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Getting to be a big firm on campus; Ayers Saint Gross has decided to do what it does best: concentrate on designing colleges and universities.


When Adam Gross moved to Baltimore in 1984 to help revive an old-guard architectural firm, he was eager to take on a wide range of commissions.

Today, as design principal of the company, he is turning down many of the assignments he might have accepted 16 years ago.

Yet his firm, now called Ayers Saint Gross, is as busy as ever. Billings are up. The staff is expanding. The company is increasingly becoming known as a "national" firm, with more work outside Maryland than in.

All this growth is fueled by Ayers Saint Gross' decision to specialize in one area: design work for colleges and universities.

The firm is working on 19 campuses in all -- everything from classroom buildings and laboratories to master plans for entire campuses. There's an addition to the law school at the University of Virginia, a nursing school for the University of Miami in Florida, a science building at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

And its Maryland projects are no less significant.

For the University of Maryland, College Park, the firm is overseeing construction of a $110 million performing arts center that got under way in 1997. The sprawling complex is expected to open in phases starting this fall, with final occupancy by the spring of 2001.

In Baltimore, Ayers Saint Gross is creating a master plan to guide development on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. (Gross will discuss the plan and its recommendations for North Charles Street during a free public forum in the Berman Auditorium of the Hopkins Downtown Center, Charles and Saratoga streets, at noon March 8.)

The only non-collegiate building on the 85-year-old firm's boards right now is a $36 million addition to the central branch of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, a client since the early 1980s.

'It's like town planning'

The decision to specialize in campus work represents a fundamental change for a design firm that had developed a reputation for tackling all sorts of projects, from churches to sports arenas to garages. But Gross and his partners are thriving.

"If all we were doing is nursing schools or recreation centers, I'd say we probably should branch out ... it would become formulaic," Gross said. "But I cannot tell you how interesting it is, every day. ... It's like town planning. You can do just about any building under the sun. And every campus is different. They all have different cultures and different characters and different levels of leadership."

Ayers Saint Gross is the successor firm to Sill, Buckler and Fenhagen, founded in 1915 and perhaps best-known as designer of Baltimore City College on 33rd Street.

Since Gross joined the firm, it has been one of the most honored design studios in Maryland, winning awards for a new entrance and garage for the Baltimore Arena, a boathouse on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, a retail center next to the B&O; Railroad Museum; renovation of the Pratt's central library, and many other projects.

Gross is a tall, slender 44-year-old from Connecticut who received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Syracuse University. He lives in Ruxton -- in the former residence of architect Riggin Buckler, coincidentally -- with his wife, Fredye, and daughters Perry, 6, and Kyle, 4.

Shortly after he moved to Baltimore, Gross made a splash as a Wunderkind of the local design scene. Bright and articulate, he seemed to be everywhere at once -- heading the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects for a year, speaking at architectural conferences, serving as a tireless advocate for good urban design. He reinvigorated his firm by landing high-profile commissions and assembling a talented and energetic team of young architects to carry them out.

Finding a focus

During a recent tour of the firm's offices on the top floors of the Tremont Plaza Hotel and Office Building on Saint Paul Place, Gross and Jim Wheeler, another principal in the firm, said their decision to focus on design work for colleges and universities was based on a number of factors.

* Building on experience: Designing for colleges and universities is a logical extension of Ayers Saint Gross' work over the past two decades, a portfolio that includes corporate campuses, sports architecture and a variety of campus buildings, including the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy at Hopkins, a $50 million Health Sciences facility at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the renovation of Ritchie Coliseum at College Park.

* Tapping into a growth area: The need for campus design expertise has grown as children of baby boomers approach college age. Many administrators and trustees are seeking to improve their campuses to attract the most qualified students and staff. Others are looking for ways to accommodate growth without incurring the wrath of surrounding communities.

* Disappointment with commercial clients: Gross says his firm has been "stiffed" more than once by developers who couldn't get financing for projects and never paid their bills.

