Architect Blake Middleton FAAR‘82 writes: Thomas L. Schumacher, FAAR’69, RAAR’91, professor of architecture at the University of Maryland, died on July 15, 2009 after a short battle with brain cancer. He was 67 years old. Tom also taught at Princeton and Virginia, and joined the Maryland faculty in 1984, teaching architectural design studios, history and theory courses. [See here for an obituary on the Abitare website.]
His passion for the Eternal City manifested itself in many ways over a four decade career beginning with his Academy Fellowship studies in 1967. He came to speak fluent Italian, originated the Maryland Rome architecture program, visited the city almost on an annual basis with students or during his own research forays, and published numerous books and articles on Italian modern architecture of the 1930s. Over the last three decades I saw Tom only intermittently, but he was an inspiration in my development as an architect and teacher, and to countless others. In putting this tribute together, I have gathered some recollections from his colleagues and friends, and have tried to briefly sketch a picture of Tom as architect, scholar, educator, and passionate Italophile (see Note 1 at end).
I have since deduced that Tom, wherever he went and whomever he came in sustained contact with, left in his trail what might be called the “Schumacher Effect”. It was like being intellectually smitten and confronted at the same time. The Effect was highly contagious, and unless the person involved was incapable of intelligent conversation, they would be challenged to think about ideas anew, turn them over and inside out, and to re-think conventional wisdom. And the Schumacher Effect seems to be indelible; one was left with a tingling sense that the world of ideas was to be taken seriously but should be fun at the same time. Those affected reported with warmth and often amusement about their interactions with Tom, even decades later (Note 2).
Born on November 7, 1941, Tom was raised in the Bronx, New York. His father was an educator in the city public school system. Tom earned a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University, and after a period of professional practice, he returned to Cornell to pursue a graduate degree, studying under the urban theorist Colin Rowe RAAR‘70 and forming part of the “contextualism” school of thought which was critical of modern urban design. Widely influential, “contextualism” initially attempted to reconcile modern building types with urban forms based on the traditional city. Tom’s thesis, done under Rowe’s direction, was widely cited as one of the first projects to illustrate the possibilities synthesizing these two aspects of design theory.
Schumacher’s 1967 Thesis: A plan for a new development in South Amboy, NJ, developed at the Cornell Urban Design Studio directed by Colin Rowe. Courtesy Middleton, “The Combining of the Traditional City and the Modern City”, Lotus 27
In 1967 Tom was awarded the Rome Prize for architecture and spent 1967-69 at the American Academy in Rome. Michael Schwarting FAAR ’70, professor of architecture at New York Institute of Technology, observed about those years: “I knew Tom when we were both undergraduates in architecture at Cornell, but we got to know each other better in Colin Rowe’s urban design graduate program. Tom was a year ahead of me but we worked intensely together on the Last Chance for Cities, a MOMA exhibition of urban design projects for Harlem.” Schwarting and Schumacher each received a Rome Prize, in successive years. This was at a time when the Fellowship was for two years (Note 3).
Schwarting also recalled some of their activities together. “We overlapped for a year at the American Academy, and spent a lot of time together, including a giro around Sicily. We worked intensely on a competition for a United Nations complex in Vienna ([architect] Bruce Fowle was working in Rome at the time and signed for us). Our entry did pretty well, placing 48th out of 600.”
Schwarting continues: “We convinced the Academy Director, Frank Brown [FAAR’33, RAAR’54, ’55], who liked architects because we were iconoclastic, to let us do a shop talk presentation of our competition project. It was the first time that we so called “visio tactiles” in the arts were permitted to enter the realm of the scholars. Thus we tried to present everything we had been thinking and talking about that year. We called ourselves Schwarmacher and did the talk in Milan Inter soccer shirts. This work and presentation led to Tom’s important article “Contextualismo: Ideali Urbani Deformati” in Casabella 259-60 of 1971 and to my “Lesson of Rome” in Harvard Review 2. Our paths crossed frequently after Rome, but interestingly we shared our passion for Rome by taking students there, so I saw Tom more often in Rome than any other place.”
