Richard L. Bechtel, at 59; architect reimagined grand buildings


From the soaring, barnstyle retail space built with reclaimed timbers for produce palace Wilson Farm to the seamless addition at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Lexington, architect Richard L. Bechtel left a local design legacy.

In September 1997, viewers of the PBS television show “This Old House’’ began watching episodes that showed Mr. Bechtel helping to turn an early-1700s colonial in Milton into a showplace property, which later sold for about $1.5 million.

“As the expression goes, the camera loved him,’’ said Gerry Frank, one of his partners in Bechtel Frank Erickson Architects of Lexington.

Mr. Bechtel, a native of Cleveland who first came to Greater Boston to work for Graham Gund Architects of Cambridge before starting a firm with his partners in 1992, died Feb. 19 in Sunrise Assisted Living in Burlington of complications of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He was 59 and lived in Lexington. He was diagnosed 14 years ago.

In Lexington, the Battle Green flag was lowered in honor of his many years working for the town’s Historic Districts Commission. Friends and family filled the Pilgrim Church Thursday night for his memorial service.

“As tough as the past 14 years has been, his strength and his positive outlook brought our family closer and made us proud of our father,’’ his son Andrew said.

Andrew and his brother, Matthew, who both live in Boston, said they remembered their father simply as “the man.’’

Smart, athletic, and devoted to his sons and his wife, Karen, Mr. Bechtel coached Lexington Little League for years, coached soccer, and took over his sons’ paper route delivering the Globe when the early morning hours took a toll on the boys.

“I lasted three years; Dad did it for seven,’’ Andrew said. “He never complained, and he always had a smile when he came home.’’

Mr. Bechtel’s business partner Bill Erickson remembered him as a model father.

“Rick was totally engaged in the lives of his kids,’’ he said. “His teaching me what a father can be is something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.’’

Before he became ill, Mr. Bechtel was a familiar presence in his Lexington neighborhood, where he often walked his two golden Labs, Tori and Buckeye.

He and Karen Gehnrich, a graphic designer from Long Island, were college sweethearts who met at Miami University in Ohio, where Mr. Bechtel graduated in 1975 with a degree in architecture.

They married just before her senior year, and she took a year off to be with him while he worked in London. They later lived in Montreal, Burlington, Vt., and Athens before settling in Lexington.

“He was the handsomest man I’d ever seen in my life,’’ Karen said.

Mr. Bechtel wanted to become an architect from an early age, she said. His father, Lewis, an accountant for Republic Steel, and his mother, Betty, a buyer for Higbee’s department store, encouraged his interest in design by taking him to museums when he was a child.

Karen said she recently was thinking about all of the houses along Massachusetts Avenue that Mr. Bechtel helped redesign.

“He was so good at preserving the historic character and creating beautiful contemporary spaces,’’ she said. “There were so many houses on Mass. Ave. They were renovated, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it.’’

Among his other projects were the Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton, a farm-to-table restaurant built from renovated turn-of-the-century barns, and the Lexington Historical Society’s headquarters at the 1847 depot in Lexington Center.

“I think he was as proud of what we created in the office as a corporate climate as the buildings being built,’’ Frank said.

Mr. Bechtel coped with the onset of illness in his 40s with the help of a hired caregiver, Johnny Limontas of Hyde Park.

“My main job was to get him back his freedom; I make him feel like he’s not sick anymore,’’ said Limontas, who emigrated from Haiti in 1979 and became a close friend of the Bechtel family over the years.

Limontas helped care for Mr. Bechtel for almost three years and continued to visit him when he moved into assisted living. Most of the time, Limontas would drive Mr. Bechtel to his favorite places, including the golf course.

In turn, Mr. Bechtel taught Limontas how to play golf, gave him a set of clubs, and coached him to play in a tournament in Concord, where he won a prize.

“I never played golf in my life,’’ said Limontas. “The first time I fell on my backside.’’ He added that because of Mr. Bechtel, “I learned how to play and I love the game.’’

In addition to his wife and sons and his mother, of Fort Myers, Fla., Mr. Bechtel leaves his brother, Corey of Cleveland, and a granddaughter.

Burial will be private.

In an essay on the website for “This Old House,’’ Mr. Bechtel recalled the clear spring morning he first joined the show’s crew at the colonial house in Milton.

“I had left the busy commuter highway that circles Boston and was in a world of low stone walls, large specimen trees, a traditional barn, and a classic, center-entrance, 300-year-old colonial house,’’ he wrote. “For a moment I had a strong feeling that time had stopped here.’’

When renovations were completed, he said he hoped “the new homeowners still get the same sensation I had on that sunny April morning and feel as though time, at least in this corner of Milton, can stop for a bit.’’

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at