Meet the architect: Ted Mallin

By Joseph Dalton
Times Union, January 25, 2015
Photos: John Carl D’Annibale (Times Union)

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Ted Mallin was 10 years old when he made his first visit to a construction site. He was tagging along with his dad, a homebuilder in Pittsburgh during the post-World War II boom. Mallin vividly recalls his reaction to smelling the excavated earth and seeing skeletal house framing: “This is really cool!”

Today Mallin, 63, is a principal with Envision Architects, an Albany firm that he co-founded in 1983 with two fellow Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute grads. While most of his time these days is dedicated to business development — the launching of projects rather than the detail of designing them — he still has a fondness for the aspects of the profession that attracted and engaged him as a kid.

Shortly after that first outing with his dad, Mallin got busy learning to draw. That’s something he fears is becoming a lost art in our digital age.

“Sketching and freehand is an important part of what we do. You have to be able to produce lots of ideas and then throw them away,” says Mallin. “I see people come out of RPI who can’t print well, let alone sketch. But a computer is only good at documenting a decision. When you’re in the realm of aesthetics, the shape of a curve can be subtle, and a pen needs to find that.”hands

As an example of what can be accomplished through quick renderings, Mallin can point to one of his firm’s most prominent local buildings, the parking structure for the SUNY headquarters in downtown Albany. Consider the difficulties of the commission: a mundane-if-necessary function, but placed at a site that could hardly be more prominent, sitting next to the iconic building on Broadway by Marcus T. Reynolds and also facing a stretch of I-787 that is effectively the entrance to the city.

Prior to a preliminary meeting with decision makers from SUNY, Mallin called on his entire staff for an intensive design session known as a charette. “I said you have one hour, no holds barred, to draw and draw and draw,” he recalls. “We decided as an office to show all of the 18 drawings, and they were blown away by the breadth of ideas.”

The resulting five-story structure, which came from Mallin’s own sketches, uses arches and columns inspired by the adjacent Gothic revival building. A terra cotta screen hides the cars. It was completed in 2001 and received an award from the American Institute of Architects.Suny headquarters

A couple of more recent projects had Envision Architects even more deeply involved with historic buildings: the interior renovation and restorations of the Albany County Courthouse and of William S. Hackett Middle School. Each of these received an award from the Preservation League of New York State. But they’re not the kind of architecture work that turns your head when driving through the city. And that’s OK with Mallin.

“We are a service-oriented firm,” he explains. “If it’s a roof replacement, we’ll do that, or a whole new wing to a building.”

Working with the health care field has become one specialty. For St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany back in 2001, Mallin and his team renovated and expanded the emergency room. A similar two-phase project is under way for the emergency room at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. Functionality is key in such spaces, but still only part of the agenda. As Mallin explains, “the intent is to provide beauty in life’s greatest challenges and comfort people in these situations.”

Combining complex systems with an extravagant kind of beauty is what Mallin admires in Santiago Calatrava, who he cites as his favorite major architect of our time. “He creates extremely rational designs,” observes Mallin, “and then he weaves a web of art around them.” Probably best known for bridges crowned with soaring lattices of cable and steel, Calatrava also designed the long-awaited transportation hub at the new World Trade Center.

Mallin doesn’t have such grand aspirations, and even insists that he and his firm have no signature style. “Our aesthetic is a reaction to clients’ preferences, the site and the context,” he says. “When called upon for higher design, we’re proficient, but we’re not Calatrava.”
Montessori
Yet among the firm’s many projects, there are more than a few recognizable buildings in our region. Among them are two particularly colorful schoolhouses in Albany, the bright red Delaware Community School, located between Delaware and Second Avenues, and the expansive, multi-hued Montessori Magnet School on Tremont Avenue. There’s also the new Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany and the main parking garage at Albany International Airport, both functional and modestly distinctive. On the campus of Siena College in Loudonville is the glass and brick Sarazen Student Union and in progress at Union College is a new 38,000-square-foot dorm.

