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Architect About Town

Joe St. Cyr enriched industry, personally influenced my career

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

Running his hand through his thick, prematurely white hair, he unrolled a set of drawings and explained how he changed the interior plans of his beachfront condominium to make it more open, create the illusion of space flowing inside and out, and how these modifications took advantage of the Gulf views and breezes.

He was tall, down-to-earth and most memorably, exuding confidence. I was 12, and it was the first time I had met an architect.

My family — my parents and we five children — had fortuitously rented the condo across the hall from Unit 521 the Christmas of 1971, where architect Joe St. Cyr, his wife, Pat, and young son, Joe, were among the first to own a condominium at the Sanibel Moorings.

It was the beginning of a long friendship my family had with the St. Cyrs and I, as a young person, had with the architect who became my mentor and my friend.

When I decided to pursue architecture at the University of Notre Dame, he encouraged and followed my progress. He was known for his great stories and on numerous occasions took the time to share them with me. Early on he told me that Minoru Yamasaki, internationally known architect who would later go on to design the World Trade Center, juried his final project in architecture school.

Joe’s designs made a huge impression, and Yamasaki offered him a job.

As a young architectural student, I hung on Joe’s every word. He was remarkable. He earned enormous respect for his expertise and his enthusiasm for life and work.

By the time I met Joe, he was in his early 40s and already an accomplished architect. 

Born and raised in Dearborn, Mich., he set up his own practice there in 1955, only
two years after completing his master’s degrees in architecture at the University of Michigan. Over the next decade and a half, his office grew to 40 or so staffers with Joe at the helm. St. Cyr Architects & Associates designed more than 100 churches, schools and office buildings.

And during the years I knew Joe, he designed countless buildings and private residences on the Islands and the Florida mainland. Among these are The Sanibel Fire Department, Island Water Association, the Robb & Stucky Building in Bonita, Big Arts Original Building & Amphitheater, Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and, near to Joe’s heart, a collection of buildings for the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife.

No matter how many people pressed him, he would never slow down. At 79, sharp as ever with a lifetime of experience under his belt, he was still taking on new projects.

But then, architecture was Joe’s life. He began working with architects at the age of 13 and was the only graduate of Fordson High School with a major in architecture. 

Notably, he became the youngest registered architect in the state of Michigan.

When I would stop by the office, located below his house, he would show me the huge bump on his right finger, a pre-computer result of too many hours and years at the drawing board. He was making a point that I should be prepared for long hours, but emphasized the rewards could be enormous.

Joe believed it was necessary to holistically embrace building construction — not just how to design a building but ensure it was suitable for its environment.

Renowned architect, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller was visiting professor during Joe’s undergraduate years, and he instilled in his students the importance of comprehensive design. “Bucky Fuller,” as Joe fondly referred to him, “insisted on creating a totaldesign.”

That inclusive philosophy of building stayed with Joe throughout his long career. 

When he finally settled on Sanibel in 1981, he had already established a reputation for designing buildings appropriate for Southwest Florida.

Joe’s commercial buildings and residences often incorporated metal roofs with deep porches, reminiscent of the early Florida Cracker buildings. Because, he would insist, “form must follow the function.” He didn’t design buildings that were transplants from Michigan, but intuitively understood a very different climate required a very different response.

He insisted I understand that hurricanes were a major factor in designing for South Florida, and took the time to explain that materials and methods of buildings must be able withstand high winds and intense rain. Buildings should be raised up, roofs securely fastened and glass openings protected with real shutters. That was 20 years before Hurricane Charley struck in 2004.

When I was living and practicing in London in the 1990s, I’d stop by Joe’s office during my annual return to Sanibel. I’d bring him photographs and publications of projects I’d recently completed, and he would pore over them.

He was encouraging but appreciated that I was now charting my own course.

When the Sanibel Elementary School was taking bids from architects for the new school, I phoned Joe from London and asked if he would like to team up. He was delighted by the prospect of working together. A week later, he called to say the additional cost of indemnity insurance made designing a school so late in his career prohibitive.

On my next visit to Sanibel, we talked about the lost opportunity of working together. 

He opened a drawer and pulled out a pile of drawings — schools he had designed all over the country. Only then did I learned how influential St. Cyr Architects & Associates had been during a time when school design and teaching methods were being radically rethought.

Joe was instrumental in the integration of open plan schools that allowed for flexibility. He also experimented with mobile storage systems of varying sizes and functions.

When I returned to Southwest Florida years later, I had the opportunity to design the new high school for Canterbury School in Fort Myers. Joe took a keen interest in my design proposals and expressed approval that client and climate were considered.

He couldn’t have been more congratulatory and delighted that two short years after returning from England, I was quickly finding my feet here — and taking into account the advice he had given me over the years.

Thank you, Joe, for making a positive and lasting influence on my life and career. 

Please know, you will remain in the hearts and minds of those who drive past or inhabit any one of the hundreds of buildings you designed. They remind us of your huge passion and curiosity for life, people and nature.

Joe St. Cyr died Tuesday, Nov. 25, and on that day, Southwest Florida lost a great architect and I, like many others, lost a dear friend.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA