Nicholas Sakellar, FAIA | 1918–1993
by Andie Zelnio
Nicholas Gust Sakellar was born to a Greek immigrant family in Indiana, was raised in Ohio, and graduated with an architectural degree from the University of Michigan in 1941. After serving in the U.S. Air Army Corps during World War II, he worked brie y in Cleveland and married his architect wife before moving to Tucson in 1947.1
Beginning in the mid-1960’s, Sakellar broke away from a more purist modern expression of intersecting planes and began to develop a more sculptural vocabulary, where curvilinear forms and massive cantilevered planes became more prominent. Experimenting with new materials, he used technology to fuse his design aesthetic with the climatic extremes of the desert.2
Nick was awarded more than 250 architectural commissions during his forty-year career. In 1986 he was awarded the highest professional honor when named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects (FAIA).
An entire generation of young architects came to Tucson because of Nick’s reputation for design excellence, including the two men whose personal essays about Nick are reprinted here. Both William Kirby Lockard and James A. Gresham moved to Tucson as young architects to work in Nick’s office. Each went on to develop their own reputations as important architects and educators.
During my years as an architecture student at the University of Arizona, I was impressed with the progressive, sculptural expression of the buildings designed by Nick Sakellar. Kirby Lockard was one of my favorite college professors, teaching me how to see and draw. I was very fortunate to work for several years as an intern in the office of Jim Gresham and his partner, Jim Larson. Jim’s passion for his- tory and design was infectious, perhaps influencing me to be active today in preserving Tucson’s architectural legacy. These three men taught me about design integrity. They were influential to me as a young architect, and many years later, they still are.
NICHOLAS G. SAKELLAR
William Kirby Lockard, FAIA (1930–2007) was asked to con- tribute an essay for a book commemorating the 50th anniversary of Sakellar Associates. This essay was used with permission from CN Dino Sakellar, AIA.
In the buildings he designed and in his vision of what architecture should be, Nicholas Sakellar has left us a heritage of beauty and inspiration. Along with Arthur Brown and William Wilde, Nick Sakellar introduced modern architecture to Tucson and Southern Arizona, a region that had, except for a few earlier buildings by Henry Trost, simply copied various historic styles. The rm of Scholer, Sakellar and Fuller, which he founded with Emerson Scholer and Santry Fuller, and later his own rm of Sakellar Assocaites, were the busiest architecture of offices of their time, producing an unprecedented number of excellent modern buildings, all the creations of Nicholas Sakellar, as the designing partner. His legacy remains not only in the buildings he designed, but in the lasting influence he had on the many young architects who worked with him over those years.
Nick seldom entered his buildings in awards programs, or even documented them with photographs, because he was always looking forward to the next building, the one on his drawing board, as the drawings so beautifully demonstrate. He was also of the generation of architects who felt that self-promotion was immodest and even unprofessional. The rst time, and one of the only times, his buildings were ever entered in a design awards program was at the AIA’s Regional Convention in Phoenix in 1957. Three of Nick’s buildings were entered: Dr. Darwin Neubauer’s Of ce, the Tucson Clinic and the Wilcox Elementary School. They swept the awards, winning the only three awards given, an accomplishment never equaled before or since.
Nick’s buildings are unmistakably marked by an intimate sense of scale, an innovative use of structure and a sensitive combination of materials appropriate to the Southwest. The laminated wood roof decks of the Oro Valley or El Rio Clubhouses, the floating roof planes of the Wilmot Branch Library or the Tucson Clinic, the extensive use of thin-shell concrete for the Saddle and Sirloin were all firsts of their kind in Tucson. It was not these innovations, however, that gave his buildings their distinctive character, but the build- ing as a uni ed environment, a satisfying whole. He never designed a building that failed to show his creative touch, and he was a master at making fairly large spaces, like the sanctuary at First Methodist Church or the cafeteria or auditorium at Catalina High School, feel intimate and personal.
In addition to a fierce pride in his own designs, Nick also evidenced a real respect for other architects. The sanctuary addition to the First Methodist Church on the University of Arizona campus is surely one of the most sensitive additions to an existing building in Tucson, and an example of what a responsible second architect should do.
Nicholas Sakellar was also a real character, in the best sense of that overused word. He ew B-24’s over “the hump” in WWII and was fond of telling about attending pilot’s reunions where he and his fellow former pilots stood around shouting at each other because they were all deaf (in the left ear) from the hours of B-24 engine noise. Other stories about his way with clients (told by others) include the time he rolled up all his drawings and walked out on an unappreciative client during a presentation, or told the entire Flowing Wells School board they “had no soul.”
The drawings of Nicholas Sakellar tell us more about his de- sign ability and his mastery and passion for his profession than further words can convey. He was a marvelously “gifted” architect, as we are fond of saying—but I know him well enough to know that most of that gift was self-given —by the deepest feeling for the importance of design, by the very highest personal standards of excellence, by tire- less hours of work and rework and by a boundless, lifelong enthusiasm for architecture and life. Dismissing the abilities you see in Nicholas Sakellar’s buildings and in these beautiful drawings as some sort of gift takes away the credit he deserves as an architect and as a human being.
James A. Gresham, FAIA (1928–2014) wrote this essay about Nick Sakellar in 1995, during the fight to save Catalina High School from demolition. This essay was used with permission from Florence Gresham.
I did not work for Nick Sakellar very long—but he was the reason I came to Tucson. I worked for Scholer, Sakellar and Fuller for about six weeks in 1956, at which time Nick left the rm to start a new practice. A year or two later I again worked for Nick for a few months as a “loner” from another rm. De- spite this brief professional relationship, Nick’s talents and his strength of character became an abiding influence.
Never was anyone more committed to architecture. Nick had an unmatched passion for it. You could see it in his buildings and how he talked about architecture—he was very serious about it and practiced under an enormous moral imperative. He was of that unlucky generation that had survived both the depression and WWII. He was anything but intellectual. To Nick, architecture was an immensely honorable profession to which he was married—and you should not cheat on your wife. I don’t know one project which did not get his complete attention—and there were no potboilers. Usually, when architects move into a bigger practice, certain jobs get a short shrift. But not with Nick, he was professional to the core and accepted each project, no matter how small, as a gift from the lord.
I am not aware that Nick considered himself an artist, al- though most certainly he was one. He was a craftsman who was intensely proud of his ability to draw, design and man- age big projects. He was very holistic about architecture, and I don’t think he ever deluded himself into believing that architecture was an art form suitable for self-expression. A true craftsman searches for expressiveness, in the case of architecture it is, among others, the expressiveness of structure, material and shelter.
Nick was a hands-on designer—I don’t think he was really comfortable delegating design work. Since he was often in great demand, he found it necessary to depend upon design assistants. Bob Swaim, Jim Merry and Kirby Lockard were a few of those who, over the years, passed through his office. Nick’s design philosophy was entirely personal and not easy to communicate to others. His moral courage was matched by his design courage. He constantly took risks and pushed materials and structures to their limits. This led him, in mid-career, to design buildings with extremely massive beams and large cantilevers supporting dead level roofs.
Nick would never have admitted it, but he was a mannerist. His is an architecture of extreme expressiveness—and this is the reason his buildings are fascinating. He aggressive- ly pursued not only structural limits but also visual limits where building elements were stretched to the point of dis- tortion. Horizontal lines, such as canopies, were extended to the visual snapping point. Beams could not be made to appear more massive or more long. His rough wood ceil- ings could not be more rough. Combinations of materials, such as burned adobe and concrete, combined soft forms with hard forms in a splendidly expressive manner.
The result of all of this energy and intensity was an architecture which was especially appropriate to the desert, where extreme measures must be taken to obtain shelter and a sense of protection. Unlike much modern architecture, which functions only as a background, Nick’s buildings, especially the ones of the sixties and early seventies, are alive with tactile effects and poignant feeling. If Nick had practiced anyplace other than the Southwest, he would not have had the opportunity to develop an architecture so filled with conviction and intuition.
Nick was enormously proud of his large family, all raised in Tucson, and of his Greek heritage—I am certain he considered himself the worthy and proper descendant of the builders of the Parthenon! The sources of his courage and strength as an architect were to be found in both family and heritage. In this respect he was luckier than most of us. Although he treated all his colleagues as equals, which in most instances was not the case, he was, for many years, overlooked by his peers. He was very self-effacing and found self-promotion distasteful. Nick finally received a Fellowship in the AIA very late in life, while many lesser architects succeeded, and only after at least five futile attempts to be recognized. To my knowledge he never complained.
Today, I wish we could share Nick’s courage and optimism. Instead, we seem faced with cynicism and self-doubt for a profession increasingly eclipsed by competing values. Perhaps there was a certain innocence in how Nick viewed things, but his deeply felt convictions and beliefs were the manifestation of a genuine moral force which we now desperately need if the profession of architecture is to survive and prosper.