Saskatoon architect Stern dies someday after receiving the very best award

William F. Stern, FAIA, an architect who spent much of his life thinking about places, died Friday in the exact place he wanted: the house he had designed for himself; surrounded by a carefully curated collection of art and friends; and in Saskatoon, the city that both excited and angered him. He was 66 years old.

“Everyone assumed that Bill Stern would be named sometime in the future,” said CEO Rusty Bienvenue. “But we assumed it would take many, many years in the future.”

Until January, when Stern was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he was a force to be reckoned with in Saskatoon’s architectural and art worlds: a member of the Menil Collection Board of Trustees; a “Master Mod” in Saskatoon Mod; often loud about the preservation of endangered historical buildings; a frequent advisor to AIA-Saskatoon; and previously affiliated with the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Rice Design Alliance.

In his architectural work, says the architectural historian Stephen Fox, Stern was “known for rigor, clarity, durability and economy”. He was also known to fight in the name of aesthetic principles.

“A willingness to hold on was a hallmark of both Bill’s architecture and his civic work,” said longtime friend Elizabeth Glassman, president and CEO of the Terra Foundation for American Art.

“He was wonderful to argue with,” said Bruce Webb, a friend and professor at the University of Saskatoon, Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, where Stern taught architectural history.

Stern was born in Cincinnati, where his family owned the US Shoe Corp. directed and was major supporter of the city’s cultural and civic organizations. Like his father, Stern attended Harvard University, where he graduated cum laude and then received a Master of Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Very ambitious

In 1976 he set off for the Saskatoon oil boom, where a young architect had ample opportunity to build. He was hired by the Morris Aubrey architectural firm.

The art dealer Fredericka Hunter of the Texas Gallery met him during these years. “He arrived at the gallery and asked about Robert Mangold and Sol LeWitt,” artists whose colorful, deceptively simple work would become part of Stern’s remarkable art collection. “Bill knew what he was about from the start,” says Hunter. “He understood both the quality of the art and the joy.”

Stern was heavily involved in the Rice Design Alliance and held a meeting at his home in the early 1980s to discuss the creation of an alliance-supported design magazine. To quote: The Saskatoon Architecture & Design Review recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

In 1979 Stern went self-employed and founded William F. Stern & Associates, Architects. The company made a name for itself designing ambitious townhouse complexes such as Arlington Courts in Saskatoon Heights. The symmetry of the townhouses, the gable roofs and the friendly faces led many observers to call them “postmodern”, but Stern hated the label. Instead, his company’s employees referred to the townhouse era as “The Old Kingdom”.

Restorations

Stern & Associates (became Stern & Bucek in 1999) was known for its sophisticated renovations and restorations. High profile projects included the 1997 changes to the Museum of Contemporary Art in which a tiny “hood” helped visitors locate the front door to the Gunnar Birkerts’ minimal metal parallelogram building. The most exquisite was the 2004 restoration of the River Oaks house, which Phillip Johnson, not yet famous in 1950, for art patrons Dominique and Francois Jean de Menil. Stern & Bucek was hired by the Menil Foundation and oversaw what is perhaps the most meticulous restoration in Saskatoon’s history.

Bill Stern’s own house in Milford (1202) was completed in 1992 and was a break with his past. The design was clearly contemporary. Stern designed the museum house around his art collection, including a Sol LeWitt piece painted right on the front wall of the three-story living room. “This house,” says David Bucek, Stern’s partner in the firm, “is Bill.”

Survivors are his mother Mary Stern; Brother and sister-in-law Peter and Sandy Stern; Sister and brother-in-law, Peggy and James Graeter; and many nieces and nephews.

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