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James Christopher, the architect whose use of concrete and indirect and natural light were part of designs for buildings such as Snowbird resort and Nunemaker Place at Westminster College, died Tuesday. He was 85.
Christopher died from complications due to progressive supranuclear palsy, an uncommon brain disorder.
But for about half a century before that, the award-winning architect helped bring Salt Lake City into a modern style, while also helping preserve its past. Christopher's designs include Rowland Hall Lower Campus, St. James Episcopal Church, Congregation Kol Ami synagogue and Red Butte Gardens and Arboretum's visitor center. In the 1960s, he also helped prepare Salt Lake City's Second Century Plan, according to Real Estate News Utah. The plan was meant to help return a declining downtown to its prominence. It continues to provide a foundation for the city's urban planners, including the Downtown Rising plan.
"Salt Lake, when I came here, was a brick town. Really a brick town. And wood, which I was used to using, was a no-no, a cheap alternative," Christopher said in a 2012 interview with Salt Lake Modern, a committee of the Utah Heritage Foundation. "… And so wood is not a new material certainly. But our firm helped introduce wood to the public."
That firm was Brixen & Christopher Architects, which he co-founded in 1963 with Martin Brixen, a man he met while teaching at the University of Utah. With a focus on modern design and historical preservation, their Salt Lake City firm went on to win local, regional and national awards.
In the firm's early years, Christopher landed the high-profile job of designing as part of a team the master plan, tram and other buildings of a new ski resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon: Snowbird.
The founder, Ted Johnson, was adamant that Snowbird not look "alpine lodgey," according to a 2012 newsletter from the Utah Heritage Foundation. Because of the canyon's steep terrain and what land was available, the only choice was to make the resort compact and dense.
Kim Smart, Christopher's daughter, remembers her father talking about the resort's development. It was important to him to build up, not out.
The master plan concentrated development on only a few acres, "thereby keeping the maximum amount of land in its virgin state rather than defacing hundreds or thousands of acres with smaller buildings and their necessary roads and utilities," the 2012 foundation newsletter adds.
And when it came to the resort's buildings, such as the Inn and the Lodge, Christopher wanted to blend them with their surroundings. "Context," a building's place, was always important to him.
"He used to say, now look at this mountain," said Myron Richardson, who was a fresh architect at Brixton & Christopher when his boss and mentor was working on Snowbird. Christopher would point out the canyon walls and say, "you look around, it isn't trees and wood. What you see is rock. It's stone, that's what you see everywhere."
Nowadays, people still consider his work at Snowbird to be modern, even though it's more than 40 years old, Richardson pointed out. "I think it's because he took some modern forms and some modern materials, but used them in a very sensible ways in the mountains," he said.
The resort was one of two projects close to Christopher's heart; the other was Nunemaker Place at Westminster College. Though it now houses the school's honors program, it was intended as a spiritual (and nondenominational) chapel for tranquility and reflection.
"It's still spectacular," Smart said. She pointed out how U. students still trek to Westminster's campus each year to see the building, which has won numerous architectural awards.
James Walker Christopher was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 5, 1930, and spent his childhood in Audubon, N.J. He loved visiting the Maryland shore, as well, where he loved to sail, according to his obituary.
Carolyn Christopher first met him on a blind date in Boston, when he was still in the U.S. Navy. As they walked around the city, Carolyn found Christopher to be a fun man. They were engaged three months later.
After earning a master's at MIT, he was hired to the University of Utah's architecture school. They moved to Salt Lake City, sight unseen.
Once becoming established in the city's architecture community, Christopher was dedicated to preserving the city's historic buildings, which were being rapidly replaced by apartments, parking lots and strip commercial centers, according to the Utah Heritage Foundation. The loss led to a historic preservation movement.
That sense of preservation can be seen in work like the expansion of the Sprague Branch of the Salt Lake City Library. Rather than expand on the historic building, with its gabled roofline and colorful combination of reds, browns, and pale-ivory terracotta accents, Christopher opted to mostly build down with a basement, so as not to detract from the library's beauty.
"That's something that Christopher taught me: respect what's there," Richardson said. "You don't always have to do everything new all the time."
For his preservation work, the foundation recently awarded Christopher with the Lucybeth Rampton Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2010, the Utah Chapter of the American Institute of Architects also honored Christopher with a lifetime achievement award.
A few years ago, he designed his final building: a home for Smart.
"It was the greatest gift he could have ever given me," she said, praising its design.
"He was always so kind and caring and never had a harsh word," Smart said. "He was wonderful. … [And] he led by example."
At home, he would talk about the projects he was working on at the dinner table, from the intricacies of the Congregation Kol Ami synagogue to a junior high school, Smart said. He was always sketching ideas, but he also made time for his five children, including teaching them to ski and trying to pass on his love of golf.
Christopher was preceded in death by his brother, Bob. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Carolyn Christopher; five children; 13 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Services will be 4 p.m. April 28 at All Saints Episcopal Church, 1710 Foothill Drive in Salt Lake City.