Tom, somewhere in Europe, 1968. ‘In pictures of Tom in Italy over the years, he almost invariably has whatever was the latest camera technology slung on his shoulder,’ recounts his wife Patricia Sachs.
From the Academy archives, Catherine Seavitt FAAR’98 has unearthed Tom’s request for an additional year for the Fellowship. Forty years ago, scholars, artists and architects had a two year fellowship, but the second year wasn’t automatically conferred. Architects in particular had to prove to the Director’s satisfaction that their first year hadn’t been completely squandered on mastering the trattorie di Trastevere or “absorbing the atmosphere” of Rome. So in early 1968 Tom produced this short précis: “Italy, particularly in the north, provides the world’s best examples of the problems of adapting the traditional city to industrialization. The isolation and explanation of these problems is necessary for future urbanization, especially in matters of urban form. We cannot rely on new concepts of urban form alone—they must be matched to existing conditions. Very little has been proposed by modern urbanists to tackle this problem, but if we are to get the most out of our existing environments, it is one of many problems that must be solved” (Note 4). This thesis was clearly colored by current events in the US and Europe—the Great Society, the War on Poverty, Parisian street wars, and campus unrest)—and it is striking to me how Tom was laying the seeds for decades of research and pedagogy committed to the idea that cities were important to our civilization, can be enriched architecturally and environmentally, and integrate modern design successfully.
Alan Chimacoff, a principal at IKON.5 Architects and a former professor of architecture at Princeton, had an almost fifty year friendship with Tom, dating from his days as a student at Cornell. In his remarks at the service for Tom in mid-July, he touched on the intellect that Tom brought to his endeavors, as well as his sense of humor. “…ideas were Tom’s milieu and wit and irony and brilliance and determination. Cross-disciplinary leaps of idea and meaning. And honesty; intellectual integrity. I think Tom was the intellectual integrity compass and mentor of so many of us.”
Chimacoff went on to relate that Schumacher, as a student, developed a fundamental commitment to intellectual honesty the hard way—by learning from his teachers and peers in the crucible of the design studio with professors that didn’t take prisoners when it came to sloppy thinking. A star student, one day when presenting his final project (but a less than stellar effort) he was accused of “architectural masturbation”. Chimacoff, and others, were “stunned, all of us, and of course Tom more than anyone because he was the guy. It took a while to come to grips with what it meant. And ultimately what I believe that it meant to Tom was that he determined that if he didn’t have intellectual integrity he didn’t have a life.”
Tom’s love of song and games was always there, and those who crossed his path over the years will doubtless recollect a Schumacher ditty on architectural theory to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan or a Verdi opera (Note 5). AAR Life Trustee Michael Graves FAAR’61,RAAR’79, recalls some of these musical interludes of Tom’s. “I remember sitting with Tom, his wife Patti, and others in a small restaurant in Rome where at a certain, and I must say appropriate point, Tom burst into his, or what I think was his favorite aria from Don Giovanni, the one where he is attempting to seduce the girl by holding hands with her on the way down to the garden. Tom would also send everybody into stitches when he and Alan Chimacoff would announce the prospective boxers at any match. You all know the ones, such as ‘Don Giovanni in the white corner and Michael Angelo in the blue corner’. This kind of recollection would continue until we were all exhausted.”
Tom’s passion for all things Italian included the ancients, or at least was inspired by their chutzpah. Chimacoff recalls that “once, with Caesarean bravado, we invented a new world calendar. It was called immodestly “The Schumacoff calendar.” It was perfect. It had thirteen months of twenty-eight days—three hundred and sixty-four days in toto. The extra day, and two on leap year were freebies. Private days where you could do whatever you wanted without any interference from anyone. It was perfect. Every month was the same. If it was the first, eighth, the fifteenth or the twenty-second, you would know it was Monday and so on. Perfect convenience and appropriately the thirteenth month was called Schumacoff—that’s what the Caesars did; why shouldn’t we? We abandoned it as a failure that would never gain broad acceptance when Tom realized that if you were born on a Tuesday your birthday would always be on a Tuesday and never a weekend. So much for the calendar….”
Sylvia Lavin, former Chair and currently Professor at UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design, knew Tom from her days growing up in Rome and New York. For her, Tom “not only wrote the history of architecture with great rigor and imagination but he lived this history with unusual conviction. First finding Colin Rowe at Cornell, arriving in Rome to unearth the material context for architectural contextualism, and then moving to New York to find theoretical underpinnings at the fabled Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS), Tom always seemed to know where the next major historical development would take place. Not content to watch it unfold, he jumped into the fire. In recent years, his first hand memories of an extraordinarily wide range of people, places and conversations turned up the heat on historical research into the post-war period. Like all good historians, he could tell not only stories of the past but plan for the future as well. His persistent commitment to Rome as the cradle not just of antique architecture but of many examples of modern architecture as well, anticipated what (40 years ago when Tom first arrived at the AAR) seemed impossible, namely that Rome would once again become the home of living architectural experimentation.”
Teaching was more than Tom’s vocation—it was clearly where his talents as an architect lay. While retaining over the years his professional registration (which meant, of course, attending all those continuing-education courses) his true calling was in the classroom and design studio. I can only speculate here, but that love of knowledge and ability to communicate must have been modeled by his father the school teacher and principal (Note 6). It was honed to great skill over the years, teaching at the IAUS or Princeton or Syracuse with the likes of Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, and Werner Seligmann FAAR’81.
But this intensity and acuity of thought was leavened with compassion and thoughtfulness for his students and colleagues. Michaels Graves observed that whenever he was making a list of possible jury members for his classes at Princeton, “Tom was one that I called I think more than anyone else. Those that knew him know the reasons without explanation.”
As a scholar, Tom’s research on the architect Giuseppe Terragni (1904 1943) focused upon the formal aspects of the work and its relationship to programmatic imperatives, often illustrating the historical foundations of the compositional and typological strategies inherent in the work. He also published a study of Terragni’s Danteum project, a building based upon an interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This on-going specialty ultimately led to his major work on Terragni entitled, Surface and Symbol: Giuseppe Terragni and the Architecture of Italian Rationalism, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 1991, and widely distributed and translated into Italian and German.
“Tom was one of the most giving scholars I have ever encountered,” said Matthew Bell, a close friend of and fellow professor at the University of Maryland. “He truly enjoyed talking with others about the things he was passionate about, and did what college professors are supposed to do—communicate their passion to their students. His scholarship was important, rigorous and profound and he sought to give credit to any and all that helped him along the way. He was known to footnote even the briefest of conversations.”
My first encounter with Tom (other than the songs and drawings) was summertime, at Catholic University in Washington, in the mid-1980s. I was invited to attend design reviews. Hoping out of a taxi in the parking lot, I spied, in the best parking spot possible [that is, next to the back entrance], a car with Virginia tags. It was simply “SPQR”. I don’t recall the model of the vehicle, but imagine it to have been either an Alfa or Fiat. And that car could only belong to one person: Tom Schumacher. It was both the source of humor and envy on the part of faculty cognoscenti. Sure enough, I came into the school at lunch time, and as others have noted, Tom was holding court in the faculty lounge. He was whipping up the junior faculty and getting visitors like myself prepared to engage in intellectual jousting with the students and each other. Mental stretching exercises as it were. I asked if the SPQR was his. Yes was the reply. Knowing I was relatively fresh from two years in Rome and Florence, he proceeded to quiz me on when and why the Republic died, how the Empire consolidated its power, what I thought about Mussolini’s urbanistica, and if a Bugati convertible was the proper car to tour Rome in. Seduced by his wit, charm, and intelligence, I became another willing (and life-long) sufferer of the Schumacher Effect (Note 7).
My friend Matt Bell had a similar observation, and felt this was a key to understanding Tom’s personality. “He loved to talk and exchange ideas. He was the unofficial ‘Prince of the faculty lunch hour’ where lots of serious and sometimes unserious exchanges would occur. He believed that such interchange was at the heart of education. He excelled at juries and debating the merits of a student’s scheme. Once he used the word ‘quotidian’ on a thesis review and I leaned over to him and whispered ‘quotidian?’ ‘We’re college professors, we’re supposed to use big words,’ he said.”