But most of all, Gross and Wheeler say, they like designing for colleges and universities because they're passionate about the subject matter. They find it intellectually challenging to build campuses that provide memorable environments for teaching and research. They enjoy the variety of the work and the strong interest clients show. They say America is entering a new golden age of campus planning and design, and they want to help lead the way.

"It's all about maturing and realizing what you're good at and realizing that you don't have to do everything," said Wheeler, who is responsible for management, development and strategic planning at the firm. "I think that's one of the curses of architects. They think that they have to do a lot of things, instead of really getting good at one thing."

"We want to be the best at what we do," Gross added. "I think we've discovered in the last few years that it's a lot more fun to build on your strengths as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel."

Although the firm has always done a certain amount of campus work, Gross said, he really saw the potential for specialization about 10 years ago, when he and several colleagues went on a whirlwind tour of some of the best campuses in America.

'We're trading in ideas'

From their travels, the architects learned that many of the nation's top campuses were designed by great architects in the early 1900s. But by World War II, much of the work had been turned over to space planners and landscape designers with

little or no architectural background, and the campuses suffered.

Today, many colleges and universities are again hiring architectural firms to develop plans to guide campus growth. For a few firms around the country, such as Sasaki Associates and Wallace Roberts Todd, it has long been a specialty. Now, Ayers Saint Gross is on that list.

During the 1990s, Ayers Saint Gross increasingly competed for college design work. The more time they spent at colleges and universities, Gross and Wheeler said, the more they realized it was the sort of work they liked to do.

"The level of discussion and the quality that they're interested in, in most cases, is higher than most of the commercial situations that we were in," Gross said. In campus design work, "We're trading in ideas. We're trading in enthusiasm and vision."

And the firm hasn't sacrificed much in the way of variety, Wheeler said.

"We're still doing all the same things we did before, except that the nature of the clients has changed. I mean, a bookstore or a student union has retail, food service. Dormitories are housing. There are office buildings, science buildings, recreational buildings. There's everything you could do in a city, except you are dealing with someone who controls the whole city, and that streamlines all the decision-making."

Correcting the past

Much of what Ayers Saint Gross does involves "healing the wounds of modernism" -- correcting mistakes made by previous generations of planners, usually from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

They often reroute roads and relocate parking and other non-teaching spaces to the perimeter of campus, rather than the middle. They introduce lawns and other green spaces to make campuses more picturesque and pedestrian-friendly. They propose ways to add more students without contributing to congestion. They generate before and after drawings, Jenny Craig-style, to help clients envision proposed changes.

Several years ago, a study by writer and educator Ernest Boyer concluded that the way a campus looks is the No. 1 reason students enroll, Gross said. "What's interesting is, if you talk to these kids, it doesn't matter if they're preppies or they've got purple hair or they're jocks. They all typically say they like campuses that have a collegial feel."

With 55 employees, Ayers Saint Gross has reorganized its office so it has three studios, each related to college and university work. One studio oversees campus planning -- the development of master plans to guide growth. Another focuses on academic buildings -- all the structures in which classes are taught and research is conducted. A third is for student life -- designing buildings such as student unions, dorms and recreational facilities.

In addition to Gross and Wheeler, Ayers Saint Gross's board of directors includes Richard A. Ayers and Glenn Birx. To keep up with their expanding workload, the directors recently named four new principals, including their first woman partner. Luanne Greene directs the campus planning studio. Eric Moss and Earl Purdue share responsibility for the campus life and academic buildings studios. The fourth new principal, Jim Patz, works with Birx on construction documents and quality control.

In another sign of growth, the firm will move later this year from downtown Baltimore to larger quarters at Tide Point, the former Procter & Gamble Co. soap-making plant in southern Baltimore.

Gross said he's especially pleased that the firm has been able to collaborate with so many different people in so many places to build a consensus for good design.

"One of the things that I'm proudest of with these planning processes is that there is not one of them that is somebody's singular vision, including mine," he said.

"We always say, it isn't Ayers Saint Gross's plan. It's Hopkins' plan or Washington College's plan. A lot of what we do at these places is lift people's aspirations about themselves."

Pub Date: 03/05/00

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