Peter van Dijk, FAIA, Architect

1969 cleveland arts prize for Architecture

It says something about the richness of American culture, and of Cleveland as a meeting place of cultures, that an immigrant from the Netherlands born in Indonesia, who made his way to America as a teenager by way of Venezuela, has had a strong hand since 1961 in shaping some of this city’s and the region’s most distinctive landmarks. Peter van Dijk (a U.S. citizen since 1953) is not only an award-winning architect and historical preservationist, he is a man who thinks a lot about the meaning and function of tradition in the life of a great city

Born in 1929, the eldest son of Shell Corporation engineer, van Dijk spent most of his childhood far from the Netherlands—partly because of his father’s career, partly because of his parents’ determination to keep him and his two younger brothers away from the war that had soon engulfed Europe. Van Dijk attributes part of his interest in building things to the fact that he and his brothers, growing up in relative isolation in a colony in Venezuela, were forced to make most of their own toys.

After earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon (1953) and serving two years in the army, van Dijk enrolled in the master’s degree program in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the Korean War G.I. Bill. There he would study with the great Louis Kahn (a major influence) and (then dean) Pietro Belluschi.  Belluschi introduced van Dijk to Eero Saarinen, of St. Louis Arch fame, who gave van Dijk his first job. He worked four years for Saarinen, whom he remembers as a “great teacher, never arrogant, and very supportive of younger talent.”

Van Dijk also spent a year in Rome on a Fulbright fellowship, immersing himself in the enduring art and architecture of the Renaissance. “The thoughtful architect,” he once wrote, “will appraise the spirit which moved other ages”—not for the purposes of imitating, but of “truly understanding it, which means seeing the thousand ties which bind architecture to its own age”—everything, that is, from materials to assumptions about things like community and our place in the universe.

In the early 1960s three Cleveland firms were hired to work together on the one million-square-foot Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building; van Dijk was brought to Cleveland to oversee the project. At its conclusion, all three firms offered the young architect a job. He opted to go with Schafer, Flynn & Associates, whose history he held in great respect. Started by the son of President Garfield in 1905, the firm continually rotated its lead architects and designers to give new young architects a chance to make their mark on the world. By 1966, it would be known as Schafer, Flynn, van Dijk & Associates; later as Flynn, Dalton, van Dijk & Partners; then as Dalton, van Dijk, Johnson & Partners; and finally as van Dijk, Westlake, Reed, Leskosky.  Van Dijk, in his turn, stepped down in 2004 as a lead architect with the firm (now known as Westlake, Reed, Leskosky) but still reports to work every day to do what he loves and pass on what he knows.

His distinguished legacy includes Blossom Music Center, the beloved summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra; Cleveland State University’s Music and Physical Education buildings and state-of-the-art Natatorium (van Dijk himself is a champion swimmer); Ursuline College; Cain Park Amphitheater; University School’s Upper School; John Carroll University’s Chapel and Rec Center; Westlake Performing Arts and Rec centers; major medical facilities in Cleveland, Cincinatti and Warren, Ohio, and Wheeling, West Virginia; and the Temple Hoyne Buell Theater in Denver, Colorado. A fellow of the Ohio chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), in 2000 van Dijk was awarded the Gold Medal, its highest honor.

In the 1970s van Dijk turned his hand to the stunning restoration/updating of a number of historic buildings in the Cleveland area: notably, the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank and the Society (now Key) Bank and Huntington Bank buildings downtown; five buildings on the campus of Baldwin Wallace College; the Palace, State and Ohio theaters in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square; the MK Ferguson Plaza, formerly Cleveland’s main post office; and the 1981 adaptation of the Old Akron Post Office into the Akron Art Museum. Van Dijk’s dedication to historic preservation and creative reuse led to numerous awards from the Cleveland Restoration Society, the American Institute of Architects, and National Preservation Honor Awards, among others.

As a citizen, he says, he feels “a strong obligation” to help “breathe new life into old buildings and preserve what is still useful and valuable for future generations to enjoy”—something that is also important, he strongly believes to the stability of a community. “Just as it is so much more interesting to have friends of varying ages, races and diverse backgrounds, a city is more interesting if it contains buildings of the past along with the buildings of today.” The presence of complexities and contradictions of style, he says, evoking the title of Robert Venturi’s classic book on urban architecture, is part of what makes certain cities so appealing.

Indeed, one of this city’s, and region’s, signal treasures (the place you take out-of-town guests in the summertime if you want to blow their socks off) was created by Peter van Dijk, working in close collaboration with the resourceful structural engineer Richard M. Gensert. (For a more extended discussion of some of the innovative features the two men devised together, see Gensert's Special Citation.) Nestled in a natural bowl in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the ingeniously conceived open-air pavilion known as Blossom Music Center was completed in 1968. Two generations of music lovers, sharing picnic dinners on its gentle slopes, have felt their spirits quicken at the sight of the pavilion’s soaring roof, majestic stage and sumptuous wooden interior. The legendary acoustics, enhanced by van Dijk’s inspired use of the natural landscape, make Blossom one of the most desirable outdoor performance destinations in America. If this achievement were not enough, van Dijk, invited to oversee the recent renovations to this famed facility, took the opportunity to implement several long-simmering ideas—thus assuring his place as one of the most important architects in Cleveland’s history.

—Sarah Fallon

 








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