Noe Valley Voice December-January 2008

Albert Lanier, Neighborhood Architect, Dies at 81

By Steve Steinberg

Albert Lanier, a noted architect who designed many homes in Noe Valley and around San Francisco, has passed away. The 81-year-old Lanier, who also helped establish the city's School of the Arts, died peacefully on Oct. 31, 2008, with his wife by his side. He had been suffering from emphysema.

A Noe Valley resident since 1960, Lanier was married to famed artist Ruth Asawa. The couple, partners in love and work for more than 60 years, raised six children, five of whom still live within walking distance of the family home on Castro Street.

In addition to his residential architecture, Lanier was known for his community contributions. He oversaw the 1985 renovation of the Noe Valley Branch Library and worked to preserve the Gottardo Piazzoni murals, which had adorned the walls in the old San Francisco Main Library. Lanier helped ensure that the 1930s murals were saved after the conversion of the library to the Asian Art Museum. They are now safely installed in the new M.H. de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

Lanier also created the architectural designs for his wife's public art projects, including the mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square and another fountain at the Hyatt Hotel on Union Square.

Said his daughter Aiko Cuneo, "He was the silent partner for Ruth's public commissions. He did all the drawings and elevations, and helped her with mathematical computation. He was her biggest supporter."

Born in a small town in Georgia in 1927, Lanier enrolled in Georgia Tech at the age of 16 to study architecture. His studies were interrupted by naval service during World War II. After the war, he attended North Carolina's Black Mountain College, an innovative liberal arts school centered on the arts. There he studied under such farseeing educators and artists as Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller.

It was also at Black Mountain that he met Ruth, who was an art student as well. The two met, according to daughter Addie Lanier, "on a mountain path coming back from the school orchard, nicknamed the Garden of Eden."

Lanier married Asawa in San Francisco in 1949. The next year, he began working as an architect in the city. By 1958 he had opened his own firm. The couple soon bought their Noe Valley house and began an active life, focused on their children, colleagues, and neighborhood.

No doubt inspired by their experiences at Black Mountain College, Lanier and his wife worked tirelessly to establish the San Francisco School of the Arts, a public high school for the performing arts, now located on Portola Drive. After long years of bureaucratic delay, the school finally opened in the early 1990s.

Lanier's architectural designs reflected his desire to create harmonious spaces filled with light. "He would tear down walls and flowingly connect the internal space of his houses with the outdoors," said good friend and fellow architect Bill Bondy, who worked for Lanier in the 1980s.

"His interiors always feel very spacious," agreed Addie. "He used skylights and windows--natural light--to achieve that effect. He appreciated simplicity. There is not a lot of ornamentation in his designs." Addie said her father was a great admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright and a close friend of photographer Imogen Cunningham.

His best-known San Francisco projects were the Mercy Terrace Apartments, the Monsignor Lyne Community building in the Castro, and the Youth Hostel at Fort Mason. But he left his mark on Noe Valley, too. You can see samples of his residential work at 3616 21st Street, 4343 Cesar Chavez, and 1116 Castro Street.

A passionate gardener, Lanier in the late 1970s pitched in to design the planter boxes behind the library on Jersey Street. "He also was active in getting trees planted in the neighborhood," said Cuneo.

Lanier's love of simplicity extended to life in general, according to his son Paul Lanier. "My father liked old-fashioned, simple things, like libraries, gardens, schools, and being in the country."

He also cared about others.

"Albert was a humanist," said Bondy. "He loved people and appreciated their individual value."

His children will remember him as a great storyteller who enjoyed telling anecdotes about growing up in the South. Towards the end of his life, he recorded some of those stories for posterity. He often dressed in overalls, noted Addie, in the style of a Georgia farmer.

"He was pretty content with the way his life turned out," said Addie. "He was never bored. He felt pretty lucky."

A memorial service for Albert Lanier, attended by over 200 people, was held on Nov. 20 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Franklin Street in San Francisco.

Besides his wife Ruth, Lanier is survived by his children--Aiko, Addie, Paul, Xavier, and Hudson--and 10 grandchildren, whom he adored. Another son, Adam, passed away several years ago.