“I’m very strong-minded and know what my clients need,” says Mallin, “and I will push the resources to get that done.”

That attitude might explain why his firm secures jobs that emphasize efficiencies, both environmental and budgetary. As examples are two ongoing projects, the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, expected to open in Delmar this spring, and the Urban Grow Center in north Troy, which is the new headquarters of Capital Roots (formerly the Capital District Community Gardens).

“The fascinating thing about this work is it’s highly rational, analytic data crunching,” says Mallin, “followed by creating a form out of material and color and light and texture.”


“Simply Chic” in the Times Union

TU real estate reporter Leigh Hornbeck has started a monthly column, “Architexture” that describes the hallmarks of different styles in residential architecture.  November’s focus was Mid-Century and here’s what she had to say:

Mid-century modern architecture is characterized by flat planes and open space. At the time, post World War II to the 1960s, these homes were referred to as “contemporary,” a term now reserved for houses under construction and built in the last 20 years. The ranch design was introduced during the time, but the houses made popular by Frank Lloyd Wright, called Prairie houses, are rare in the Northeast because of their flat roofs. Mid-century modern contrasted sharply with its predecessors because of its simplicity. Victorian styles celebrated ornamentation, but the architects that designed the new post-war style wanted simplicity, homes that could be built quickly and blended with their surroundings.


Prominent architects include Wright, Edward Durell Stone, who designed the uptown campus of the University at Albany, and Philip Johnson, whose colleague John Johansen designed 222 Juniper Drive in Rotterdam (below).

Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House on the campus of the University of Chicago is a famous example of mid-century modern architecture. Albany has a few examples of Lustron houses — prefabricated steel houses that illustrated the drive in the United States to build simple houses, quickly.

Kilbourn house

Places & Spaces, Leigh’s blog on local real estate is at:  http://blog.timesunion.com/realestate/

Albany architect Harris Sanders

By Joseph Dalton
Times Union, July 17, 2014
The first in my occasional series of profiles of Capital Region architects.

Sanders         During the 60-year career of Albany architect Harris A. Sanders, renovations of commercial spaces have been bread and butter work.  Little did Sanders know, however, that a commission in the late 50s to update a rather mundane reinforced concrete building built during the teens on North Broadway would result in an enduring landmark.  The site was to become the new home of RTA, an appliance distributor specializing in products of RCA.

“The client wanted something put on top that would tell people he’s in electronics,” recalls Sanders, who came up with the idea of a giant Nipper.  The 25-foot tall white dog was fabricated by a firm in Chicago and shipped here in pieces on railcars and assembled by a 10-story crane.

“That’s my claim to fame,” says the 87-year old Sanders.Nipper

If Sanders’ name isn’t particularly well known, his vision has been realized in countless commercial, residential and religious spaces across the Capital Region.  Long time residents of the area may recall a couple of his more imaginative projects that are now shuttered, including the Golden Fox Restaurant in Colonie, and Story Town, an amusement park in Lake George.  He also designed the worship spaces for Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany and Congregation Shaara Tfille in Saratoga Springs, and supervised the renovations of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church on Albany’s Whitehall Road.  “Those golden doors are mine,” says Sanders, with a proud smile.

An Albany native, Sanders had early exposure to the workings of buildings, since his dad was a plumber.  After some experience at the trade though, it didn’t take long to conclude that pipes and fittings weren’t his calling.  Yet there was never any question that Sanders would return to his hometown after completing architecture studies at the Pennsylvania State University.

At college, Sanders delighted in exposure to the emerging language of modern architecture, a far cry from the environment of Colonial and Greek revivals in which he grew up.

“The only architecture we talked about in school was modern and the big leader in the late 30s and early 40s was Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Sanders.  He recalls that Wright even appeared as a guest lecturer, if only for about 45 minutes.  “He began by saying ‘You have a beautiful campus here,’ and that puffed us up. And then he said, ‘But the buildings spoil it.’ Then we knew who we had with us.”

