Peter Vercelli, 90

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 9:00pm

Peter J.B. Vercelli, 90, an award-winning architect who combined historic restoration and new design in commercial and residential projects in Washington D.C. and Connecticut, died Feb. 18 at his home in Thompson, Conn. He fell into a coma on Feb. 14 and never regained consciousness. 

Vercelli was the 1980 recipient of the first Design Award for Historic Restoration and Architectural Design given by the American Institute of Architects. The award was for the Flour Mill, a $36 million mixed-use project on the Georgetown waterfront in Washington D.C. 

The Flour Mill redevelopment project consisted of the oldest mill in Washington, built in 1845, which was restored on the exterior and adapted for offices in the interior, and a new 100,000-square foot building for commercial use at the street level with luxury condominiums above.

As the architect for the Embassy of Mexico at 1911 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., in the nation’s capital, Vercelli designed a new building that preserved the exterior of two 18th century buildings in a ground-breaking example of what has become known as Façadism. 

In a 2013 interview, Vercelli said, “The historic preservation projects have been the most difficult to achieve but the most rewarding ultimately.”

Peter John Biagio Vercelli was born June 30, 1928, in London, England, the son of Clotilde Coletta Vercelli and Luigi Benedetto Vercelli, the director of the Savoy Grill at the Savoy Hotel in London for 50 years.

As a young child spending summers in his father’s village, Mombercelli, Italy, Vercelli learned Italian before English. He was also fluent in French.

In London, he attended Mercer’s School and was a British Evacuee during Operation Pied Piper which began in 1939. He was among the Mercer’s School students who shared facilities with Collyer’s School in Horsham, Sussex. When this area turned into the front line of the 1940 Battle of Britain, the students were moved back to London.

A turning point in Vercelli’s life came on the night of Dec. 29-30, 1940, when he stood on an apartment building roof in Holborn and saw St. Paul’s Cathedral reflecting the red glow of London in a sea of flames. He said this instilled in him a desire to rebuild, which led him to pursue a life in architecture.

After serving in the Royal Air Force, he graduated with honors from the University of London in 1954 with a B.A. Architecture degree. From 1949 to 1954, he also worked in London for Heysham & Partners on the restoration of historic buildings and monuments damaged during World War II. 

Awarded a King George VI Memorial Fellowship, he came to the United States to attend Harvard Graduate School of Design. He earned his Masters degree in Architecture and Urban Design in 1956.

At Harvard, Vercelli met architect Walter Gropius who invited him to work at The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, Mass. When Paul Rudolph asked him to become an assistant professor of design at Yale University’s new Architecture School, he moved in 1958 to New Haven, Conn., and opened his own architectural office. 

Among other projects in Connecticut, he designed the Paier College of Art, Hamden; St. Thomas Convent, Southington; and the Science Building at Western Connecticut State University, Danbury. While designing Nonnewaug Regional High School in Woodbury, Conn., he met his future wife, then a news reporter and photographer for The Newtown Bee, at a Woodbury town meeting. 

In 1969, he was a founding principal of the International Consortium of Architects (ICON) in Washington, D.C. The firm’s first commission was the design of a major building at 11 DuPont Circle. 

In addition to residential work in the Washington D.C. area, ICON Architects designed projects in Brazil, Africa and the Middle East where Vercelli was the chief architect of a new city in Kuwait for the resettlement of 35,000 Bedouin nomads.

From 1982 to 1989, Vercelli served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts’ Old Georgetown Review Board which oversaw proposals for alterations, new construction and demolition visible to the public ranging from multi-million dollar projects to modifications to a garden gate in the historic district of Georgetown.

In 1982, Vercelli established a solo practice in Washington D.C. until 1989 when he moved to Connecticut and opened a studio adjacent to the 1806 Federal style house in which he and his family lived in the Thompson Hill Historic District. In northeast Connecticut he designed new houses and renovated existing buildings to combine restoration and new construction.

“On a personal level, residential work is the most rewarding for me,” he said.

He leaves his wife of 46 years, Jane Anderson Vercelli, of Thompson, Conn., and Block Island, R.I.; two sons, Anders (and Lydia) Vercelli and Lars (and Laura) Vercelli, both of New York, N.Y.; three grandchildren, Kate, 3, Luke, 2, and Ivy, 1; two brothers-in-law, Rolf Anderson of Montgomery, Vt., and Kurt Anderson and his son, Ivan, of Roxbury, Conn., and cousins in London, England, and Mombercelli, Italy.

A memorial gathering will be held Saturday, May 4, at noon at Pomfret School’s Clark Chapel, in Pomfret, Conn.

While his consuming passion was architecture, Vercelli believed that intellectual effort was enhanced by athletic activity, which he pursued from his school days on. 

His favorite team sports were soccer and crew at the University of London where he was proud to have rowed at Henley in 1952. Over the years, he skied in New England, Austria, Italy and Switzerland.

As a boy, he learned to swim in a pool, but as an adult, he preferred to swim in the ocean. His personal dreams included owning a cottage by the sea. From the moment he stepped off the New London ferry at New Harbor in the late 1960s, he was passionate about everything Block Island. 

In 1973, he bought a summer cottage in Minister’s Lot. Until 1991, he refused to have a telephone installed because he wanted to be off the grid. He loved to ride his bicycle the two miles into town to buy groceries and the newspaper. 

Vercelli loved to swim off Mansion Beach. Out beyond the breaking waves, he swam the front crawl with a powerful upper body stroke in a rhythm that allowed him to relax in the water and say later that he nearly fell asleep. People on the beach who saw him swimming had a different reaction. They found the sight terrifying because he was swimming so far from shore.

To celebrate his 65th birthday, he made the strenuous four-mile, round-trip swim in the chilly Atlantic from Jerry’s Point at Mansion Beach to the town in Old Harbor. He continued swimming out beyond the breakers parallel to the shore until 2014. 

On Block Island, he provided architectural guidance for the 11 cottages in Minister’s Lot Homeowners Association as they were winterized and renovated into houses over more than 40 years. In 2002, he renovated his cottage in Minister’s Lot. 

He admired the village aspect of cluster housing and the saltbox style of the detached Minister’s Lot cottages. To him, the most important elements to maintain were the dominance of the saltbox shape and the directionality of the houses. Today, each house is unique but all of them share these critical architectural elements, creating a pleasing sense of order in the landscape. 

“I think of them as a flock of sand pipers at the beach, all facing the same direction,” he said.

To explain the compatibility of the saltbox shape to the island environment, he wrote an article for The Block Island Times and illustrated it with his own drawings. 

A prodigious reader, Vercelli spent time alone almost every day with books, mostly on history and science. “Reading is bred into you as part of an English education,” he said. 

Until a few days before he sank into a coma, he was reading David McCullough’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, “Mornings on Horseback,” along with the daily print New York Times.

His favorite book of all was “Wind In the Willows.” “The character of Toad of Toad Hall mirrors my own lifestyle,” he said. 

Memorial donations may be made to the Block Island Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box 781, Block Island, R.I. 02807. 

Jane Anderson Vercelli is a former news reporter for the Associated Press, UPI, Waterbury (Conn.) Republican and The Block Island Times.