Architect Bill Truex

Act II

Architect William Truex retired March 21, but don’t expect him to disappear for long

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Twenty years ago when we published our first feature on architect Bill Truex, he was the senior partner in what was then called Alexander-Truex-de Groot. He had already made his mark on Burlington, even though his career was still in full bloom. In his case, it was a literal mark in the form of the then-6-year-old Church Street Marketplace — the lively, graceful pedestrian walkway now so familiar to denizens of Chittenden County.

The seed for that project had been sown in September 1962, when Truex was still in college — on leave from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He and his then-wife passed through Copenhagen on their way to an assignment in Rome. “The main shopping street was just totally crammed with trucks and cars,” he recalls. “It didn’t seem like there was room for people at all.”

Four months later, when they came back through the city, it had been transformed. “It was wonderful!” he exclaims. “A fairyland, walking down that long street, and it was the first pedestrianized street in Europe.” He never forgot it.

Years later, it would be that vision that drove his efforts to reproduce that lively feeling of community for Burlington.

Model of the original Marketplace two-level planImage of the original two-level scheme for the Marketplace.

The history of the development of the Marketplace and Burlington Square Mall is well documented. It took many years and the hard work and cooperation of many people, and the result was one of the most successful and widely emulated urban pedestrian malls in the country. Truex and Patrick Robins (then the president of McAuliffe Office Supply Co., now chairman and founder of SymQuest Group Inc.) kept the inspiration alive over the 11-year span of planning, securing funds, and construction.

We caught up with Truex, newly retired as of March 21 from his firm, Truex Cullins & Partners, and about to set off with his wife, Jill Williams, on a year-long circumnavigation of the eastern third of the United States — the Great Loop — aboard their 42-foot Kadey Krogen pilot-house trawler.

His partner, Tom Cullins, retired a year ago. In 1987, the company had a staff of 20 architects and designers. It has grown to 45. As a result of a succession plan devised by them, the firm’s ownership is now in the capable hands of partners Rolf Kielman, Richard Deane and David Epstein. Truex notes, with obvious delight, that they have decided to continue with the legacy of the Truex Cullins name.

What projects stand out in the last 20 years for you? Work on our house in Grand Isle! [He laughs, heartily.] I designed the Coast Guard station on the waterfront, and that really funky — neat, I think — North Beach bathhouse. Also the master plan for the east entrance to the St. Michael’s campus. I designed the welcome center. I was a designer and planner for the Winooski project with Bill Niquette.

But I’ve got to tell you, the thing I’m really most satisfied with is the work I did in my early career downtown. I feel really good for the notion for the concept that connects the Macy’s space to Church Street. That’s how we tied the Marketplace concept to the urban renewal to the west. I got Pat Robins involved, convinced the merchants to try a couple of pedestrian closings — one for a day-long sidewalk sale and the next year for a week-long arts and crafts festival. We brought in landscaping, benches and so forth, and they realized we could survive for a week.

The highlight of my career was having the honor of being elevated to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architecture in 2001. With the exception of the Gold Medal, given to one architect in the world every year, that is the highest award given out by the AIA. Only four or maybe six architects in Vermont have ever received that.

What was your most difficult time professionally? It happened concurrently with the loss of my son. During the three months that he was dying, from September to December 1978, the mayor pulled the plug on the two-level Marketplace scheme. I think Pat and I thought it was because we just weren’t paying attention and the mayor got nervous. His concern was, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ And I understand.

What was the two-level scheme? It was a really exciting opportunity to add 300,000 square feet of commercial space to the downtown, because we were opening up the basements of all the buildings in all four blocks and creating what we felt the competition was in those days — Pyramid Mall. We were creating opportunities for a climate-controlled lower level with tremendous points of light-well access to it so it wouldn’t feel dark. It was intended to tie into the lower level of Burlington Square and enhance the whole thing.

The upper level was basically a street grade, and we were going to have railings along this opening at street grade, which would not impede the view of the street and the Unitarian Church.

Open? What about weather? There were glass overhead doors along the edges of the light well down below and glass awnings coming out down below so they could open that up and get natural air when they wanted, but close it during the winter. Also, the walking surface would evaporate snow as it came in.

Will you stay connected to architecture and design? I think it’s going to be hard not to stay connected to architecture, because it’s been my life, and I’d like to think there will also be some involvement with the community. The thing I find myself saying more frequently than not is that we made a decision to come here 40 years ago and not look back, and it’s been wonderful. The Burlington and Vermont community has so much going for it for those with an interest in investing themselves in the community a little. Thanks, Burlington. •