Q&A: John M. Laping
John Laping was presented with the Robert & Louise Bethune Award by the Western New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects at their annual dinner last November. The Bethune Award is the highest honor the local chapter of the AIA can bestow on a member for service to the profession and the community.
An architect with Kideney Architects/Laping Jaeger Associates, PC, Laping joined the firm in 1966 as a designer. He became a partner in 1968 and managing principal of the firm in 1977. Though retired in 2003, he continues as a consultant. He’s had leadership positions on many public service community boards. Professionally, he served as national vice president on the National Board of the AIA and president of the New York State Association, as well as officer and director of the WNY chapter.
Laping was a member of the City of Buffalo Preservation Board for a dozen years, for most of that long tenure as chair. He was highly regarded for running meetings with a pragmatic approach that was fair to petitioners. He unhesitatingly spent hours in special meetings and site visits, and demonstrated that preservation and progress were not mutually exclusive—that they could co-exist and even work together to improve the economic vitality of the city. Laping was an articulate spokesman and the public face of the Board. For all his successes and contributions, Laping is humble, self-effacing, likeable, and kind.
What brought you here from your native Cincinnati?
I married a Buffalo girl and she didn’t want to stay in Cincinnati. Buffalo seemed like a good alternative at the time. I also had a job offer, and that helped.
Looking back at your many commissions, do you have a favorite?
It’s difficult to pick out a favorite, but the ones I liked best were the ones where I could make a difference. The Veterans’ Home in Batavia was a terrific project … the Suburban Jewish Center, the United Way [at Delaware and Summer], a series of branch banks for Buffalo Savings [one’s now a law office, others are now occupied by different banks].
How about those involving adaptive reuse of existing buildings?
The Olympic Towers was a challenge for a lot of reasons. One of the first YMCAs in the United States, it had been designed by Green and Wicks. Its condition was typical of long-abandoned buildings; it had been destined for demolition to create Convention Center parking.
Paul Snyder had recently completed the Hyatt that had used tax credits, and he partnered with Goldome. We really worked closely with the NYS Office of Historic Preservation [SHPO] and the U.S. Parks Department [who had to approve for the tax credits to happen]. I flew to Albany to meet with SHPO and took their comments to Philadelphia to meet with Parks. I flew home, made changes, and two days later was back in Philly with revised drawings. Parks blessed the project and I came home a hero … at least for a few days. The design sought to max out the old building with a fitness center using the old gym and pool. Offices occupied the balance of the space. The new addition incorporated four floors. The Atrium was a terrific urban link with shops and restaurants that served as a lobby for the building’s various functions. It also allowed the views that the hemmed-in site might not otherwise have had. There’s a small plaza in front of the building that has trees from the same nursery that supplied trees for Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Another project is now known as St. Mary’s Square (at Virginia and Emwood). It was built before the Civil War as St. Mary’s School for the Deaf by the same folks who built St. Louis R. C. Church. After the school moved to Main Street, [the original space] became a hospital. It was then converted to veterans’ housing [by Kideney Architects]. It later fell into disrepair. We worked closely with SHPO on the conversion to condominiums; the finished exterior is as close to the original design as photographs allow. There were thirty-five units and almost as many different layouts. Each space division offered a different design opportunity and we maxed these out. When the model units were done, the place sold out within a week. Unfortunately, the construction manager hadn’t estimated the project realistically, so it took another year and a lot more work before the project had a very successful completion.
How about your experiences on the AIA National Board?
The architecture accreditation visits were always the most intense. These were grueling fifteen-hour days reviewing program documents, meeting with administration, faculty, students, and alumni. We always prepared our reports on the last night and did exit interviews with faculty and students. I also loved doing the ethics work and accrediting members who did not have a degree from an accredited college.
You served on the City of Buffalo Preservation Board for twelve years, and as chairman for ten of those years. Was there one success of which you are particularly proud?
There were several. One was getting Kohn Pederson to reconsider its design of the Federal Court House so that it would offer “closure” to Niagara Square. I think the awards program we began was a success, and I think we helped a lot of people do better architecture and better preservation along the way. [Fellow architect] Chris Guerra [and I] played off of each other and that always elevated the architectural quality of the Board’s approvals. There were successes that were quietly done. I remember a lady on Linwood who had the problem of being sold vinyl windows. I got the seller to provide her with wood windows that we could approve. I believe we helped a lot of people over the years I chaired the Board.
What was your biggest Preservation Board disappointment?
That we couldn’t stem “demolition by neglect.” Another was that we worked very hard to create a Preservation Plan for Buffalo. It was a terrific plan, too—goals well thought out, actions well thought out—and very comprehensive. But we couldn’t sell it to the city and it was never adopted.
Why is a Preservation Plan for Buffalo important?
I think it’s a guide for the work of the Preservation Board and for the general community. It’s a good broad-based view of what is precious and what needs to be saved, so we’ll know what to attack and direct.
Is architecture still a viable career choice for young people?
Architecture is a great career choice for people who like creative problem solving and have the stamina to get through the educational program, the internship, and the licensing exam. It takes a while to make a little money as an architect, but it’s a great life.
You were trained at a time when students put pencil in hand. Do young architects do that anymore? How about Computer Assisted Design?
One young intern told me that the computer was his pencil. He was an extraordinary designer.
Your friends kid you about wanderlust and the number of times you’ve moved your personal residences.
I guess you could say it’s the ultimate ego trip—you can do exactly what you want—not working for a client. We started in a small apartment and have had several homes.
The library seems to be important in your homes. Is it about the books? Do you own a Kindle?
When we had our townhouse on Bryant Street, it was part of an original mansion and included what had been the A. Conger Goodyear library. We filled it with books: many from friends who were downsizing; cousins gave us thirty-five books for our thirty-fifth anniversary. We still enjoy reading, looking, and browsing. We have a lot of art and architecture books. If we owned Kindles, we’d still keep our books. We just keep adding.
How do you feel about the Bethune Award?
It’s the Chapter’s highest award given for lifetime achievements. I am of that age and I suppose it’s better while I’m still breathing than posthumously. The award should be shared with my wife Toby and my firm’s partners who allowed me to do all this stuff!