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Steve Schuster, architect who helped revitalize downtown Raleigh, other cities, dies

Steve Schuster, an architect who first helped revitalize downtown Raleigh by giving new life to old buildings, then had a hand in remaking the city with signature works such as the Marbles Kids Museum and Raleigh Union Station, has died. He was 68.

Schuster had been battling cancer for three years and died in his home on West Martin Street downtown. He was surrounded by family and friends and the hubbub of urban life that to most seemed unimaginable when he and his longtime friend and business partner, artist Thomas Sayre, and their wives moved to adjoining apartments they carved out of an old plumbing supply warehouse in 1989.

Sayre, who joined with Schuster to create the design firm Clearscapes in 1981, said summing up his partner’s legacy is difficult.

“It’s best to walk around downtown Raleigh or go to any one of dozens of small North Carolina towns, where often old and decrepit historic theaters and other kinds of buildings were revitalized, often into art centers, that were transformative to those towns,” Sayre said Saturday in an interview with The News & Observer. “The word transformative comes to mind about Steve’s work.”

Schuster was not an architect with a signature style, creating buildings that were recognizably his. Instead, he sought out projects that he thought could help bring life to a town or neighborhood, then crafted designs that fit the context of a place’s surroundings and history.

“I think that speaks a lot about Steve,” Sayre said. “He was not the facile designer who would come out with an ascot on and expect people to just take his word for why this design was worth doing.”

Schuster’s vision of a city

Schuster’s first impressions of city life came as a young boy visiting Chicago from his home in suburban Lansing, Ill., in the 1950s and early 1960s. Going to museums and Bears games and visiting the brownstones where his aunts and uncles lived provided a lasting vision for what a city could be.

He spent the second half of his childhood in Chattanooga, Tenn., then came to Raleigh in 1969 to study architecture at N.C. State. He went to Colorado to earn a master’s in architecture, but returned to North Carolina, where he eventually met Sayre.

The central part of Raleigh was on the decline in the 1980s, as businesses moved to the shopping centers and office parks on the periphery. Interest in downtown was so low that Clearscapes struggled to find any clients that wanted to work there.

But Schuster and Sayre, a sculptor and painter, had a long-term vision for downtown and knew that it would return to prominence again.

They believed that architects could play a leading role in redefining how cities look, feel and operate, by breathing new life into spaces that had fallen into decay.

“Design is critical to help cities become something different,” Schuster told The News & Observer in 2002.

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Steve Schuster, right, looks over a project with Clearscapes architect Elizabeth Caliendo, left, December 16, 2014, at Clearscapes in downtown Raleigh. He often refers to the Clearscapes’ staff as “doing the hard work” while he conducts meetings. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Before they could make a living doing rehabs for other people, Schuster and Sayre found investors willing to buy old buildings with them and designed their own, including the Montague and Tucker buildings on Hargett Street and their own office and art space on West Martin Street. The two business partners decided to move into warehouse loft space next to their office.

At the time, it wasn’t even legal for someone to live in the old warehouse, and the two had to persuade the city to rezone the property to allow it. In those days, Sayre said, he’d look out his window while doing dishes and see prostitutes turning tricks.

“That was early, when nobody wanted to be in downtown Raleigh, and Steve said, ‘But we do,’” he said.

Some called them pioneers for moving to Martin Street, but Schuster shrugged off that label. People were returning to downtowns across the country, he said, and it was only a matter of time before people in Raleigh did the same.

“It was not nearly as unusual or as risky as you would have thought,” he told The N&O in 2002.

In time, the scale of the firm’s work expanded to some of the city’s most prominent spaces. Schuster designed what is now the Marbles Kids Museum, was instrumental in the creation of the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh and had a hand in the Raleigh Convention Center.

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Steve Schuster heads back to his office in downtown Raleigh Wednesday morning, December 16, 2014, after picking up his second cup of coffee from Videri Chocolate Factory across the street. Schuster’s firm, Clearscapes, renovated Videri’s space on West Davie Street. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

‘Raleigh’s architect’

One of Schuster’s most prominent accomplishments came in recent years, with his work on Raleigh Union Station. The Amtrak and future commuter rail station created a new gateway to Raleigh and encouraged hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of private investment in the city’s Warehouse District.

Built around a renovated steel fabrication plant, the station is modern and sleek and stands out among train stations across the country. Schuster called it an “industrial cathedral.”

Because of his dedication to working on public projects, something many architects shy away from, Schuster was often referred to as “Raleigh’s architect,” and in 2014, The News & Observer named him its Tar Heel of the Year.

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Raleigh’s Union Station with The Dillon building in the background. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

But his work wasn’t confined to the state’s capital.

Clearscapes was involved in projects big and small in towns across North Carolina, often finding new uses for old or historic buildings. They include the transformation of a former school built near downtown Cary in 1939 by the federal Works Progress Administration into the Cary Arts Center.

The firm also helped turn a defunct textile mill in the Alamance County village of Saxapahaw into residential condos, a popular restaurant and the Haw River Ballroom, which hosts live music year-round overlooking the Haw River. They refurbished the Booker T. Theater in the heart of what was once Rocky Mount’s African-American business district.

And in Clayton, Schuster helped transform two 1930s-era school buildings into the Clayton Center, and designed a new police station and community center.

As his health deteriorated, Schuster remained focused on the redevelopment of Clearscapes’ longtime home on Martin Street. In June, the city approved their request to allow up to 12 stories to be built on the historic warehouse property.

It was an important project for Schuster, who saw it as a chance to marry the Warehouse District’s past with its increasingly taller and more modern future. The plan aims to keep the historic warehouse buildings, while building higher on the parking lot behind them.

“With the historic buildings being both from the early 20th century, and the infill being of the early 21st century, it’s a great opportunity to have a cross-century conversation between the two buildings,” Schuster told The N&O last December.

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The city of Raleigh as begun turning off lights at some of its downtown buildings late at night for the benefit of songbirds who migrate through North Carolina each fall and spring. Both the lights used to illuminate the exteriors of buildings as well as lights left on inside can confuse birds, coaxing them to fly into walls of glass or fly in circles until they get exhausted and drop. Here the Shimmer Wall on the Raleigh Convention Center, right, is seen at dusk on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Downtown preservation

Former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker said Schuster played a key role in ensuring Raleigh didn’t shy away from investing in its important gathering spaces.

On both Union Station and the convention center, he fought against budget cuts by citing the long-term benefits of design elements such as skylights and the stone floor in the convention center, which is now one of Raleigh’s biggest generators of economic activity.

“On both, Steve convinced the City Council that outstanding public buildings are worth the investment,” Meeker said Saturday. “And, as the completed projects show, Steve was right.”

Meeker said Schuster should also be remembered for how much he valued public sentiment and how he never shied away from public works.

“Steve spent a lot of time guiding public meetings and really listening to what people had to say,” he said. “He really thought public input was a key part of the process.”

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The Contemporary Art Museum in downtown Raleigh, seen on Dec. 18, 2014, was designed by Clearscapes architecture firm. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Myrick Howard, the president of Preservation North Carolina, said without Schuster’s rehab work in the 1980s and 1990s, Raleigh not only could have lost several historic buildings but also might have “lost the war” for preservation downtown.

Specifically, Howard said, the Montague building was in a precarious state when Schuster acquired it out of foreclosure. His work there kept alive the story of a building that is now home to Caffe Luna restaurant and the Watts and Ward cocktail bar.

“It is going to be a big hole in the preservation world that we will have to fill,” Howard said. “Steve really was out there early and often and was enthusiastic.”

Sarah Powers, now the city’s arts director, came to know Schuster as a neighbor and landlord when she headed the arts group VAE Raleigh. She says he sought to build functional spaces that also honor the history and spirit of place in a creative way.

“Perhaps most importantly, Steve designed spaces to be vehicles for art,” Powers wrote in an email Saturday. “When artists are invited to add texture, color and form to architecture, they are also invited to share stories, history and ideas with the community, tying the venue to the people who spend time there.”

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Willie Wright cuts architect Steve Schuster’s hair and beard Tuesday, December 17, 2014, at the Alexander Family YMCA in Raleigh. The two have been friends for years. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

NC State graduate

With the death of Schuster, the Triangle has lost two prominent architects this summer. Phil Freelon, the Durham architect behind the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, died in July from complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Like Schuster, Freelon was a graduate of N.C. State’s design school. Schuster was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 2012 and three years later received the Designlife Award, the college’s annual honor of a designer who has had a significant impact on the community.

“Steve was a generous community servant,” Mark Elison Hoversten, dean of the College of Design, said in an email Saturday, citing his work on the school’s Leaders Council.

“But he served in so many other ways at N.C. State, the community, the profession of architecture and the arts,” Hoversten said. “Most important, he was a decent human being. During my three years in Raleigh, he became a close friend. I know many other people feel the same way.”

Sayre, who helped care for his close friend in the final weeks, turned his attention Saturday to crafting a fitting obituary. He wants people to know that he and Schuster approached their lives and work as a series of adventures, sometimes risky but always “fun and exciting.”

He said their partnership endured because they worked out what needed working out, based on values they were both raised with.

“Things like fairness, like honesty, like telling the truth, were things we shared and expected of others,” he said. “And demanded of each other.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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