Further contributing to Wright’s early influence on Sanders was a fieldtrip to Falling Water, the iconic Wright home in western Pennsylvania.  Sanders explains that one of his professors was close friends with the Kaufmann family that built the home and that at the time of their visit some additions to the property were still in progress.  “And I remember dachshunds running around and they matched the style of the building,” he adds.

Albany Public Library, Delaware Avenue branch

Albany Public Library, Delaware Avenue branch

Accentuated horizontal lines are a Wright trademark that appears in a number of Sanders’ own buildings, especially 331 Delaware Avenue.  Originally designed for the Chicorelli Funeral Home, it was converted to a branch of the Albany Public Library a few years ago.  It may be Sanders’ most recognizable local project after Nipper.

“Normally we try to sneak in some interesting ideas here and there,” says Sanders. “That’s what architects do.”

“But these were great clients and let me do anything,” continues Sanders, mentioning in particular the double cantilever on the building’s southwest corner that sheltered cars arriving at the front entrance.

When he could, Sanders also added touches of Wright to the houses he designed, which are spread across the region.  Perhaps nowhere is the style more concentrated than in Sanders’ own home on Tampa Avenue, where he’s lived with his wife Pearl since 1958.  During a tour of the home, Sanders points to some distinctive features that he unapologetically attributes to Wright. These include glass-to-glass corner windows, a floating staircase and the low ceiling in the entryway, which heightens the drama of stepping into the soaring and spacious living room.

Hidden from the street view is the main entrance.  Though jobs on housing developments didn’t always allow Sanders to have his way, his preference is that the front door of a house not face the street.  “Never show the front door, it’s a mystery,” he says. “Make a person come in and around the house to witness it, like it’s a sculpture.”

Living room Sanders

Interior of Sanders residence

“The Sanders’ house represents one of those fascinating stories about our architectural history that’s just starting to be told,” says Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation.   “We equate Albany with a Victorian sensibility but here is Harris in the 1950’s, designing a thoroughly modern house for his wife and growing family.”

A couple of years ago the Sanders residence was on Historic Albany’s holiday house tour.  According to Holland its inclusion amidst more stately and traditional dwellings was very well received and has helped spark the organization’s gradual expansion into advocacy for mid-century design.

While a front room of the Sanders house serves as a library and office, during a recent visit it was in the kitchen where evidence could be seen that an architect lived there.  Adjacent to the breakfast table was a supply of translucent green stencils, the tools of an architect, or at least one from the days before computer aided design.  Sanders likes to have those implements handy for when he takes work home.  He still shows up at the office everyday.

Established in 1955, Harris A. Sanders, Architects is currently led by the founder’s son, Daniel Sanders.  The firm has grown over the years, from a one-man shop to the current staff of 10 and operates out of offices at 252 Washington Avenue.  The work continues to be a rather broad mix, mostly in the Capital Region and across upstate.  A current focus is renovating former industrial buildings for residential use.  The recently completed River Street Lofts in Troy is one example.

According to Daniel Sanders, one of his father’s legacies is in the training of newcomers to the field.  “Many of the architects in the region started in this office,” he says.  “We have three interns right now and they appreciate his presence.”

“One of his strengths is understating the building as a whole,” continues Daniel Sanders, referring to his dad, the son of a plumber.  “He was trained as much in engineering as architecture and can focus on plumbing, heating and a/c, as well as design and form.”

Realizing such details of a building through mechanical drawings is Sanders’ main work these days. And though the firm bears his name, he carries on with a level of humility that might be considered rare for his profession.

“My son keeps me busy,” he says.  “I’m the little guy in the corner.”

