined the firm of William Wilde and in October of that year Swaim and William H. Cook announced the formation of the firm of Cook and Swaim Architects. At the time both were registered architects and members of the AIA. An article published in the Arizona Daily Star noted “Their firm will be concerned with the integration of all phases of design, including master planning, landscape and interiors in residential, commercial and institutional projects.” (ADS 10/26/61) The firm principally focused on private commision and small commercial work.
1962 was a productive year for the firm. Cook & Swaim designed a concrete masonry house for the Tucson Home Builders Association called “El Sueno” at 8949 Calle Kuehn that included a partnership with the architectural artist Charles Clement. In 1963 the home was awarded first prize in the Concrete Industries Horizon Homes Program. In 1962 Swain spent nine months in the United Kingdom, and worked with the firm of James Fletcher-Watson in London contributing to the design of the men’s residence halls at Nottingham University. Swaim returned to Tucson with new perspectives on design and planning. (ADS 9/14/1962)
The William C. Jordans House called Rancho Romero was designed using exposed structural solid birch elements, sliding shoji screens, burnt adobe, and a Thai pagoda inspired roof structure that all combined to create a open and elegant modern design. The home was featured in on the cover of the July 4, 1964 Tucson Daily Citizen Homes section and Mary Brown the Citizen Home Editor description provided a deeper understanding of the layers of design: “Approach to the home is a winding road up a hill and the outer entry is separated from the inter entry court by wooden redwood slats. One gets the effect of winding one’s way into the house through these outer and inner entry courts […] Many porches and verandas surround the home. Two flank the living room, a dining terrace extends from the formal dining room.” This project was built by Irving D. Rubinstein and John Harlow the landscape designer.
In 1964 Cook and Swaim were commissioned to design a new showroom for Scot Van Wyk Motors, Volkswagen and Porsche dealership located at 5900 East Speedway. The design used a highly expressive approach that included burnt adobe and 12 thin cast concrete vaults for the roof structure. The 16,000 sq ft building was constructed by Ruck Construction and included sculptural work by Charles Clement. Although many of the design elements have been covered this important building remains standing and could be restored.
In 1965 the firm designed the two story condominium complex at Eden Roc Gardens located at E. Timrod off Alvernon. The firm designed the Catalina Foothills School District building in 1967. Located a 2099 East River Road the building including five classrooms, a multipurpose room and a open air courtyard. For the project they partnered with architectural sculptor Charles Clement. They also designed the new building for the Tucson Educational Association at 4625 East Second Street.
In 1965 Cook and Swaim worked for the Estes Brothers designed in the models homes for “Centennial Park Three” on East Broadway. The models included “The Shiloh,” “The Vicksburg” and “The Gettysburg” (TDC 4/10/65). They developed plans for the library addition at Spring Junior High. They designed the Unitarian Universalist Church Parsonage 4804 East Eastland which was featured in the September 25th 1965 Tucson Daily Citizen.
Cook and Swaim developed a variety of design projects in this period including the Anaconda Mining Companies assay laboratory at Twin Buttes, the Rockefeller Prentice residence in Phoenix, the addition to the Catalina Baptist Church and the University of Arizona Campus Christian Center.
In 1968 Swaim designed his own home on North Harrison Road. Constructed on a ten acre property in a mesquite bosque along Tanque Verde Creek, Swaim carefully plotted the location of every major tree. The design used cast-in-place concrete walls set in an eight-foot module grid pattern. The concrete is juxtaposed by glass window walls and doors creating connections to the outside. In a 1970 interview Swaim referred to the house as “the enclosed portion of the site” The exposed materials, structural fir beams and varying ceiling heights all combine to create a modern architectural masterpiece. The concrete was created using wood forms that stamped the wood grain texture into the walls. Swaims “I wanted to try this type of wall because I wanted the whole house to be informal. In addition the walls are permanent, strong and give a slightly different texture.” (TDC 3/21/1970) The house was featured in numerous publications after its construction.
In February of 1968 Cook and Swaim merged with the architectural firm of Cain, Nelson and Ware (Gerald I. Cain, Edward H. Nelson and James A. Ware) creating a firm of nineteen employees. The firm was located at 151 South Tucson Boulevard.
In December of 1969 Swaim resigned from the firm to open his own architectural practice.
In March 1969 the Richard Duffield home at 4125 Camino Encerrado designed by Cook and Swaim was featured on the 1968 AIA “Tour of Tucson Architecture” and featured in the March 9, 1969 Arizona Daily Star.
In February 1971 he was hired by the City of Tucson Mayor and Council as the design consultant for the El Rio Neighborhood Center, in 1972 designed he Orchard River Townhouses, and in 1974/75 Swaim designed the El Pueblo Neighborhood Center. In August 1974 , the Starr House, designed by Swaim near River Road and West Swan Road, was featured in the Tucson Daily Citizen Focus section. (August 2, 1974)
In 1986 Swaim received the Arizona Architects Medal from the AIA and in 1999 he was awarded the Tucson Architectural Landmarks competition “Best Contemporary Building” in 1999. His design work has been featured as part of Tucson Modernism Week and has named an Architectural Icon by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation.