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.

March 05, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

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.

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