Congregation Shaara Tfille, Saratoga Springs

Congregation Shaara Tfille, Saratoga Springs

UPDATE: 12/8/14:  “The Nipper Building” is for sale. See story at All Over Albany

Aunt Katie’s Attic

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Thanks to Metroland for alerting me to yet another colorful kitchy vintage shop in the region, Aunt Katie’s Attic in Scotia.  Owner Kate Halasz has been collecting and selling for 19 years and specializes in kitchen items, though clothing and furniture are also part of the mix in the 2-story shop.

Her customers range from young girls looking for retro fashion to married couples outfitting their suburban house as a country cottage, to “older ladies who just want an old cookbook.” Katie’s attic also does a brisk business with burlesque performers and fans. “The pin-up girls want to wear authentic clothing,” she says. “A lot of them furnish their homes in that era, and they’re looking for an old vanity,” or aprons or oven mitts, because according to Katie, “Fifties Housewife is the hottest thing going now, and these girls live it head to toe.” From Bettie Page to Betty Draper to Betty Crocker, Aunt Katie has been ahead of the curves. – Ann Marrow, Metroland, March 20, 2014

Fiesta Waretable and chairs

On Saturday, June 7th, Katie’s hosting an out-door vintage flea with multiple vendors!

 

West Hill, Rotterdam

Tupper houseWest Hill was developed in the late 1940s by GE engineers who had initiative and vision to spare, plus more than a bit of frustration about other housing options.  They formed a corporation that purchased some 270 acres, which to this day remains a nature preserve that surrounds the community of about 85 homes.  The residencies are in a variety of styles, but it’s a treasure trove for mid-century lovers.  While some of the homes were designed by the owners themselves, there are also works by architects John M. Johansen (one of the famed Harvard Five), Victor Civkin (pioneer of the split level) and Schenectady’s own Eric Fisher.

Barnes house Kilbourn house
Wright house

 

Story from a homeowner…

“When we first walked in, our agent actually apologized.”

No surprise.

The house in question had a flagstone entryway, globe lights, natural wood paneling, and vintage tile baths, among other period details.  Typical agents will only see to-do projects and call it “dated.”  They might even pass it by and not let their clients see it. But this buyer saw great style, made an offer and now calls the place home.

If a home with such details still in tact is what you’re shopping for or that you need to sell, decide from the start to work with the only agent in the Capital Region who specializes in mid-century modern.

Joseph Dalton • (518) 573-1093

 

An Armory Show at Opalka Gallery

It would be easy to start recommending lots of local gallery shows on this blog but arts coverage is a different livelihood for me.  Yet this exhibition at Sage College’s Opalka Gallery is a particularly clever and ingenious. Organized by Michael Oatman and Ken Ragsdale, it includes many of our region’s finest working artists (several represented in my own collection).  Plus, two of the spaces feature some nice mod furniture.  The cool lights, by the way, are by Lightexture of Troy.

Armory show 2Armory show 1

Russel Wright exhibit at NYS Museum

Before there was Ralph Lauren or Martha Stewart, there was Russel Wright (1904-1976) who designed product lines that added style and grace to the American home.  On view through the end of the year at the New York State Museum in Albany, “Russel Wright: The Nature of Design” traces his entire career, and includes plans for his own home, Manitoga, which is now a museum in the lower Hudson Valley.  Don’t miss the gift shop on the way out, where Wright books are available as well as some of his china, recently reissued by Bauer Pottery.

A fellow agent asks…

“I’ve got this client…”  (Lots of conversations between real estate agents begin that way.)

The agent continued on: “She keeps asking for ‘mid-century’ and I’m showing her things and they’re not right.”

I nodded and suggested my colleague search homes that are listed in the MLS as “contemporary” or ranches and splits between 40 and 60 years old.

But if I was talking to a buyer, my suggestion would be to go with the one agent in the Capital Region who specializes in mid-century homes.  Then no explanations, no trial and error would be needed.  We’ll be speaking the same language.

Joseph Dalton • (518) 573-1093