Roger Lewis, professor emeritus at University of Maryland and an architecture critic for the Washington Post, told me that in these same faculty soirees, politics was a big thing for Tom. “He was a true-blue liberal democrat. Politics was one of his passions. There was little tolerance for close-minded (often equated in his mind with conservative) thinking and the debates in the faculty conference room with some of his colleagues would occasionally become heated. But in the end his humor always softened the intensity of his political passions”.
Bell recalled being impressed with Tom’s prodigious memory for his lectures. “Each of his lectures, whether it was on Bernini or Palladio or Terragni, came out the same each time—we always joked that Tom’s mind was like a computer, the proper chip went in and the talk came out, erudite, engaging and much the same each time. Even the part about losing his Terragni manuscript and finding it again under a Fiat 500 parked in the Piazza della Cancelleria!”
Tom also held important academic appointments at the University IVAU of Venice (Italy), Catholic University, Syracuse University and lectured widely throughout the United States, Europe, Canada and the United Kingdom. In 1992-93, in recognition of his obvious talents and commitment to teaching, he was named “Distinguished Professor” by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.
Throughout his career Tom continued to nurture his love of façade composition. Rowe clearly laid the ground work for this passion through his lectures and writings. For a mind as keen as Tom’s, meandering the streets of the centro storico and then encountering a façade by Raphael or Michelangelo must have been like catnip to the scholar, getting a visual high every time! These walking tours, first as a young scholar-architect, and subsequently as a mature professor-architect, always seemed to be part analytic gymnastics, part visual gratification, and helped refine his theories for teaching students about form, technique and program when designing the facade of a building, be it works by Renaissance and Baroque architects or the Modern masters (Note 8).
Tom led the Maryland students and faculty on their summer programs to Italy for many years. The itinerary began in Florence, moved south to Rome, and when the summer heat became too much to bear, they decamped to the north in Vicenza and inevitably to Como. Another colleague from Maryland, Brian Kelly, made this observation: “Como was the natural place to conclude our program because after Palladio, who provided bridges to New World sensibilities, Terragni made the connection between the ancients and the moderns. Every year Tom introduced the students to Casa del Fascio, the Asilo Sant’Elia, and all of Terragni’s other masterpieces. Every time I crossed the threshold of the Asilo I felt as if I had been reborn as an architect and all the more so in the company of Tom. For me, the Asilo is one of those places, like the House of the Tragic Poet, that defy time. Tom enabled us to understand those critical aspects of architecture that are at once ancient and modern” (Note 9).
Architect James Bodnar FAAR ’80 got to know Tom very well in the early 80s, after returning from Rome, and said that among his many qualities, “I considered Tom one of the best critics I ever had the opportunity to sit with on a jury. Over the years he remained very enthusiastic about the Academy, and several years ago sent to the Society of Fellows Council two baseball cap prototypes for the members of the SOF. They were really great, in very tasteful Roman colors and lettering. The idea was to make it a fundraising item for the Society, and of course, a small emblem of AAR pride. I hope we can track down these prototypes and possibly put them into production.”
Tom is survived by his wife, the artist Patricia Sachs of Washington, DC, a brother, Richard Schumacher of Los Angeles, CA, many cousins, nephews and nieces. I’m sure I speak for many in the Academy community in conveying our deepest sympathies, and how much we’ll all miss him. The Schumacher Effect was Tom’s gift to me, and I think countless students and colleagues. My first impressions of Tom remained consistent with all subsequent encounters: enthusiasm, great humor, generosity, and an agile intellect. It is clear that he left this world a better place for his spirit and dedication to architectural theory and teaching. He also was committed to Academy. With his friends, he gave, and received, great loyalty. Most importantly, he was passionate about the city, and the idea, of Roma.
So on that note, one more story (and Tom loved telling stories!), this again from Alan Chimacoff: “Traveling in Italy with Tom was like having a Seeing Eye dog—with the ability to date a Renaissance building to within hours of its completion, after twenty-five years of construction. Not only a Seeing Eye dog, but also a “Speaking Mouth dog,” with an ability to negotiate almost any permesso. For me, it was just an incredible treat to see Tom beam and come to life when a native Italian asked what part of Italy he was from—his mastery of the language so accomplished that the native just couldn’t quite place the regional dialect—which we, of course, know was…the Bronx.”
