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Last design: Dying of coronavirus, a famous architect planned his final resting place

Architect Michael McKinnell sat behind his Rockport home, looking toward the Atlantic Ocean. On the day before he died, he dictated plans for a memorial stone and small garden where his ashes would lie, down the hill closer to the water.
Architect Michael McKinnell sat behind his Rockport home, looking toward the Atlantic Ocean. On the day before he died, he dictated plans for a memorial stone and small garden where his ashes would lie, down the hill closer to the water.Stephanie Mallis

Last Thursday, on what turned out to be the final full day of his life as one of the nation’s most eminent architects, Michael McKinnell spoke with his wife by phone about his plans for one final design.

Diagnosed with COVID-19, he knew little time remained. He had declined the offer of a respirator at Beverly Hospital and had asked for hospice care.

“He said, ‘I’ve made a decision and I don’t want to argue with you.' He said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ ” his wife, Stephanie Mallis, who was quarantined in their Rockport home and unable to visit, said of their phone conversation.

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With coronavirus deaths now projected to potentially reach beyond 100,000 in the United States alone, Mr. McKinnell faced a question so many will have to answer: What to do with those last hours?

He chose to design his final resting place.

Famous for co-designing Boston City Hall, one of the most significant and imposing architectural works of the 20th century, he had less grand plans for where his ashes will lie.

In that phone conversation with his wife, he described his idea for a garden as small as City Hall is large — an intimate square of ground covered with white roses.

“ ‘A flat granite stone at the far end,’ he said,” his wife recounted. “He’s lying in his bed with his oxygen mask and he made the whole thing. It’s quite moving.”

On the stone, he wanted their two names: Stephanie and Michael.

“He said, ‘You’re going to do this?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ ” she said.

A couple for 30 years, they had married in 2003. Both had worked at the Boston architectural firm that bore his name, Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood, where she was a principal.

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While living in the Back Bay, they purchased “this tiny little house” in Rockport, she said. “We looked for a place where he would be able to go on the weekend, where he could leave the office for a few hours.”

Behind the house, the back lawn dips down to the ocean, a slope they slowly transformed into a summer vista of sweeping beauty, filled with flowers.

“We would literally come up here and turn over the rocks and try to make it garden-like,” she said.

Mr. McKinnell was born and grew up in England, and they traveled back regularly. Like many who admire floral beauty, he was quite taken by the Sissinghurst Castle and Garden in Kent — particularly the white garden designed by the writer Vita Sackville-West.

Mallis’s late sister, Joanne, had lived in London. During visits, “we’d drag everyone on the train and go to Sissinghurst,” Mallis said, “and it was so beautiful.”

Speaking about the flowers her husband chose to enliven the soil around his memorial stone, she said: “It’s sort of in his DNA that there are white roses everywhere.”

Like many who fall ill due to the coronavirus, Mr. McKinnell’s symptoms were sudden, his decline swift.

He and his wife had traveled into the city from Rockport on March 10, as the shadow of the coronavirus was growing longer and deeper across the country.

“We were in Boston at the doctor’s and the dentist’s,” she said. “He had a great checkup. We said, ‘Let’s do all these things — we probably won’t be able to get back next week.’ ”

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Three days later, he didn’t feel well. He sought medical attention and then returned to their house, where his health declined.

A week later, he was hospitalized and would never return home.

“On the 22nd, they said he tested positive for the virus and they saw on his X-rays that he had pneumonia,” she said.

That meant he couldn’t leave. “He hates being a patient, he hates being vulnerable,” she said. “I imagine it must have been torment.”

Along with Boston City Hall, which an American Institute of Architects poll had named one of the 10 “proudest achievements of American architecture” in the nation’s first 200 years, Mr. McKinnell had designed buildings across the country and around the world.

With his formidable intellect, his wife said, he was accustomed to parsing every detail a problem might present.

And so on Thursday, 13 days after he first felt unwell, Mr. McKinnell called his wife to share his plans. Though she was quarantined, and not allowed to go see him, his two daughters, Caitlin McKinnell Klatz and Phoebe McKinnell Ventola, who live in Northampton, arrived at the hospital that evening — the last family visit.

“He’s seen a lot of people be ill for a while, and he’s seen people refuse chemo,” his wife said. “I guess he had thought it through more than I had realized. Obviously, he thought everything through.”

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And that included the last design for a new garden behind their home.

Place it on the lower part of the hill past the three granite steps, he told her. Align it with the flower beds nearby. Fill it with white roses — and a flat granite stone bearing their names.

Mr. McKinnell died the following day, at age 84.

Someday his final vision will take shape. Someday his friends will be able to travel again, and they’ll visit Rockport to see his last design.

“I have a drawing here,” his wife said by phone Monday from their home. “I was trying to sketch it while he was talking.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.