January 11, 2020
On January 11, The American Institute of Architects New Jersey Chapter installed Steven B. Lazarus, AIA, as 2020 President of the organization at the Inaugural and Awards Gala held in Ridgewood, NJ at The Treasury at Felina.
We are pleased to share Mr. Lazarus’s opening remarks:
Good evening, I am honored to be serving as the new president of AIA-NJ for 2020. I follow MANY great past presidents, but I feel especially lucky to follow Judy Donnelly, our outgoing president. Her guidance, generosity, and simply just being a beautiful human being have allowed me to start my term from a running position. We talk almost weekly; she has become my work wife. I intend to keep her close by during my presidency because I value her knowledge and insight. Thank you, Judy!
So, of course I asked Judy what tonight’s speech should be about, and she said it should be about ME! And as any dutiful work husband does, he follows the advice of his work wife. She told me to share with you that I might be one of the few presidents who has A LOT of tattoos. One day if interested I will be happy to show you. Well, now that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the story.
A little about the twinkling star I was born under when I was conceived in Chicago to Jewish immigrants from Germany. My mother was from Guxhagen, Germany where as a 19-year-old woman she was imprisoned in a town called Riga. There they were enslaved and surrounded by Nazis. After a year, she was transferred to a concentration camp in Poland. Her parents, brother and cousins all perished, but her sister was sent to America before the Nazi’s started their reign of terror. I often wonder why my mother wasn’t sent with her sister.
My paternal grandfather fought for the Germans in World War I against the Americans and was shot thru the hand and received the Iron Cross which I still have today. Before World War II started my grandfather started seeing the writing on the wall and took my father to Scotland.
My mother was eventually freed by the Russians and like a lot of Jews, she immigrated to America and landed in Chicago where her sister and other surviving relatives were. There she met my dad. I was their third child.
I was a mistake the night I was conceived, and 9 months later I was born in Woodland Hospital in Chicago. My father was working as a chef in the Palmer House and at the same time running a gambling operation. My father was given a choice jail or the Army. So, the Army it was and after my second birthday my father was transferred to Hawaii. There, I started my life of being accident prone. My first injury in Hawaii was getting bit on the arm by a German Shepard. Months later, I busted my head open playing on the monkey bars doing some stupid stunt, and then once again chasing my brother in the house, I slipped and hit the coffee table and busted the skin above my eye open and got 10 stiches. Don’t worry, I’ll be naming quite a few more incidents later.
After 3 years in Hawaii my father was reassigned to Stuttgart, Germany for another three years. My parents being German made it very convenient and we were stationed at the Army Base in Stuttgart. When I was around 6, my parents planned a wonderful family vacation through Europe. A few days before the trip, my brother and I decided to get on a swing together with me sitting and him standing (you see where this is going, right?). Well, for some reason I decided I wanted to get off that swing. Of course, my brother didn’t agree. I thought it was a brilliant idea to simply put my knee down on the ground to stop us. It would have all worked out except for that rock that happened to appear EXACTLY where my knee landed and my parents to say the least were not thrilled. I hobbled around on crutches for the entire trip.
After 3 years, to my sadness, we left Germany and moved back to the United States, first to Highlands, NJ where I injured myself again and my father refused to take me to the hospital. After 2 years we moved to Middletown NJ. It was in 8th grade that I decided I wanted to become a professional baseball player. The only OTHER thing I did very well was mechanical drawing, it came to me so easily. So, seeing my limitations playing baseball, having lack of talent and being white and Jewish, I decided baseball was not in my future.
I decided I wanted to be an architect. I should have stuck with baseball.
Junior year of high school I was ranked 21st out of 450 students in my class but going into 12th grade I partied a little too much so applying to architectural schools didn’t go very well. I got into Ohio University in Athens, Ohio but NOT the architectural program because it was being phased out. I decided to go anyway and see if I could talk my way into the program. Undeterred, I DID talk my way into the program for the last year. As luck would have it, there were two architectural students and 10 interior design students finishing up their last year. The two architectural students took me under their wing along with the two professors–Paul Lasseau and Frank Ching (author of a few architectural books you may have heard of). How lucky was I to have Frank Ching as a professor if only for one year? That year with Frank and my fellow students was an amazing year. Weekends were spent in studio along with a friend of Frank’s, Geoff Nishi, an architectural professor at Syracuse University who would come down to visit his girlfriend who was one of the interior design students still in the program. After too many all-nighters and partying with your professors, one evening Geoff said to me “young man, you are going to go to Cornell”. I said “I am?” I left Ohio University after a year and took the next year off. During That year, I went to work as a bartender at a restaurant called The Dam Site. It sat over a waterfall. Across the street was Charlie Browns, the same owner owned both restaurants. As a bartender we needed to go across to Charlie Browns for ice. Me and my fellow bartender would take turns going over as often as we could, because the waitresses wore short skirts and were very cute. That’s where I first saw my future wife bending over getting ice from the ice machine. She caught my eye; her name was Alyson. A few weeks later a friend and I went to a bar in Highlands NJ called the Down The Hatch. There she caught my eye once more the cute waitress. I made my move and she drove me home. She became the love of my life and from that moment my life changed forever when she became my wife.
So, during the year off I applied to three architectural schools, Cornell, NJIT, and Clemson. Months later, the letters came. First was the letter from Cornell which was my number 1 choice and I was accepted. Letter number 2 was from NJIT–a Ms. Rodriquez wrote “I am sorry but you’re not accepted and I advise you to get out of the architecture field; you have no future in the profession.” I was a little more than stunned.
A few days later, the acceptance letter from Clemson came. For days I looked at the letters from Cornell and Clemson and NJIT and I could not believe I got into one of the top under graduate programs in the country and NJIT told me to abandon the field. I often wonder what would have happened if I had listened to Ms. Rodriguez. Funny how things work out, isn’t it?
