Man With the Plans

Jesse Beck uses an architect’s passion for planning to steer Freeman French Freeman Inc. into the next century

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke; Architectural photos: Westphalen Architectural Photography

Whether you put your faith in the nature or nurture theory of human personality, Jesse Beck’s career choice makes sense. The president of Freeman French Freeman Inc. of Burlington credits his interest in architecture to his father, a retired builder, and to the funky round house in Shelburne that was Beck’s childhood home.

Representing the third generation of ownership of one of the oldest architectural firm in the state, Beck, 41, puts the same thoughtful planning into the future of his business as he does into the variety of construction projects his firm designs. When the company’s previous owner, Bill Wiese, was featured on the cover of this magazine 10 years ago this month, Beck had recently joined the firm. His hiring was a strategic step in passing ownership to the next generation. “They really wanted the firm to continue another 60 years,” says Beck. “That meant finding young blood.”

Jesse Beck

Jesse Beck represents the third generation of ownership of Burlington’s Freeman French Freeman Inc. Founded in 1937, the architectural firm is the oldest in Vermont. “One of our goals is to have fun,” says Beck, “and that means doing a variety of projects.”

From age 13 Beck spent summers working in heavy construction for his father: Allan Beck owned Beck & Belucci Construction Co., a bridge construction business he sold to a New Hampshire contractor eight years ago. Mother Lari was a registered nurse. Both are retired and live in South Burlington.

The family’s round home was designed by Marcel Beaudin — “He’s a brilliant, local architect,” offers Beck — and built by Beck’s father. “My father wanted something unique. Why round? I guess to capture views of the lake,” he says as if pondering the question for the first time. “You’d have to ask Marcel!” (Don’t look for the house on Shelburne Point: It was purchased last summer and torn down.)

A love of unusual architecture wasn’t the only trait Allan Beck passed on to his son: Both are skiing fanatics. Allan, in his 70s, stopped competitive racing three years ago, but still manages to ski all winter, even though he and his wife spend that season in Florida. For Jesse, the call of the slopes led him to take a year off after graduating from CVU in 1974 to try to make the U.S. Ski Team. “I wasn’t good enough,” he says, “so the next level is NCAA skiing, which means you’ve got to get into college!

“I knew I wanted to be an architect even before I took that year off. I knew I wanted to continue my ski racing. So I got a list of all the schools in the U.S. that had schools of architecture. And then I got a list of the ski teams in the top 10. It came down to two choices: Utah and Dartmouth.” Beck chose the University of Utah at Salt Lake City.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1979 on a ski scholarship allowed Beck to experience the big mountains out West. “I did race NCAA for a couple of years, then turned pro and skied on the American Pro Tour for two years,” he says.

The pressure of competing simultaneously on the ski circuit and in Utah’s architectural graduate program forced him to make a choice. Even though he was ranked in the top 30 of the 150 skiers on the tour, he dropped out to focus on what he saw as his career. He earned his master’s degree in architecture in 1982.

After grad school, Beck headed to the Lone Star State. “Texas was spending money like you wouldn’t believe because of the oil boom,” he says. Hitching up with Morris Aubry Architects in Houston, a 260-architect firm, gave Beck exposure to big-time projects: high-rises, retail malls and the like. He adds, “We even did work with Phillip Johnson,” an architect some consider on par with greats Mies Van Der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I did that for three or four years and the bottom fell out,” Beck says. “The oil business just completely imploded and there was no work at all.” Fancying himself a four- seasons kind of guy, he headed back East, choosing Boston over New York, and battled Hurricane Gloria to win a job. “I was running around Boston and everybody wanted to flee. They were taping up windows — boarding up windows — because Boston rarely ever sees hurricanes.” When the dust settled, Beck found himself with Benjamin Thompson & Associates, a 100-member firm known for its waterfront markets.

Three years later a phone call changed his life.

“I was in a job trailer in Connecticut — a huge $112 million construction project — and we get somebody running down the trailer saying, ‘The governor of Vermont is on the phone!’” recalls Beck with a laugh.

Beck grew up an only child on Shelburne Point, where his next-door neighbors were the Snellings. Richard Snelling “was like a mentor to me,” says Beck. “He’d always tracked my education — give me a call at Christmastime and if I was in town I’d pop over and show him what I had been up to.

“I panicked. I said, ‘Oh my God! My parents have been killed! What’s he doing calling me at the job trailer?’”

The call turned out to be nothing so ominous. Snelling had a hot job lead: His sailing buddy, the owner of a certain Burlington architectural firm, had mentioned he needed to find the next generation to lead the company. Wiese and co-owner Fred Sentfleber had been with Freeman French Freeman 45 years and were looking to retire. The governor’s call “completely changed my life,” recalls Beck, “because I had no intentions of moving back to Burlington.

“At Ben Thompson the projects were so exciting and so dynamic that I wanted to keep going. They were even considering sending me to Ireland to manage a huge, multi- million-dollar commercial retail development in Dublin,” he says. “So the choice came down to: Do I move to Burlington, Vt., or do I move to Dublin, Ireland? One of these days I’m going to make it to Dublin, but I haven’t yet!”

He says, “It was really the opportunity to lead a firm to a new generation and to have an impact” that brought him back to Burlington. “I knew at some point along the way I’d like to create a business entity that I would be running.” Wiese retired three years ago and Sentfleber divested the following year, making Beck president and sole owner of the 17-member firm.

