Peter Van Dijk, Architect Of Blossom Music Center, Dies At 90

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Update: A public memorial service for Peter van Dijk is set for Saturday, October 19 at 2 p.m. at Severance Hall in Cleveland. 

Renowned Cleveland architect, Peter van Dijk, died Saturday evening at the age of 90. 

An immigrant whose family came to the United States when he was a teenager, Van Dijk is best known for the pavilion at Blossom Music Center, but his work in Cleveland both created several original designs that have become modernist masterpieces and preserved several historical landmarks in the area. 

In marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of Blossom, van Dijk told ideastream: "What an opportunity to be entrusted with a building like this and for one of the greatest orchestras you know."

Van Dijk won numerous awards during his career including the 1969 Cleveland Arts Prize for architecture and a 2016 Cleveland Arts Prize special honoree. In 2000, he was awarded the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal, its highest honor. For his restoration work, he won numerous awards including honors from the Cleveland Restoration Society, the American Institute of Architects and National Preservation Honor Awards. 

A Representative of the "Richness of American Culture"

 

The Cleveland Arts Prize said that van Dijk's story spoke to the "richness of American culture, and of Cleveland as a meeting place of cultures."

Van Dijk was born in Indonesia, where his father worked as an engineer with Royal Dutch Shell. The family then moved to Venezuela for another assignment. It was that part of his life's journey that he believes led to his interest in architecture and design. 

In an interview with the Cleveland Arts Network, he said: "When my brothers and I lived in Venezuela we were out in the sticks and couldn’t buy things, so we made them. We made kites, models, a treehouse, and things like that.  And we were always drawing."

His family returned to Holland shortly before the outbreak of World War II, but not long after, his father moved the family once again to the Dutch colony of Curacao in the Caribbean to avoid the horrors of the war.

After 1945, the family returned to Holland before moving to the U.S. where Van Dijk attended high school and studied architecture at the University of Oregon. 

While Van Dijk was an undergraduate, famed architect Buckminster Fuller came to the school as a visiting scholar. Van Dijk and his fellow students built a geodesic dome with him. 

After two years in the US Army, he took advantage of the Korean War G.I. Bill to get a master's degree in architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After Van Dijk completed a Fullbright Scholarship in Rome, Pietro Belluschi,  the dean of the architecture school at MIT, introduced him to Eero Saarinen of St. Louis, who designed that city's landmark Gateway Arch. He joined Saarinen's firm in Michigan. 

An Unexpected Death and a Major Project in Cleveland

But Saarinen died quite unexpectedly at the age of 51, and van Dijk soon had an offer to work on a major project in Cleveland. 

Three Cleveland firms had been hired to work on the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building. While they agreed on a joint bid, they couldn't agree on a design. So they hired van Dijk to design the building and oversee the project. After the three-year contract, all three Cleveland firms made him job offers. He decided to join Schafer, Flynn & Associates, a firm that was founded by Abraham Garfield, the son of President James Garfield. 

That led to one of his signature projects: Blossom Music Center. The 37-year-old architect found himself working with Christopher Jaffe who brought expertise in acoustics to the project and structural engineer Richard Genser. To improve their designs, they studied other outdoor amphitheaters, including Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1936, and Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra has played during the summer since 1937. One major flaw they saw in the other projects: Their acoustics.

The trio created the curving roof of Blossom so that the sound would "expand and project,"  Van Dijk told the Cleveland Art Network. The design also reflected the surrounding landscape. 

Van Dijk admitted to being "nervous as hell" about meeting the legendary George Szell, then maestro of the Cleveland Orchestra, until Szell put him at ease by greeting him in Dutch. Szell had conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and picked up some of the language. 

Major Projects and a Pivot to Preservation

Blossom may be his best known commission, but Van Dijk went on to design numerous other buildings in Greater Cleveland area and across the United States including the Upper School at University School, John Carroll University’s Chapel and Rec Center, Cain Park Amphitheater and the Westlake Performing Arts and Rec centers. He also designed corporate headquarters for Parker-Hannifin, B. F. Goodrich, Lubrizol and Invacare.

He said that one of the more unexpected turns in his career was his move from designing modernist buildings to preserving historic landmarks. That work began when Huntington Bank approached him to redesign its grand lobby. Bank executives wanted to fill in the space with three floors of more modern offices. He convinced them to preserve what he thought was the "grandest bank in America."

That led to more preservation work including the effort to save Playhouse Square where he worked to restore the Palace, State and Ohio theaters. 

Hunter Morrison, Cleveland Planning Director who worked with van Dijk on the effort to save Playhouse Square theaters spoke of a study that van Dijk completed that showed how the theaters could be connected in a single performing arts complex.

“Peter provided the visuals but also the poetry because you have to have the poetry. You have to have something that's going to draw people in to say this there's another way. We don't have to tear them down,” Morrison said.

Over the entirety of his career, van Dijk was able to create new iconic buildings that people in the region look to with great affection, and he also made the case for saving the region's icons of the past. 

"Save what’s familiar. It’s what gives the city its character. These layers of history," he told the Cleveland Arts Network.

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