NEW YORK — At a star-studded memorial service at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last Thursday, a 600-person audience of architects, patrons of the art world and New York City notables gathered to remember the life and work of Charles Gwathmey ARC ’62 — the architect who recently restored Paul Rudolph Hall and designed the Jeffrey H. Loria Center.
Gwathmey died on August 3 at the age of 71.
Speakers at the service included Ralph Lauren, who recently endowed a permanent professorship position in his name at the School of Architecture, and Steven Spielberg — both close friends of Gwathmey — as well as School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 and School of Architecture professor Peter Eisenman.
The stage at the Metropolitan’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium was adorned with two large lilac arrangements.
“Is it just me, or do we all assume that Charles ordered the flowers,” quipped Brian Williams, a friend of the Gwathmeys.
The black–and gray–clad throngs of people that filled the auditorium whispered politely before the service about Gwathmey, how handsome he was, the little black Mercedes he drove and the houses he designed. Many in the crowd were both friends and clients of Gwathmey.
The Orchestra of St. Lukes played Johann Sebastian Bach’s Adagio/Arioso Sinfonia from Cantata No. 156 before the speeches.
In his speech, Stern, who was Gwathmey’s fellow student in the ’60s, described Gwathmey as the towering talent in the architecture of his generation.
“No architect of our generation has such a mastery of geometry in architecture,” Stern said. “Gwathmey had an early love affair with the geometry of cones, cubes and cylinders and embarked on a career that carried the ideals of canonical modernism into the 21st century.”
Beyond Gwathmey’s iconic modernist designs — such as his parents’ house in Amagansett, Whig Hall at Princeton, and his additions to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Rudolph Hall — Eisenman said he will be remembered as a committed defender of architecture when it faced social criticism in the late 1960s.
“When architecture was under attack by Jane Jacobs and social planners — the hippie generation and the whole ‘let’s throw out all the rules’ era — Gwathmey was a heroic figure defending architecture and modern architecture from all those people who believed that it was an elitist practice,” Eisenman said.
Gwathmey found his own strong voice in architecture at Yale and was always loyal to his Yale roots, Stern said. He was a regular visitor, critic and professor at the School of Architecture. Gwathmey and his wife Bette-Ann Gwathmey endowed a scholarship fund at the school in 2007.
While he was at Yale, Gwathmey not only won the William Wirt Winchester Fellowship, which is the school’s most prestigious award, but also held the sit-up record at Yale, with 1,300 sit-ups in 10 minutes, his stepson Eric Steel said.
Many of the speakers described Gwathmey as a handsome, charismatic man who loved to work out and show off his perfect muscles. He loved Paris, wore Savile Row suits and custom-made shoes, drank his wine with ice and had a passion for Porsches.
“I read something about Cary Grant recently, that could have been written about Charles: He was the man all the women wanted to be with, and all the men wanted to be,” said Kathryn Steinberg, a close friend of the Gwathmeys.
She then described how Gwathmey insisted on ordering food for everyone when they went to a restaurant and would get hurt if anyone questioned his choices.
Echoed Mitchell Rales, businessman and client of Gwathmey: “Charles was a puppy dog in need of constant approval.”
But the Loria Center — Gwathmey’s final major work — brought more censure than approval from vocal critics.
Peter Newman, New Haven architect and friend of Gwathmey, said Gwathmey saw the Loria Center design as the greatest challenge in his career next to his addition to the Guggenheim.
“Like any important design, the Loria Center should be afforded the time to grow on us before we can make judgments,” Newman said.
Despite the negative reception of the Loria Center, Gwathmey was unanimously commended for a successful renovation of Rudolph Hall that gave new life to the building.
And Gwathmey was a Yale man to the end, fashion designer Ralph Lauren said.
“Charlie was a real academic,” Lauren said. “He loved to teach and loved being associated with Yale. He was not a fashion person; his clothes didn’t define him, but I admired his intellect, which he wore like an old tweed coat.”