Blake Middleton FAIA is a Partner at Handel Architects LLP, and most recently Gensler Visiting Professor at Cornell University.
Note 1. With kind permission from Dean Garth Rockcastle FAIA, portions of this article are paraphrased from the University of Maryland School of Architecture News obituary dated July 15, 2009. I am grateful to Professor Michael Schwarting AIA, Professor Matthew Bell AIA, Alan Chimacoff AIA, Professor Sylvia Lavin, James Bodnar AIA, Michael Graves FAIA, Professor Brian Kelly AIA, Catherine Seavitt Nordenson of the Academy, and Tom’s wife Pat Sachs for sharing their observations about Tom and their assistance in this effort. The notion of “facts” in these recollections are subject, of course, to the caveat that some memories may have faded, accuracy is an elastic term, and fiction plays a role in any recollections of this nature.
Note 2. In the early ‘80s, Tom and I shared a vague set of common experiences: Cornell, Colin Rowe, teaching, Rome, New York, a passion for modern architecture, and tennis (at least until my knees gave out). When I arrived at the American Academy in 1981, the Schumacher Effect was palpable in interesting little ways, like the story, (which, like most stories involving the Academy, needs to be verified) that Tom was in some way responsible for getting the tennis court installed at the Academy. That was impressive to be sure! [Alas, the court predated him, but the history of tennis at the AAR still needs to be written—Ed.] The notion of looking at ruins in the morning, dashing back for lunch and siesta at the Academy, then bashing the ball around in the afternoon inspired me to loosen up, enjoy being a vicarious romano for a year, and have some fun at it. And in so doing, of course, becoming more receptive to the real lessons of the City. I remain ever thankful to Tom for that indirect gift. The tennis court is now gone, but the memories live on.
Note 3. Schumacher was apparently the first winner of the Rome Prize from Cornell since at least WW II (paving the way for subsequent fellows from the Cornell program including Schwarting, Vincent Mulcahy FAAR’77, Judith DiMaio FAAR’78, Werner Seligmann’81 and myself).
Note 4. Thomas Schumacher, from his letter of January 1968 addressed to AAR Director Frank Brown, requesting a one-year renewal of his fellowship. AAR Archives.
Note 5. Tom’s love of music was well-known and he possessed for a non-professional great knowledge of that discipline. Matt Bell recalls passing through the faculty office singing what he thought was an aria from Verdi’s opera Nabucco. A few minutes later a print out of the correct words appeared in his faculty mailbox. The musicologist of course was Schumacher. I recall hearing these tunes by Schumacher and Chimacoff a decade after both had left Ithaca while I was a student at Cornell, often atonally sung by Colin Rowe himself at dinner parties. I think besides his memorable master’s thesis (a constant source of inspiration for subsequent students) it was my first appreciation of Tom.
Note 6. An odd affinity between Tom and me is that my wife, Martha Eddy, attended PS 198 on the Upper East Side in Manhattan in the 1960s, where her principal was a Dr. Schumacher. Was this his father? Tom took great delight confirming they were indeed one and the same, and Martha, also a native New Yorker, wanted to meet Tom to share stories about his dad. Sadly, the opportunity never occurred.
Note 7. Bell notes that “Tom was always disappointed that in DC he could not get SPQR because someone else already had it.”
Note 8. I am reminded of a disagreement I got into with Tom about centering/re-centering in Borromini’s facades. I had what I thought was a unique interpretation about Borromini’s compositional strategies of façade discontinuity. I sketched it out for him on some trace. Tom listened intently, and then proceeded to deftly diagram exactly what I had been talking about but with three times as many permutations as I had observed on one building (San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane). He abruptly left the room for the next review, but with a quizzical frown on his face, pondering my notion. He told me the next morning that I should consider writing a dissertation on this idea. That, coming from Tom—The Expert—was quite a compliment, though I was never quite sure if he thought I was nuts or that the idea had real merit.
Note 9. Brian Kelly to Middleton, 8/12/09