I graduated from Cornell School of Architecture after 5 years, got a job at Ventura Partnership now SNS and married Alyson.
In 1993 when my office was in the basement of our house, I was pulling down a full file box off my desk and my arm brushed up against a shop light along the wall with very sharp metal edges. I sliced my right forearm to the bone. Alyson my savior rushed me to the hospital. After getting to the hospital the surgeon who was going to operate on me was in New York at another hospital and 10 hours later the surgeon came in to look at my wound and then operated on my arm. I saw the surgeon a few years later and he mentioned that he was surprised I could still use my hand.
In 1996 I was playing basketball at the JCC in Tenafly and I was attempting to fake someone out with a spin move and my foot stayed where I was, and my knee went the opposite way. I tore my knee to shreds, ACL, Mencius. PCL, and MCL. Continuing in 1999 we went to Wyoming to visit my wife’s aunt and uncle. Uncle Mel decided it would be a good experience for me cut down a tree. Uncle Mel’s friend Dave came along. As we set out, Dave wisely said this was a lousy idea and he would spare me by finding a fallen tree by the side of the road. He said “trust me you don’t want to go into the woods and cut a tree down and then haul it out” and I whole heartedly agreed. We found one and Dave started to cut up the tree. We were supposed to haul the pieces into the back of the pickup truck. On the third piece, I knelt to lift the log up and I herniated the L5 S1 disc in my back. Dave’s solution to back pain was moonshine and it certainly worked …..for a bit. Dave was 280 lbs, Mel was 260 lbs and they both drank me under the table. I still needed surgery despite the moonshine.
In between all those injuries and surgeries, I was managing my architectural business. Years go by, various business partners, some better than others, until we get to my latest company formed in 2017 with 2 partners Ken Schier and Piero Gabucci–Axis Architectural Group.
I began my architectural practice in June of 1985 and got involved in Architects League a few years later. I would go to the meetings, listen, and eat, of course. I started to get more involved in the League as time went on, starting as events coordinator and eventually rose through the ranks and became 2012 Architects League President. What possessed me to start attending AIA-NJ Board Meetings as an Architectural League representative is beyond me (admit it, you’ve ALL has the same thought!). At the time we had to go to Trenton for all the quarterly meetings when Michael Hanrahan was AIA-NJ President. From there I got interested in ExCom. Around September 2015 I heard that a few ExCom positions were open. Well, Jack Purvis, past president of AIA-NJ, who was responsible for filling the ExCom positions found me and said, “young man, how would you like to become Treasurer for AIA-NJ?” I had to seriously think about that one.
I served as AIA-NJ Treasurer for 3 years. At that time NO ONE wanted to be Treasurer. So, I became Treasurer and after my first term was up, again NO ONE wanted to be Treasurer, so I stayed on for another two years. In my third year, Kim Vierhelig was be President Elect but she was appointed to the State Board of Architects and I decided to take her position. The only problem was finding someone to take my position as Treasurer. Well, to my astonishment Matt Pultorak stepped up to be Treasurer. I was elated… and quite relieved. Now after a year as President Elect, I am becoming AIA-NJ 2020 President.
What should architects be discussing this year? The political situation, and the socioeconomic and environmental issues facing this country and our own state of New Jersey, of course. We MUST think about our role as architects in engaging with questions of climate change, material depletion, national identity, to list just a few. These are important issues that need to be brought into contemporary architectural practice and theory. Can this force us to generate new ideas and new worlds rather than simply being reactionary to the problems?
For my year as 2020 President I would like to change a few things we do at our Board Meeting. Board meetings are not supposed to function on reports, they are based on policy making deliberative decisions and action items. I would like to facilitate a conversation about AIA National the Big Move which is rebranded now as Climate Action. In it is sustainability, resilience, and regenerative design which are standalone issues that can impact New Jersey architects in different ways. I believe in climate change but would also like to piggyback climate issues with housing, low income housing, homelessness, net zero, and urban redevelopment. These are the things that the public associate with architects. These discussions will hopefully engage the board and bring up substantive ideas and thoughts that will propel New Jersey into the forefront of these issues.
I would like us to continue our work on the program that Verity started—the K-12 program. We need to engage children in all walks of life, continue our involvement in schools, maybe expand our reach to churches and scout groups, and boys and girls clubs. I plan to work with each section President to expand this program. At this time we are trying to connect the program John Fallon is running in Newark with State Senator Ruiz who is very interested and is trying to secure monies for the program.
I want to thank my wife Alyson; I love you very much. With everything that is going on we will get through this together.
I’m sure quite a few of you here tonight share my haphazard journey on becoming an architect—it has made us ALL stronger. We need to share these stories with our younger members—success triumphs OVER adversity and BECAUSE of it.
I hope you’ve gotten to know me a bit better this evening, after all, that was the point of my rambling and tales of physical distress.
I look forward to being your 2020 AIA-NJ President. ~ Steven B. Lazarus, AIA
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Founded in 1857, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) consistently works to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings, neighborhoods, and communities. Through a dynamic network of more than 250 chapters and more than 95,000 member architects and design professionals, the AIA advocates for public policies that promote economic vitality and public wellbeing. Members adhere to a code of ethics and conduct to ensure the highest professional standards. The AIA provides members with tools and resources to assist them in their careers and business as well as engaging civic and government leaders and the public to find solutions to pressing issues facing our communities, institutions, nation and world. The organization’s local chapter, AIA New Jersey, has served as the voice of the architectural profession in the Garden State since 1900. Based in Trenton, AIA New Jersey has over 2,000 members across six sections. For more information, please visit http://www.aia-nj.org
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