Brooklyn Heights

Remembering Joseph Merz: architect, urban advocate and Brooklyn fixture

July 3, 2020 Dave King
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Joseph G. Merz, an architect, preservationist and urban advocate who worked nationally but was particularly associated with a small corner of Brooklyn, passed away March 1 at Montefiore Hospital in Mount Vernon, New York at the age of 92. According to his children, the cause of death was sepsis leading to organ failure.

In 1963, Joe Merz had a young family and a small but respected practice with his wife Mary, also an architect, after the couple borrowed $11,000 from Mary’s father to purchase four vacant lots in a rundown neighborhood on the south edge of Brooklyn Heights.

The properties, located in an area known as Willowtown, were being sold at city auction, and the price was depressed because Robert Moses was weighing construction of a BQE exit ramp along State Street at the end of Willow Place, a one-block street two blocks from Pier 5.

On the four lots, Merz Architects designed and built three prizewinning townhouses with backyard gardens, fitting two single-lot homes and a double-lot unit into a neglected mix of brownstones, small church buildings and gothic and classical facades. The homes were linked visually by their materials, a combination of redwood with custom-designed concrete block scored to read visually as eight-inch squares.

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This is the award-winning house Merz designed for Leonard Garment, noted White House counsel for Richard Nixon, who was also a liberal Democrat and Brooklyn native, and who had voted for John F. Kennedy. Nevertheless, he was so respected as legal counsel that Nixon hired him. Garment is credited with persuading Nixon to resign. Photo: Josh Ross

The block, says the AIA Guide to New York City, is “used with sensitivity and imagination [and] assumes a dignity that most thoughtless users miss by a mile.” The first building completed, at the corner of Willow and State, would become the office of Merz Architects and a residence for the Merz family.

According to the AIA Guide, the project revitalized the area. For the three houses together, Merz Architects won the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects Award for sensitivity to neighborhood scale and excellence in design in 1969; and the double-lot home, the Leonard Garment House at 40 Willow Place, was awarded the Architectural Record Award of Excellence for House Design. The scored blocks would become a signature material in Merz projects.

Following the Willow Place project, Merz Architects redesigned the headquarters for the Dreyfus Fund in the GM Building and designed homes for Ahmet Ertegun, August Hecksher and Whitelaw Reid, among others.

Merz Architects also worked for the Department of the Interior, designing and overseeing alterations to the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials to make them wheelchair-accessible; and for the National Parks Service, consulting on a range of initiatives, including all five primary Bicentennial Development Projects.

But their most significant work remained in Brooklyn. For years, students from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Design would travel to Willow Place to consider the combination of modern and historical building stock. The Merzes were known, says their daughter Amy, for inviting the students into the studio for coffee and design chats.

The building located at the corner of Willow and State would become the office of Merz Architects and a residence for the Merz family. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle File

Joseph George Merz Jr. was born January 2, 1928 in St. Albans, Queens, and grew up in Flatbush. His parents, Joseph George Merz, a metalworker, and Margaret (Stegman) Merz, a nutritionist, had emigrated from Germany after the First World War, and the family spoke both German and English at home. Merz Jr. fished and camped out in Prospect Park on summer nights and grew up loving culture, especially opera and buildings.

At age 17, to earn tuition to attend Pratt Institute, Merz took a job as an office boy in the studio of architect Antonin Raymond, who had worked with Cass Gilbert and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others. From his father he’d learned the value of craft, particularly all things handmade, and from Raymond he developed an appreciation for functional everyday materials. These values would define his visual, structural and social aesthetic throughout his career.

Upon graduating from Pratt, Merz was accepted by the Harvard School of Design, where he hoped to study with Walter Gropius. Instead, he was drafted and, because of his language skills, sent to Germany with U.S. Army Intelligence. Tasked with creating an evacuation route against a Russian invasion, Merz and a buddy used their intelligence capabilities to track the whereabouts of major opera singers — reasoning that in the event of an invasion, the entire American Army might as well head for the Berlin Opera.

After his service, Merz was again accepted at Harvard, but as Gropius was no longer teaching regularly, he returned to Pratt, where he met Mary Ellen Linberger, of Youngstown, Ohio, in a class taught by Philip Johnson. Linberger was two years older and a year ahead of him in the Masters of Architecture Program.

After earning his Masters and working briefly for Jose Sert and Morris Lapidus, Merz joined Mary in the office of Edward Larrabee Barnes. There he participated in the rebranding of Pan American Airlines, which was seeking to position itself as an American icon, and worked on the team that created its distinctive globe (or “blue meatball”) logo. In 1957, he and Mary were married and formed their own firm, Merz Architects.