Burlington Airport/The Grille One of our goals is to have fun,” Beck offers, “and that means doing a variety of projects.” Touring the firm’s Maple Street offices, there’s no shortage of interesting things to see: The walls are lined with renderings and photos of projects past and present. The basement of the two-story, brick building is filled with drawings of every job back to the firm’s genesis 62 years ago.

Freeman French Freeman handles commercial, institutional and a little bit of residential work mostly for Vermont clients. “In Vermont you have to do just about everything,” Beck offers. “You can’t be a sole specialist.” School jobs have always been important to the firm — it helped build Rice, Burlington, CP Smith, and Barnes, to name a few. Since Beck’s arrival, colleges and universities have taken a prime position on the company’s job roster, which includes 18 to 30 projects.

The Grille at McCullough, one of many projects the company has completed for Middlebury College, received one of Freeman French Freeman’s first American Institute of Architects awards and was the subject of a feature story in Interiors & Sources magazine. “Freeman French Freeman had been doing business with the college way before I came here,” says director of operations George Whitney. The 25- year veteran of the Middlebury institution says the architectural firm’s quality work and convenient headquarters make it desirable to work with.

The $3 million job entailed renovating the college’s old pool-house into social space for students, including dance floor, billiards pavilion, Internet cafe and grill. “We filled the pool with sand and poured a new slab, just below the water line so we could use the edge of the pool as a garden wall,” says Beck.

“Jesse and his team brought fantastic creativity to the project,” adds Whitney. “It’s primarily the result of a great deal of student input.” A team of students, faculty, and staff joined Beck’s firm in planning the project — indicative of the way Beck likes to work.

“Our main focus is team collaboration,” he says. “We’re willing to treat the owner as an equal partner.”

The approach helped Freeman French Freeman land the recent renovation project at the Burlington International Airport in South Burlington. “We wanted a team approach ... an architect that was going to respond to our needs, not their own needs,” says J.J. Hamilton, manager of the airport. “It was a beautiful marriage. The spirit of the team was really high, and that had a lot to do with Jesse.”

The proposed expansion at IDX Systems Corp. is a prime example of the type of project that Beck savors: “It’s the complexity that I find interesting,” he says. The $21 million project will expand that South Burlington software company’s facility fourfold with three multi-floor buildings and a parking garage. “There’s a tiered auditorium with stations and curtains that go up; there’s a hospital setting where they demonstrate their projects; a cafeteria; there’re skylights. There’s a lot of components, a lot of complexity,” says Beck.

Halpern, Gardner & Caird

Freeman French Freeman includes interior work on its list of services. “I choose to keep it integral with the architectural process,” says Jesse Beck. From left: Alex Halpern, Bill Gardner and Jeff Caird.

The perception of architects is glamorous and cosmopolitan — that we’re a sort of Renaissance man: We can do anything,” Beck says. “But we’re really concerned with everyday function: How do the doorknobs work? Do the windows open?”

Renaissance man might be an exaggeration, but Beck’s life outside the office is varied. He still skis competitively as part of the United States Ski Association New England Masters Circuit. That amateur association operates 22 races from January to March in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. He finished third in his age bracket last year.

Warm weather months find him biking or renovating his house. “It was an architect’s dream,” he says of the Burlington property on Deforest Road. He purchased it four years ago with the woman he married soonafter: Kevin Veller, who works in development at Champlain College. Designed in the 1950s by internationally known landscape architect Dan Kiley of Charlotte — profiled in Business Digest in May 1987 — the house sits on stilts and is an example of the international style. “We actually trucked in 250 yards of fill to create terraces so that we could have our wedding at the house,” he adds.

Coincidentally, the house sports the same architectural style as the Vermont National Bank in downtown Burlington. Freeman French Freeman designed the bank in the ’50s. Over the years the glass and steel structure at 150 Bank St. had become an eyesore to some, and was recently renovated, slightly changing its character.

“I believe in established architectural styles — in preserving those if they have a value to the community,” says Beck, who was pleased that an early proposal to brick-over the building was quashed. He adds, “Many times we get hung up on the fact that it’s purely old, and doesn’t have value to the community.”

Weekends you might catch Beck playing harmonica for the Dog Catchers, a local rhythm and blues band. He took up harmonica in high school and played through college, occasionally with bands significant enough to open for acts like blues great Albert King and southern rock band Wet Willie. He even played clubs in Texas, a renowned hotbed of blues music. “That was my rude awakening,” Beck jokes.

For the past seven years, he was on the board of the Burlington Boys and Girls Club, before recently ascending to the presidency. The local non-profit benefited from the connection when Freeman French Freeman donated half of its services to build the club’s Oak Street headquarters two years ago.

Whenever Beck finds himself traveling, his eyes are peeled for examples of noteworthy architecture. “That’s what my vacations consist of: Where can we go and look at architecture? And at the same time bicycle or ski?” he says.

David Ashley & Steve Mosman

Senior vice president David Ashley (left) has spent more than 40 years with Freeman French Freeman; vice president Steve Mosman will become part owner next year.

At the office, Beck’s focused on the future. Freeman French Freeman is in the running for a $112 million expansion at Fletcher Allen Health Care, is working on another job at the airport, and will wrap up most of its work at IDX to meet a late summer ground- breaking. Beck hopes he’ll be able to grow the residential portion of this business as well. “All young architects love to do houses,” he offers.

Vice president Steve Mosman will become a small percentage owner of Freeman French Freeman next year. “The next step for me is to identify the fourth generation — the young generation that is going to keep us going,” says Beck. “There needs to be that continuum of new blood.”