Weld Coxe dies at 81

Mon, 03/28/2011 - 3:10pm
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A cold, relentless rain fell out of a dark sky last Wednesday morning when news reached the island that Weld Coxe’s long battle with Parkinson’s disease was over. The end had come peacefully in the company of a son and daughter the night before at Cathedral Village, a nursing home in Philadelphia of which he had been a founding board member. He was 81, and the date was March 15, the Ides of March. How appropriate and how it might have bemused his cultured sensibility to die on a date of such distinction. True, he was no Caesar. That was not his style. But he was broadly if quietly effective during his long and successful public career as consultant and professional nag to American architectural firms; and later, here on Block Island, where for a quarter century his wise and gentle voice in a variety of voluntary venues distinguished itself, ever nudging the island to be a better place than it might otherwise have been.

In 2007, this newspaper made Weld Coxe its Bayberry Wreath laureate for that year. The words we used at the time, not meant to be elegiac in tone but joyful, nevertheless summed up the man’s life and contribution, particularly to Block Island. What follows plagiarizes shamelessly from that piece.

So what was Weld’s style? Self-effacing and low-key, but not without a little smile that seemed to say, “We both know I may be over doing it a bit.”

For instance, when the publishers told Weld he was their Bayberry choice, he was pleased, to be sure, but then asked with the customary twinkle in his eye, “But why? There’s hardly a project that I’ve been passionate about that has been realized.” True in part, but, as we said at the time, irrelevant.

In the course of three terms on the Planning Board (the last cut short by his growing battle with Parkinson’s), membership on numerous ad hoc committees, and cogent advice made at town meetings, his calm voice of reason has left an indelible impact on the communal Block Island intelligence.

When Weld spoke, it has been noted, a special quiet would come over the room. Ted Merritt, one of the regulars along with Weld at the Saturday morning men’s breakfast at the Harbor Baptist Church, has described his contribution there in terms that equally fit his sway at more secular gatherings. “He gave perspective to what is meaningful,” says Merritt, “ethically, morally and spiritually.”

How to care for the elderly, a civic plan for downtown Old Harbor, or tweaking the zoning regulations to accommodate affordable housing — whatever Weld’s subject happened to be, the common denominator was how to direct the island through the minefield of accelerating change.

For that task Weld Coxe — teacher, author and founder of a successful consulting business — came particularly well equipped. His first employment, after two years of college, was as a journalist (the Berkshire Eagle; the Arizona Republic; the Providence Journal). Why just two years of college? Because at Harvard, he explained, he spent so much time working for the Crimson, the Harvard University daily, time that should have gone to study, that he got booted out. Well, being forced to write lucid prose on deadline is a fine way to learn how to think and to persuade — and as it turned out, was probably more valuable than those last two years at Harvard. It also appears to have opened a door to a niche profession that he more or less invented: management consultant to architectural firms.

The challenge Weld discerned he once put this way: in the sea of commerce, opposing forces of business (the bottom line) and art (the artifact) can create destructive riptides. Especially vulnerable to these phenomena are architectural firms, where creativity bumps hard up against market place imperatives. The modus operandi of the company Weld founded, The Coxe Group — “the largest consulting firm specializing exclusively in work with professional design organizations” — would be to come on board and plot a course to calm the waters.

“Sometimes they would take our advice, and sometimes not,” Weld said. In either case, the company prospered, and The Coxe Group exists still, long after its founder retired in 1994. One of Weld’s proudest achievements from that time was his election as an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.

It is possible to see Block Island’s dilemma in somewhat the same terms. It is business, after all, that is essential to supporting the island as a viable community. Yet it is business — building houses, opening shops, restaurants and hotels, and the landing of tourists in unmanageable numbers — that is threatening the projected image of the island as nothing more than a simple 19th-century farming and fishing community.

That image is the poetry, the architect’s vision, if you will. How to protect it against the demands of the bottom-line is the challenge. And if there is an acceptable resolution to the dichotomy, it will come only after the sort of reasoned compromise Weld preached.

Weld Coxe arrived on the island in the late 1970s. “I’ve an affinity for New England,” he noted, “and this is it’s southernmost part.” It also happened to be closer to his then-home base in Philadelphia than Provincetown, where, as an addicted sailor, he had previously summered with his first wife, Georgia Mattison, who lives there still. Their marriage, which produced three children, Robin, who died in 1999, Sally and Donald, ended in divorce in 1976.

