Expansion of Baltimore architectural firm fueled by focus on colleges

Adam Gross surveys the grassy quadrangle, surrounded by brick walking paths trimmed in marble, nary a car in sight.

"This is one of those seminal shots," he says, taking in the view of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. "This used to be all asphalt."

If Gross sounds like a proud papa, well, he is. Baltimore's most prestigious university looked a lot different — a lot junkier in Gross' view — before his firm, Ayers Saint Gross, got its hands on the master plan in 2001.

As he strolls the campus a decade later, the architect delights in every carefully selected sign and lamppost. He and his colleagues convinced skeptical leaders of the 135-year-old university that unless they paid more attention to such cosmetic details, Hopkins could slip from its august position in academia.

Reimagining college campuses is the stuff that makes Gross glow like a child on Christmas morning. It's also the passion that has taken his downtown architectural firm all over the nation and world in the past two decades.

The story of Ayers Saint Gross is that of an intimate Baltimore firm that grew exponentially once its partners figured out what they really loved doing.

When Gross walked in the door in 1984, the firm had eight architects. In the 27 years since, fueled by the decision to focus on planning and designing at colleges and universities, the staff of architects has mushroomed to 130. In that time, Ayers Saint Gross has worked on buildings and campus designs from Harvard to the University of Chicago to Guangzhou University in China. It is now involved with the design of University of Baltimore's new law school building at Mount Royal Avenue and Charles Street.

The firm maintains a narrower focus on college and university work than any other in the country and thus has become a long-term adviser to many of the best-known institutions of higher education.

"You have a world-class firm there in Baltimore," says John Howes, who helped guide implementation of the firm's master plan for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I think the question, when you work with someone on a project of this magnitude, is 'Would you do it again?' My feeling is that we certainly would."

Donald Clinton, a partner with Cooper Robertson & Partners, a New York firm that has vied with Ayers Saint Gross for many university jobs, says it is particularly formidable on projects at public universities and also stands out for the entrepreneurial spirit of its young architects.

"They're an important firm in our field," he says. "Sometimes, you're competing with the people you admire and I'd certainly put them in that category."

Gross' fellow principal, Jim Wheeler, says the pair decided to focus on colleges after being stiffed on payment by one too many developers during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.

"We were walking on the lawn at [the University of Virginia] on this beautiful October day," he recalls. "And we said, 'You know, we could get paid to hang out on college campuses. What a deal.'"

With the children of baby boomers about to flood U.S. higher education, the decision proved economically as well as creatively auspicious. Though funding for college projects has plummeted during the recent economic downturn, Wheeler says that only spurs his desire to get better and more creative at the firm's specialty.

"Bring us the toughest, gnarliest challenge you can find on any campus," he says. "We have the intellectual ability to take it on."

The firm's long-standing relationship with Hopkins proved to be the entree it needed to the college business. Early partner Richard Ayers Sr. designed the university's Eisenhower library, and the firm has worked on 18 projects at Hopkins, culminating in the updated master plan for the campus and the new Carey School of Business at Harbor East.

Gross' face brightens as he calls up a 1914 sketch of the Homewood campus on an overhead projector in the firm's Tide Point office. "This is amazing," he says. "I love this drawing."

"We could totally wonk out on pre-war planning," says Luanne Greene, his chief cohort in the campus planning section of the firm.

They go back and forth, chattering excitedly about how Homewood represented a German model of university design, one where you left the city and created knowledge in a sort of nirvana shrouded by trees.

"The same things they were saying then are the things we're saying today," Gross says with wonder.

When the firm began its work on revamping the master plan at Hopkins, the architects felt strong pushback from professors and administrators who were used to the arcane system of roads that cut through campus. What did a few new sidewalks and a few closed-off streets have to do with running a great university?

Gross countered with a simple question: Which campus did Hopkins hope to emulate? Princeton, came the consensus answer.

So he showed them comparison diagrams of the New Jersey campus, with vast expanses free of traffic, and the Hopkins campus, where cars could pull practically to the edge of the main quad. "The quality of the grounds don't reflect the quality of the institution," he told them.

"I think they were slipping," Gross says now, talking about the university's stature among the nation's elite.

The message hit home. Though many of the changes are subtle — uniform signs, walkways converted from asphalt to brick, parking pushed underground and to the edges of campus — the total effect is not. Hopkins feels more secluded and tranquil than it did 15 years ago.

"You change the whole nature of the campus," says Larry Kilduff, the university's executive director of facilities management. "And indeed, that's what happened. I would give ASG credit for leading us in that direction."

It might be a coincidence, but in the years immediately after the design changes began, applications to Hopkins skyrocketed, outpacing growth in the Ivy League.

Though Ayers Saint Gross built its business on the long relationship with Hopkins and has worked on projects for numerous Maryland universities, the firm's signature project unfolded 300 miles south, at the University of North Carolina.

The Chapel Hill campus had acquired a bipolar feel over the years. Visitors delighted in the elegant brick structures and inviting walkways of the old, northern half. Then they cringed at the southern half's sprawling mishmash of medical buildings, dormitories and parking lots.

The project, begun in 1998, was the biggest the firm had taken on — reimagining the future look and feel of one of America's great public universities. How could the plan emphasize the elegant historic features of the campus but also solve its modern problems using new construction and spaces? How could the past cohere with the future?

Ayers Saint Gross has a particular way of going at a campus redesign. It starts with a quest to divine the essential nature of a place. What is the university trying to do and how is that reflected in its layout and buildings? Then the architects ask everyone from administrators to students to neighbors how the university needs to change and grow. Finally, they figure out how to meet those needs without rendering the place unrecognizable.

"It needs to be visionary, it needs to inspire people, it needs to capture the spirit of the place, but it also needs to work," Greene says in explaining the firm's ethos. "We're always trying to balance those things."

Howes says the firm "knocked our socks off" with its grasp of Chapel Hill's history and needs.

Gross and Greene traveled to North Carolina every month to walk the campus with deans, students and neighbors. The process lasted three years and involved more than 500 meetings.

They encountered plenty of skeptics, who told them they'd never be able to make the lower campus feel brick and grassy.

One evening, sitting with Greene at a popular campus bar called Top of the Hill, Gross scrawled out his guiding vision.

The plan obscured modern dorms that looked like "satellites landed from Mars" with brick buildings reminiscent of the old campus. Vast parking lots surrounding the football stadium became underground garages covered by grassy thoroughfares that linked the upper and lower halves of the campus.

The approval of the plan dovetailed with the passage of a $2 billion bond bill, $600 million of which went to Chapel Hill. What Gross and Greene thought of as a long-term vision became the immediate blueprint for a decade of heavy construction that added the equivalent of the entire campus of Wake Forest University to Chapel Hill's existing footprint.

"They really helped us to understand, better than we had on our own, what a jewel we had," Howes says.

The Chapel Hill plan is the one campus blueprint the firm keeps on the red brick display wall of its Tide Point office, the one most emblematic of what Gross believes his shop can pull off.

He encounters plenty of Tar Heel alumni in day-to-day life and, as the project rolled forward, they kept telling him he better not mess up their beloved alma mater. Now, he says, he runs into them and they say, "I was down there and I can't believe how beautiful it is."