You may think that the soul of our profession is to be found within the hearts and minds of the immensely talented architects we publish in our magazine, and who make countless appearances on web pages such as this one. And you may be right. But if these men and women are the soul of our profession I submit to you that its backbone would be those who labor in relative obscurity doing the difficult unglamorous work that makes our world go round. And when their subtle ways are summed they may well exert an even more profound influence on us than those who get the ink.
To wit: about this time of year in 1976, I found myself knocking on the front door of a dilapidated three-story frame house in the Potwin neighborhood of Topeka, Kansas. I was two-thirds of the way through my third year of architecture school, and someone had tipped me off that at that location I would find the office of one Sherwood Smith, AIA, who sometimes hired college kids. The porch was sagging under its own weight, and loose chips of old white lead paint drifted through the air like snowflakes as I pounded on the door a few more times. A less desperate person might have backed off right then, but I needed a job pretty badly unless I wanted to spend another summer with the stiffs in a mortuary where drafting tables were lined up like coffins waiting for a mass grave, otherwise known as the Bridge Design Section of the Kansas Department of Transportation.
There was no doubt that I was in the right place. A hand-lettered strip of cardboard that said simply “ARCHITECT” was tacked to the front door, and through the sidelight I could see the flotsam and jetsam of two or three defunct architects’ offices Sherwood had emptied out over the years—shelves and desks piled to the yield point with magazines and product catalogs dating back to the1920s; tables loaded with cantilevered, gravity-defying stacks of files, binders, bluelines, rolls of yellow trace, and racks of triangles, pencils and scales. Its cracked plaster walls seemingly bowed under the weight of stained ink-on-linen tracings, crumbing vellum working drawings, layer upon layer of sections, details and plans, felt-tip and colored-pencil sketches, fresh and faded. The place was like some Whitney Biennial collage that had come to life, taken over whole rooms, and gone completely out of control. It was great.
Finally the thin, tall, ever-rumpled Sherwood materialized from a back room and unlocked the door, leaned out, cleared his throat, and said in a deep bass and surprisingly mellifluous voice, “Yesss?” I stated my business and we began a rambling two-and-a-half hour interview that included coffee at nearby Wilson’s Pharmacy. It had a period-perfect walnut soda fountain inhabited by a crew of equally ancient neighborhood wags who, as his HR department, also undoubtedly signed off on me. And on the spot I was granted my first job in an architect’s office. At $3.00 per hour it was the most money I had ever made.
Sherwood was a non-stop storyteller, a cornucopia of winding tales that took tangent upon turn upon tangent again, punctuated by sketches that flew off legal pads, faded stationery from long forgotten businesses, or those ubiquitously-present rolls of bumwad. I swear that summer I spent so much more time listening than working that he had to have lost money on me. I just know he came back to the office at night to finish work he should have been doing while he was talking to me during the day.
Let me recount a few of the lessons: why architects get stiffed by clients, illustrated. Why basements flood. How to keep from being asphyxiated by your 1940s blueprint machine, which leaks pure undiluted ammonia on the floor. How to survey land without an assistant, a job that is ordinarily impossible. And probably the most valuable lesson of all: which clients are toxic waste.
“Don’t work for church committees; bankers with foreclosed properties; a realtor who has a bargain house that needs ‘just a few things fixed up'; a housewife who has not received her husband’s blessing to commission house plans; insurance men, and, never ever, EVER work for someone who says, 'I have the drawings all done…all I need is to have them stamped, um...once you've checked them, of course. How much do you charge to seal drawings? Can you do it for $100.00?'"
Sherwood’s reputation as a small-time practitioner nearly always hungry for work made him the go-to guy for small projects that no other architect would even discuss, and they ranged from the sublime to the absurd. Every damned dreamer in an eight-county radius looking for architectural services on the cheap (“just a few sketches to take to the bank, then I'll be back to hire you for the rest of the job”) had materialized on his porch sometime, the stench of Avon Wild Country cologne and cigarettes permanently locked into the pores of their polyester leisure suits.
And not surprisingly there were evil people, some of them well known and respected in our community, who stiffed Sherwood over the years—and I hope as punishment they have occasionally found themselves locked in some kind of unique, hopeless, environmental-design hell. But, that’s just me. Sherwood was never like that.
Occasionally when work was hard to come by he would put in a few months as a plan checker at the city building department. But, no matter what, being a sole practitioner was his life’s work, and somehow for decades he kept his office going. He and his wife Joan raised five kids on their two incomes. If I am not mistaken, before retiring she worked for many years as a care-giver in a psychiatric hospital, which somehow made perfect sense: She was also Sherwood's office manager.
Architects being somewhat eclectic by nature, I was employed by a few other characters before falling into journalism the way a beleaguered cartoon character trips on a loose shoelace and drops into a coverless manhole. None of them taught me more about the joy, bitterness, and plain old hard labor it takes to be one of us. In the end Sherwood's optimism always seemed to win out over the unpleasant clients, the embarrassment of having to say, "I'm sorry but I need you to write me a check today," and the monotonous, mind-numbing parts of the job. He helped an awful lot of people over the years: students like me, out-of-work architects down on their luck, and of course, his clients. All of them always got more than they paid for. I guarantee it.
Sherwood, his lessons, and the way he worked and thought about architecture left an indelible impression on me, of course. When you are brought up in a small Midwestern town, mentored by people like him you see things differently. His point of view often colors the way I think and write about architecture and those who make it what it is.
If you have read this far you may have already surmised this topic has come up now because my friend died earlier this week. Rest in peace, Bud. Yours was a life well lived.