Weld’s architectural friend Herman Hassinger, who already had a house in Minister’s Lot, introduced him to Block Island. When a stunning four-acre parcel of land overlooking Sachem Pond came on the market, Hassinger bought it, and with two-acre zoning then in force, carved out a house lot that Weld took.

Weld, with his sailing companion Mary Hayden (who would shortly become his second wife), took the lower lot, an open meadow slanting down to Corn Neck Road and Sachem Pond. Their choice of architect turned out to be more significant that anyone could have imagined — except, perhaps the architect himself, William Venturi, a theoretician and teacher, regarded as one of the most influential architects of his time.

The simple, award-winning structures that evolved quickly assumed world-wide acclaim as the Coxe-Hayden House and Studio (1979). Pictures of them soon appeared in many architectural magazines and books. One of the latter names them, along with Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” and 24 other houses around the world, as the most significant of the 20th century.

The buildings also happen to be symbolic of Weld’s approach to problems. “Keep it simple, but make it architecture,” he instructed Venturi, a fellow Philadelphian and close friend. The two small buildings, which were actually built by Weld’s son, David, are just that, small, but, oh my!

The main house, three floors meticulously detailed, has living and kitchen below, bedroom and bath on the second floor, and on the third a writing studio that takes full advantage of the breathtaking view of Sachem Pond and the distant North Light.

“An architect should pay for the privilege of building a house on this site,” Weld quoted Venturi as saying when he saw it. “But of course, he didn’t; we did.”

The slightly smaller building bearing the same 12’-on-12’ roof pitch as its big brother, and standing just a few feet to the north of the main building, is two stories, a garage and workshop below, two guest-rooms and a bath above.

Perhaps just because the buildings are a little different, their appearance locally has elicited mixed reviews. Be that as it may, even before he opened his mouth, as the saying goes, Weld put his money where that faculty would be. Together the winterized buildings occupy no more than 1,600 square feet. Surely no homeowner could decry with more authority born of example the excessive impact of McMansions now affronting the island, or the imperative for the close clustering of buildings on a lot?

On and off the island, life moved on for Weld. His beloved Mary Hayden died of cancer after 13 years together. Weld, who traveled extensively for business — “our address for a time was Boeing 747” — found himself able to work more and more on the island until he was able to retire altogether from the Coxe Group.

Along the way he found another life companion and kindred spirit in Barbara MacDougall, herself an island phenomenon, who had some years earlier lost her own spouse to cancer. Together Weld and Barbara, who has master’s degrees in both education and divinity, soldiered on to make the island, as well as various other parts of the wide world, a better place for humanity — Barbara ministering to what, for a better word, one can call people’s souls, Weld more interested in the process of making good things happen.

Through his life, the setting for Weld’s work has mostly been boardrooms and committee meetings. But those are sterile places to say goodbye to him now. Let’s place him instead out on the water, where once again he had managed to “keep it simple, but keep it elegant.”

See him, then, as anyone might have a few summers ago, out on Great Salt Pond, competing in the Thursday evening races under his signature large-brimmed hat, conning his 14-foot catboat among the larger racing craft — Parkinson’s be damned! And what a boat it is, with its single sail, which winds off the mast so that it can be reefed from the cockpit, and its solar-charged, battery-run motor for maneuvering in and out of his slip at the Boat Basin.

Wind power and solar power are the forces that energize his little craft. Simplicity and fine design define the house he built. A keen intelligence governs both. Whatever element he moved in, Weld, with his visionary reverence for Block Island, pressed forward, leading by example.

—PSW

Weld Coxe is survived by his two children, Donald Mattison Coxe of Pawtucket and Block Island and Sally Mattison Coxe of Greencastle, Penn; and by three grandchildren, and four step children of Mary Hayden, Peter, Steven, Philip and David.

A Memorial Service and Internment will be held Saturday, March 26 at 2 p.m. at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Burlington, N.J. Reception to follow.

A second Memorial Service will be held on Block Island, probably on Memorial Day Weekend.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, a donation be made to the Block Island Conservancy or your favorite charity in Weld’s memory.