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Architect About Town

Ave Maria founder says if you build it well, they will come

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

Voices soften when visitors tour the Oratory on the campus of Ave Maria University. The soaring height of its interior, the intricate steel structure overhead and the abundance of natural light combine for breathtaking dramatic effect.

A simpler feature — a carved marble baptismal font at the start of the main aisle — catches the eye. Three simple stacked crosses are delicately etched on the front and back of the block of lightly veined Carrara marble.

Atypically, the crosses are located slightly left of center, an understated move that creates balance on this otherwise symmetrical solid mass of stone.

“This font is my own design,” says Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza and visionary of Ave Maria University, the Catholic university that Monaghan has created, along with the town of Ave Maria, near Immokalee.

Keen to the finer points of design, he understood that putting the crosses off-center made it more dynamic than if he placed them in the center.

Monaghan, 72, is primarily known for founding Domino’s Pizza. He sold the multimillion-dollar business in 1998 and has added to his reputation by dedicating his energy and fortune to creating a world-class Catholic school from scratch in the heat and scrub of inland Southwest Florida.

Fewer know of Monaghan’s passion for architecture, though — a passion that quickly becomes clear during a tour of the campus that features designs that he has not only supervised, but has had a hand in creating.

“My favorite times of my life have been when I am building,” Monaghan says. Of all his varied interests, architecture is his foremost passion, he adds.

Lengthy interest

As a child, Monaghan roamed the halls of St. Joseph Home for Children, a Catholic orphanage housed in an ornate old mansion in Jackson, Mich. Its grand spaces, huge fireplaces and opulent stone carvings fascinated him.

And a book introducing him to the innovative buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, which he read at an early age, stirred an appreciation for Wright’s organic type of architecture, which naturally evolved from the context of the site, the climate and the needs of the clients. Monaghan had never seen such expressive buildings.

“The book had three buildings: the Robie House ... Fallingwater ... and the Johnson Wax Tower in Wisconsin, each building so different,” he says. “Who was this architect? And so began my lifetime love for Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Years later, while out with a local girl, Monaghan mentioned his interest in architecture. In an unusual coincidence, she told him that her parents had commissioned Wright to design her family home. He convinced her to take him there.

As it turned out the neighbors too had commissioned a home by Wright — a hexagon plan house nicknamed “Snowflake,” which Monaghan later bought.

Smitten for life, it became Monaghan’s mission to absorb everything he could about Wright.

From then on, Monaghan dreamed of studying architecture at the University of Michigan, but an initial lack of money and later business responsibilities ruled it out.

Getting involved

So Monaghan undertook a life of learning about architecture on his own. A well-designed, unique building can provide architectural identity, and Monaghan incorporated this philosophy into his own enterprises.

The headquarters of Domino’s Pizza — Domino’s Farms in Ann Arbor Township, Mich. — was created as a self-contained office village built on 270 acres of mostly open land. It has retail amenities for employees, fitness facilities, formal gardens, a chapel and even a petting farm.

It is an architecturally significant office campus, designed by prominent architect Gunnar Birkerts. Inspired by Wright’s architectural principles, it features unique linear buildings with deep overhanging copper roofs. The buildings seem to rise from the landscape.

Art and architecture historian Vincent Scully describes it as “the ultimate example of [Wright’s] Prairie Style house type.”

Similarly, Monaghan and the developer Barron Collier Cos. agreed to make the town and the Catholic university of Ave Maria distinct. Blake Gable, who has worked with Monaghan for the past seven years, says he has encouraged good principles of town planning and well-designed buildings from the start.

“Tom is very creative; he is always pushing the envelope for others, always sketching and constantly designing,” says Gable, vice president of real estate at Barron Collier.

More to come

The Oratory dominates the main square of Ave Maria, serving as a visual and spiritual anchor to the town and adjacent university. As the focus of the town center, which Monaghan refers to as “Annunciation Circle,” it is the essence to creating a development unique to Southwest Florida.

But Monaghan is anxious to see it complete. Still to come: a 150-foot bell tower, a rose window, a 28-foot bronze crucifix in front of the Oratory, a stone carving of Mary on the main façade, the “Pillars of Ave Maria” — brick pillars that embrace the public space like the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome — a permanent outdoor farmers’ and craft market, and an adoration chapel designed by Monaghan himself.

“The architectural success of Ave Marie is a lot less than it is going to be,” he says confidently, referring to the university as well.

His plans there are ambitious too. Drawing after drawing of projects awaiting funds fill his office: already designed are street signage, brick arches that flank the University Green, trellises covered with bougainvillea to connect the campus buildings and the Oratory, much more landscaping and lighting — much of which was envisioned by him from the start.

Most impressive are the Prairie-style garden walls intended to surround the campus: 20-foot segments of low brick walls intended to be tailored to families who patronize them, with plantings, benches, grottoes, memories and even private places for prayer.

All this time and money spent, with more to come, is important because good design matters, he says.

“My justification for those expenditures is to recruit good students and faculty. By paying attention to the campus design, you send the message that you will pay attention to their needs as well,” he explains.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA