Society of Fellows

Obituaries

James Gresham, FAAR 1956

James Gresham, Architect
Photo: Arizona Daily Star
University of Arizona Integrative Leaning Center
Photo: James S. Wood, Arizona Daily Star
Arizona State office complex in Tucson
Photo: James S. Wood, Arizona Daily Star
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16 January, 2014

Friends and Colleagues:

Jim passed away this morning after defying most people’s odds in his years-long battle with cancer.  

Jim was one of Tucson’s most significant architects who, among a handful, strove to bring modernism to the desert. He also wanted to practice new architecture within the framework of history and its lessons and principles which led to his interest in historic preservation, even when it wasn’t popular for a “modernist” to do so.  

Details of a celebration of his life will come later, but in the meantime, I’ve copied below a biographic sketch that he wrote for the 2011 College exhibit on his career, A Life’s Work:  Seven Elements of Design.

Jim was born in Indianapolis in 1928 where his first introduction to architecture was at Arsenal Technical High School. The size of the school’s student body exceeded five thousand and offered a wide variety of vocational courses. It was there that he first learned about Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Also, it was there that Jim first learned to draw freehand, to watercolor and to draft. Jim then spent two years at the University of Michigan where the program was mostly confined to the influence of the recent work of Mies van der Rohe. Feeling inhibited by the program, although the art classes extended his drawing capabilities, he then went to The University of Oklahoma to study with Bruce Goff where he sought more freedom and where he graduated in architecture in 1953.   

Two years later he received one of two Rome Prizes from the American Academy in Rome; the other went to Robert Venturi. For much of the next two years, Jim and his wife traveled in Europe and the Mediterranean, often in Venturi’s company. The Academy experience, the travel, the new associations, particularly with the Milanese architect, Ernesto Rogers, was career molding and largely determined the direction of Jim’s future work. Jim vividly remembers Rogers’ constant admonition to “…simplify! simplify!”   

In 1956, fresh from Italy and enthusiastic about the environment of the Southwest, Jim discovered the work of Nick Sakellar and moved to Tucson and went to work in Nick’s office. Later, Jim was to work for Ned Nelson before joining the faculty at the new school of Architecture at the University of Arizona in 1962, where he taught architectural design.  In 1965, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent another year in Rome. This resulted in additional travels in Europe and North Africa.  

After returning in 1966, he built an award-winning house for his wife and himself and established his first office, Gresham Hockings, Associates, in 1968 with Jim Hockings. In 1971 he left teaching to devote full time to practice. The firm soon received commissions from the City of Tucson and for courthouses in Clifton and Holbrook, Arizona.  

The partnership was dissolved in 1975 and for six years, he practiced as James Gresham and Associates, a period during which the firm began to receive a string of design awards. In 1981 James Larson and Kathy Baron became his partners and the firm was renamed Gresham Larson Associates. In 1985 the firm became the Tucson offices of NBBJ and it opened another office in Phoenix.   

NBBJ/Gresham Larson continued a statewide practice with major public commissions in Arizona California and New Mexico.  In 1995 Jim and Richard Beach left NBBJ and established Gresham & Beach, Architects in Tucson.  Since 1970, Jim’s design leadership has been recognized with nearly 40 design awards at national, regional and local levels.

Jim’s travels in Europe, North Africa, India, Nepal and throughout Mexico have resulted in a keen appreciation of history and its relevance to architecture today.    Travel gives one an understanding of the surface effects of architecture, particularly in how buildings are seen in bright sunlight and how buildings relate to their surroundings and produce a rich and rewarding urbanism. Jim endeavors to give his contemporary buildings the visual richness of historical architecture.  This has led to some humorous confrontations with colleagues: When Jim arrived at the University of Arizona College of Architecture to teach a three-week, fourth year design class in 1995, Judith Chafee, a devout modernist, said she “…didn’t want to see any more brick patterns!” 

This interest in history led to Jim’s involvement in historic preservation and the pursuit of projects where new buildings are to be inserted into an historical or established building context. In the early eighties Gresham Larson executed the first major adaptive-use projects in Tucson. These were the Steinfeld Mansion, the Manning House, the Temple of Music and Art and the MacArthur Hotel. New buildings that Jim created within historic locations are the Sharlot Hall Museum Services Building in Prescott, Tucson’s Armory Park Senior Citizens Center, the Arizona State Office Building in Tucson, the Arizona Health Sciences Library, the City of Tucson Computer Operations Center and the Integrated Learning Center at the University of Arizona.   

In 1992 Jim led an effort to preserve Catalina High School, the very building by Nick Sakellar that had brought Jim to Tucson in 1956 and was featured in Architectural Record not long afterward. Although the school district was one of his firm’s major clients, Jim wrote an article for the Arizona Daily Star that protested the destruction of Catalina. With Kirby Lockard and Bob Vint, Jim was successful in changing the school district’s plans to replace the building.        

For many years, Jim was President of Patronato San Xavier, a citizens’ group devoted to the preservation of Mission San Xavier. During his tenure, the nearly ten-year restoration of the structure and the preservation of the interior artwork was commenced, a program that has received worldwide acclaim.

Jim was chairman of Tucson Tomorrow’s Urban Design and Planning Committee. This committee organized the combined Urban Land Institute and AIA/Rudat’s Tucson, Arizona the ULI/AIA Plan for Action in 1984. This program gathered together urban design professionals nationwide to address the design and planning needs of a rapidly growing community.    

During the 1970’s, Jim was active in AIA affairs. He is a past president of the Southern Arizona Chapter. He was twice president of the Arizona Society of Architects and was a leader in the reorganization of the Society, now AIA Arizona; this was an effort to make it a more representative and effective organization at the state level.   

Jim’s love of drawing and photography are current today. His drawings and photographs have twice been featured at the Meliora Architectural Gallery and at the College of Architecture in Tucson.

Upon the completion of the Integrated Learning Center at the University of Arizona and in May of 2002, Jim was featured in a front-page article in the Arizona Daily Star.  This article recounted Jim’s memories of stepwells in India that were the primary sources of his inspiration for the facility. After many years, Jim has come to realize that flexibility is the most important factor in present day architecture and that Mies van der Rohe must, therefore, be the most influential of all the great architects of the mid-century. Jim is proud of having lived at both extremes of modern architecture: first at a Mies inspired school and secondly with Bruce Goff in Oklahoma, and that he has been inspired by each. 

R. Brooks Jeffery
Director, Drachman Institute                              
Coordinator, Heritage Conservation Graduate Certificate Program