Peter Vercelli, Architect
By Jane Anderson Vercelli
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 Facadism.
For Vercelli, the goal was to save the street front exterior of two 1796 townhouses on Pennsylvania Avenue, the last remaining of the historic Seven Buildings, incorporating the facades into the design for a new, $4.5 million, nine-story structure.
But he faced opposition from the citizen advocacy group, “Don’t Tear It Down,” whose leaders argued that the goal should be to save the buildings entirely and restore both the facades and the interior spaces.
Vercelli persuaded the opponents to support his effort by explaining that saving the 18th century buildings was financially impractical for the developer whose original intent had been to demolish them.
In 1989, Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey described the Mexican Embassy as “a project Washington preservationists love to hate, but it undeniably has the courage of its convictions.”
Forgey wrote that Vercelli “has added a striking and justifiably controversial new entry to the evolving lexicon of ways Washington designers have devised to combine new with old architecture.”
In a 2017 Energy Shrink Blog, Smita C. Thomas wrote that what sets the Mexican Embassy apart is the combination of windows and the fact that the entire face of the building is in shade.
“Stare at it a little closer and you realize that each floor overhangs the floor below, creating a cascade of cantilevers that follow the line of the sun’s shadow and help to keep the entire facade in shade. It’s done so subtly, it’s barely noticeable,” she wrote.
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.
The Mercer’s students were moved to Curtsey where they went to classes at Highfield College. On the night of Aug. 24, 1944, a bomb struck the school library, shattering glass in the nearby dorm. Vercelli, a senior prefect, was among those who led the younger boys from their beds to safety.
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, along with John Holbrook and Gary Sunderland, 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, he 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 of Roxbury, Conn., and cousins in England and Italy.
A memorial gathering of eulogies and music will be held in the spring. Burial in the Leroy Anderson family plot in New North Cemetery, Woodbury, will be private.
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 and back 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. He was 86.
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. He renovated his house in 2002.
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.
For his 70th birthday, he hiked from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the inner canyon, repeating the hike the following year. When he was 72, he hiked from the North Rim to the South Rim.
He was a longtime active member of the Village Improvement Society of Thompson, the volunteer organization which has maintained Thompson Hill Common for 150 years, and of the Thompson Historical Society, designing t-shirts and notecards with pen-and-ink drawings of Thompson buildings for the Old Town Hall Museum Shop.
For many years he was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Thompson Congregational Church which owns Thompson Hill Common. When the church steeple was replaced in 1991, he worked behind the scenes to insure that the new steeple would be the same design as the steeple that burned.
A prodigious reader, Vercelli spent time alone almost every day with books, mostly 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.
He said his favorite book of all was “Wind in the Willows” because “the character of Toad of Toad Hall mirrors my own life style.”
Memorial donations may be made to the Thompson Historical Society, Peter Vercelli Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 47, Thompson, CT 06277.
Jane Anderson Vercelli is a former news reporter for the Associated Press, UPI, Waterbury (Conn.) Republican and the Block Island Times.
Services are private and have been entrusted to the Gilman Funeral Home and Crematory, 104 Church St, Putnam, CT. For memorial guestbook, please visit www.GilmanandValade.com.