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Sandor B. 'Sandy' Csobaji, architect who oversaw a major expansion of Johns Hopkins Hospital, dies

Sandor B. "Sandy" Csobaji, a former partner at the architecture firm RTKL who oversaw expansion of Johns Hopkins Hospital and helped design London's acclaimed Canary Wharf project in the 1980s, died of undetermined causes Feb. 3 at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.
Sandor B. "Sandy" Csobaji, a former partner at the architecture firm RTKL who oversaw expansion of Johns Hopkins Hospital and helped design London's acclaimed Canary Wharf project in the 1980s, died of undetermined causes Feb. 3 at the Baltimore VA Medical Center. (Baltimore Sun)

Sandor B. "Sandy" Csobaji, a former partner at the architecture firm RTKL who oversaw expansion of Johns Hopkins Hospital and helped design London's acclaimed Canary Wharf project in the 1980s, died of undetermined causes Feb. 3 at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

The longtime Ruxton resident was 79.

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A daughter, Georgette C. Csobaji of Hampden, said he had recently been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, but the family was awaiting results of an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

Sandor Bela Csobaji was born in Budapest, Hungary, the son of an architect, Sandor J. Csobaji, and Margaret Onody Cosbaji, a homemaker. His mother died in 1938.

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During World War II, his father was an officer in the Hungarian army, then allied with Germany.

Mr. Csobaji was 9 when he left Budapest to be reunited with his father, who was stationed in Germany. He was interned for a time at the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had been turned into a center for displaced persons.

In 1951, he and his father immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y., and Mr. Csobaji enrolled at Oakwood Friends School, a boarding school, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He graduated from there in 1955.

He received a bachelor's degree in building science in 1960 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he was an All-American soccer player and a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the Air Force.

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He worked in an engineering unit that designed air bases, runways, hangars and maintenance facilities. A training accident that left him with severe frostbite resulted in the amputation of four fingers on each hand. He received a medical discharge in 1963.

"He was able to hold a pencil between his palm and thumb and write and do his design work," said Ms. Csobaji.

"Considering an architect needs his hands to do his work, it was amazing what Sandy could do. He always had a positive attitude and never let anything get in his way," said Harold L. Adams, who was president of RTKL for more than 30 years and worked with Mr. Csobaji.

After leaving the Air Force, he returned to Rensselaer, where he earned a master's degree in architecture.

He came to Baltimore in 1966 when he joined RTKL, the firm that had been founded by Archibald Rogers, Frank Taliaferro, George Kostritsky and Charles E. Lamb. Mr. Csobaji, who eventually became a partner in the firm, specialized in urban and hospital design, and helped develop downtown centers in Eugene, Ore., Charlotte, N.C., Cincinnati, and San Jose, Calif.

He developed the master plan and designed several buildings at Johns Hopkins Hospital between 1972 and 1982. He also did design work for the VA medical center where he died.

Gary A. Bowden, a member of the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel, worked at RTKL for 31 years before retiring in 2001. He said Mr. Csobaji was "leader of the health care design group in the 1970s, and was responsible for the firm's growth in that sector in the 1970s and 1980s."

"He was brilliant when it came to pulling together a master plan, because health care projects are very complex," said Mr. Adams, who lives in Mount Washington and in College Station, Texas. "He was also able to get … warring health care factions to work together."

Beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Csobaji led a decade of major expansion at Johns Hopkins. When the hospital opened a new patient tower in 1977, its original Broadway entrance — which patients and visitors had used since 1889 — was moved to North Wolfe Street.

"The entrance to North Wolfe Street was Sandy's," said Mr. Bowden. "He was able to combine aesthetics with practicality, which was ideal for complicated designs for hospitals and laboratories."

Mr. Bowden described his longtime friend and colleague as "funny and easygoing, but serious. He was always pleasant to work with."

"If you gave him a project, you knew it would be done in a timely manner," said G. Ware Travelstead, who had been a student at Rensselaer with Mr. Csobaji. "He was RTKL's hospital specialist. They are extremely difficult to design. They are more about engineering than architecture, and he handled all of the minute details really well."

In 1985, Mr. Csobaji left RTKL and joined Mr. Travelstead to establish a consortium that included several banks — Credit Suisse, First Boston and Morgan Stanley — to design and build what became Canary Wharf, a financial center in East London that rose on the derelict Docklands district along the Thames.

"He managed the design and construction for the multi-use complex that included a financial center and business district, and is one of the United Kingdom's two main financial districts," wrote another daughter, Margaret A. Smith of Ruxton, in a profile of her father.

He also developed the International Convention Center in Birmingham, England.

In 1992, he returned to Baltimore and joined the design, architectural, engineering and planning firm of Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum in Washington. There he developed energy projects for India. He retired in 1996.

He was a member of First English Lutheran Church and volunteered at the Manna House soup kitchen. He was also a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington.

He enjoyed reading, especially about World War II, and was an expert skier. He also enjoyed travel, and in 2013 returned to Budapest with his family and was reunited with relatives he had not seen in over 50 years.

In 1960, he married his college sweetheart, the former Catherine Nelson. The couple divorced in 2000.

The family will receive friends at Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. today, followed by a memorial service.

In addition to his daughters, Mr. Csobaji is survived by a son, Steve S. Csobaji of Omaha, Neb.; another daughter, Jennifer A. Klock of Seattle; and three grandchildren.

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