Throughout their design careers, both Merzes remained committed to advocacy and public space, particularly green spaces. In 1962 they worked with the Brooklyn Historical Society to establish a Design Advisory Council, providing free architectural guidance to property owners, and in over five years they consulted on more than a hundred projects across the borough.

Joining with Parks Commissioner August Hecksher to create a Match-a-Tree Fund, they planted several hundred neighborhood trees, earning a commendation from the Park Association of New York City. They renovated a community center on Willow Place, designed a playground and community garden at Columbia and State streets and consulted for decades on the fate of the BQE.

In 1975, the Merzes were named joint curators of Prospect Park. In time, their garden philosophy had shifted from the original formal layout of their Willow Place backyard to an aesthetic of unrestricted growth and wildlife, and in an interview with The New York Times they expressed a philosophy of minimal incursion into the “paraphrase of the countryside” described by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

“The essential experience in the park is to be a part of nature,” Mary Merz said at that time. “Let the people walk through, see the grass and birds. I think I would sacrifice a ballfield for some trees and grass.”

Joe and Mary Merz, partners in architecture and life. Photo courtesy of Katie Merz

It was an aesthetic Joe Merz would promote vigorously over the years, most recently in protesting designs for Brooklyn Bridge Park that recast open space as a range of recreational facilities.

At a public hearing in 2015, he said, “Imagine, along with me, how Pier 6 can make a significant change in the remaining development of the park. Imagine Atlantic Avenue as a new tree-lined boulevard and cousin to the Olmsted-designed Eastern Parkway … imagine … a children’s working garden, similar in operation and purpose to the century-old Brooklyn Botanic Garden.”

“For Dad,” said his son John, “Design was integrally connected to context; he seemed obsessed with finding the rhythm between building and context. If you talked with him about a house, it related to a block, a block to a neighborhood, a neighborhood to a city, a city to the region, then the nation, and eventually, you were considering the whole national political climate. He truly believed good architecture and aesthetics would transform the world, and he found poor design a kind of metaphysical offense.”

Mary Merz died in 2011. Joe Merz is survived by a sister, Elma Merz Westney, of Bradenton, Florida; four children, Juliana Merz, Katie Merz and the Reverend John Merz, all of Brooklyn, and Amy Merz of Seattle; as well as four grandchildren and five nieces and nephews.

At Merz Architects, Mary Merz was the more retiring partner, focused on problem solving and the nuances of experience. Joe Merz was outgoing; he loved to perform and talk culture, and he remained an opera enthusiast all his life.

“He had a collection of wigs, kerchiefs, puppets, and other accouterments in the ground floor hall closet,” his daughter Juliana recalled. “Brought out to add flair to spontaneous impersonations for our high school classmates, or at evening get-togethers or really any time the mood struck.”

Merz also remained an irrepressible booster of architecture and design. For decades he visited Saint Ann’s School annually to speak with third graders about the beauties of architecture. “He made himself a hat that looked like the Duomo in Florence and wore it every single time he taught,” said his daughter Katie.

Until just days before his death, Joe Merz remained a fixture in his part of Brooklyn, recognized by neighbors of all generations. On Feb. 22, he was out with a daughter and friends at a restaurant on Montague Street. The party kept being interrupted by well-wishers, several of whom recognized Merz from those third-grade class visits, and when someone asked what he was working on, he responded, “Right now I’m working on seeing Der Rosenkavalier at the Met!”

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  1. judifrancis

    Joe was a wonderful civic colleague, neighbor and friend. He was on the board of my organization, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund, but your article is wildly incorrect on important facts regarding his engagement with the park. Joe did NOT have a problem with active recreation in the park – hardly. He DID have a very large problem with private housing inside the borders of a public park. He also decried the lack of a Master Plan for the park, having participated in the park’s original planning process that had a well developed plan with provisions for how visitors would arrive, how the park connected to the entire waterfront and to existing communities, and what visitors would do there. The original park plan, unveiled with great celebration in 2002, was completely abandoned for the condo-park that revolved around luxury real estate interests, first and foremost. Bloomberg and deBlasio abandoned the park plan that had the community’s full support – a plan that provided for arrivals down Atlantic and Fulton streets, robust recreational features long needed (indoor and outdoor pools, ice rink, playing fields and passive recreational areas) but also planned for infrastructure to aid visitors in safe passage and one that integrated the park more closely with the surrounding communities -communities that so desperately needed park lands (and still do). Our waterfront requires good planning, and respect for community engagement, and Joe, to the very end, despaired of the lack of it in the van Vallkenburgh iteration of Brooklyn Bridge Park.