Howard Elkus, 78; architect transformed parts of Boston
Rising dramatically above the Massachusetts Turnpike against a backdrop of landmark Boston buildings, the Copley Place complex was the first retail mixed-use project designed by architect Howard Elkus, who saw his vast creation as a way to repair a fissure the Pike left in the city and to make the air above the highway pulsate with life.
“Nowhere in the world has anyone built over a major interchange,” he told the Globe in 1984, walking the site before it opened. “We have mended a hole in the city fabric which divided the Back Bay and South End neighborhoods.”
Mr. Elkus, who was 78 when he died in his sleep April 1, designed buildings and mixed-use projects from New York City to West Palm Beach to Abu Dhabi, but he left a particular visual legacy in Greater Boston, where he had first come to see if architecture was his calling.
“It had to like me. I had to like it,” Mr. Elkus, who cofounded the Boston firm Elkus Manfredi Architects, said in December. The affection turned out to be mutual, and turned into a 50-year career.
“Howard transformed significantly the downtown corridor through his commitment to restoration, excellence, and his understanding that buildings are less about bricks and mortar and more about people,” said M. Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College, whose campus Mr. Elkus reimagined as it moved downtown to the edge of what had been the Combat Zone. “He not only changed and created cityscapes, he changed and created neighborhoods in which diverse people are able to live, work, and play.”
The corridor Mr. Elkus reinvigorated – from Copley Place to Emerson – includes the Heritage on the Garden building, which overlooks the Public Garden.
The structure stands on ground that once housed a go-go bar, a fast-food joint, and a macrobiotic restaurant. Long ago, Mr. Elkus sat in that restaurant, pencil strokes filling a sheet of paper, while listening to developer Ronald Druker describe the building he hoped to create. “Howard sketched something that was like 90 percent of what the Heritage would become,” said Druker, who is president of The Druker Co., where that first sketch now adorns a wall in his office.
With his striking artistry and elegant handwriting, Mr. Elkus needed a team to render his visions for clients only when projects were enormous. “Howard’s sketches and renderings and artwork were unique among his peers,” said Kenneth Himmel, who formerly was the development partner in charge of the Copley Place project.
“You could sit with Howard in all-day meetings and come back the next morning and he’d have spent half the night capturing your visions on paper,” said Himmel, now chief executive of Related Urban – part of Related Companies, a developer of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards project for which Mr. Elkus designed the retail section.
Himmel and Druker considered themselves not clients but lifelong friends of Mr. Elkus. “He didn’t have employees, he didn’t have clients, he had friends,” said his daughter, Jenny Elkus, a Boston architect who works at Elkus Manfredi, “and to him, it was this great symphony of life.”
Mr. Elkus drew inspiration from “the world out there,” he told Visual Merchandising and Store Design magazine in 2004. “Like music, I get it from the simplest notes to a resounding orchestra.”
Melding bits of information for each project from unlikely sources, “Howard was a great synthesizer,” his daughter said. “He used all five of his senses all the time. I think that’s what his whole life was, a symphony in all five senses.”
On a plane flight 29 years ago, Mr. Elkus and David Manfredi jotted down a mission statement for Elkus Manfredi Architects, the firm they founded in 1988. “It was to work with the best people on the best projects and always have fun,” Manfredi recalled.
“Howard brought incredible joy to every endeavor. Everything he encountered represented an opportunity — opportunities to make better places, to bring people together, to make a difference in the world we live in,” Manfredi said.
“We realized that we had this great shared approach to design, but more importantly that we shared a basic value system about not just architecture and the architect’s responsibility to the public realm, but also the ethical questions you inevitably confront in any kind of business,” he added. “We were far more than business partners. Howard was my great friend.”
Howard F. Elkus was born and grew up in San Francisco, the son of Eugene Elkus Jr. and the former Felice Kahn. His family included prominent builders and the notable architect Albert Kahn – his mother’s uncle, who was known as the architect of Detroit for designing many of that city’s landmark buildings.
Mr. Elkus was visually inclined from the outset. “When I was a kid, I was already designing and making things. My sister read in bed and I looked at pictures,” he said in the December interview in his office, conducted by Douglas Hardy. And yet he wasn’t “burning to be an architect. I mean, I backed into this profession,” he added.
At Stanford University, Mr. Elkus studied mechanical engineering, an undergraduate background that colleagues and clients said helped him find solutions to formidable challenges projects posed. “One of Howard’s great skills was his ability to solve complex problems in a way that made their complexity invisible,” Manfredi said.
After graduating from Stanford, Mr. Elkus went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, from which he received a master’s in architecture. He worked in Cambridge at The Architects Collaborative, a groundbreaking firm that Walter Gropius, founder of Germany’s Bauhaus school, had helped launch. Mr. Elkus, who was at TAC when he was principal architect for Copley Place, worked closely with Gropius.
One day in Harvard Square Mr. Elkus had lunch with Lorna Wheatley Moffat, who was working at Design Research. Both were about to embark for work trips in Europe, where they met up in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and they later became a couple, marrying in 1971. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride with a million stories,” she said.
They lived in Lincoln for many years and also had a home in Palm Beach, where Mr. Elkus died in his sleep at a point in his life when he was still vigorously designing numerous projects, including a few with Himmel. “Howard always gave me the confidence,” he said. “There’s a hole in my heart with his passing.”
A celebration of life will be announced for Mr. Elkus, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves his son, James of Fairfield, Conn., and three grandchildren.
A fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Mr. Elkus designed projects throughout the world and throughout the region, including the distinctive “wrap” that cloaks Neiman Marcus in Natick, which he modeled on a dress he had designed for his wife.
The week before Mr. Elkus died, he was in Mexico for an expansive urban project, and research brought him to an abandoned silver mining town in the hills. A flower growing from a rock wall caught his eye and became part of the visual narrative he planned to create. “We’re talking about millions of square feet, and he would look at one plant growing out of a wall and take that and the color of rock and the color the sky and start writing the story,” his daughter said.
“People always asked him, ‘Didn’t you want to teach?’ What they didn’t understand is that he was teaching every day,” she added. “That was his gift, to let us see the world the way he did.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.