Drawing on Experience

Reuse and sustainability have inspired this firm’s approach from its beginnings

by Rosie Wolf Williams

black_river_1015John Rahill (left) and Jay Ancel are founding principals of Black River Design, Architects in Montpelier. They are pictured at the Montpelier police station, one of their firm’s projects.

Black River Design grew up in the ’70s, a fledgling construction company turned architectural firm that appreciated the freedom of Vermont and the ability to build a future on the past. John Rahill, a founding partner, saw the chance to lead in the architectural front, using reuse and sustainability alongside growth and innovation.

A Pennsylvania native, Rahill entered Williams College in Massachusetts as a premed student, but by his senior year had switched to art history, knowing he was destined to be an architect. “I liked art and I liked building, and it was clear that I was better suited to that than the amount of reading labs that a biology or premedical career would have led to.”

He graduated in 1968 and went on to study architecture at Harvard. During his time there, a friend asked if he would help renovate an old house in Albany. “Three of us, including Dave Bryan, dropped out of Harvard before we were finished,” he says. “We went to Goddard, where we joined Dave Sellers and that crazy crew.”

With John Mallery, Sellers led the Goddard design and construction program from 1969 to 1977. “In 1969, there was an element of ‘back to the land’ that was very powerful,” says Rahill. “In architecture school, we were somewhat frustrated by the totally academic aspect of the teaching without any experience or hands-on work that went along with it. So we all leapt at the opportunity to come join Sellers. That was actually very good architectural training because it taught you how to build. We spent the winter of 1970 building some of those art buildings at Goddard. After a year, we all were fairly capable carpenters.” He and Bryan formed Black River Construction.

Rahill returned to Harvard to finish his master’s degree in architecture, in 1973, but he bought his own property in Albany. In 1977, Bryan and Rahill were approached while working on a renovation project and asked to design a new school for the town of Burke, with the guidance of Ben Stein, a Burlington architect. The project helped springboard them into designing innovative schools and other community buildings.

Black River Design was formed in 1978, and architect Arch Horst came on board. After a fire destroyed the office in Albany, the firm moved to Montpelier. Horst eventually separated from the company, moving to Boston and retaining the name Black River Architects Inc. Rahill and Bryan went on as Black River Design, Architects PLC.

“When we were starting out, our challenge was to convince people that we could do a larger project. It’s always hard to convince somebody you can do a project until you’ve done one. So getting the first school and the first college building and the first fire station was always a triumph,” says Rahill.

Jay Ancel joined the firm in 1980. As a child living in Colorado, Ancel loved to build things, and was drawn to form and color. In junior high school, he loaded handmade mobiles, metal sculptures, and leaded stained-glass work into the basket of his bicycle and sold them to gift shops.

He remembers visiting a relative in Chicago while in elementary school and being awed by the city’s architecture. “My uncle lived in Oak Park, where there was a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright product. We used to go to the Art Institute a fair amount, so art and architecture was an interest and an example. I think I was inspired by a lot of what I saw with those visits to Chicago. My uncle lived in an architecturally designed house. That was kind of a new experience for me. I could see that it was very different from the tract house I lived in.”

Ancel earned a bachelor’s degree in 1974 in environmental design at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He had met and married a Vermonter, and after graduation they made their home in central Vermont. He returned to Colorado with his family so he could complete his master of architecture in 1977 at the CU Denver center. Soon, the Green Mountains called them home again, and after a few years working for other firms, Ancel joined Black River Design.

“When I first came to Vermont I thought I was going to be in a bit of a cultural vacuum — but far from it. People do things because they want to do them, and so they make them happen themselves. The Lost Nation Theater has been here as long as we have, and it’s incredible that they’ve survived. What they do is totally interesting and unique.”

“Interesting and unique” can be used to describe the work of Black River Design. Rahill is still a founding principal, and continues to work part time at the firm. The partners (including Ancel, also a founding principal; Rich Burroughs; James Drummond; John Hemmelgam; Mark Montminy; and Keith Robinson) work with other members of the firm as a collective, using a “pin-up” process that allows everyone to critique and offer input on a project.

Previous projects include the Montpelier police station, Brighton Town Hall in Island Pond, and Craftsbury Academy. Like a loving parent, Rahill is hesitant to put the label of “favorite” on a particular project. “They’re all so different, as are children,” he says.

“When we were doing construction we built some smaller homes in the late 1970s. We were very excited about solar energy and alternative energy, and were pioneers in building these homes. The people’s interest in solar died out for a long period of time, but it has come back. Recently, we were hired to do a living building challenge at Williams College, which has just completed. It’s very advanced — net zero energy, net zero water. It’s fun to have been involved 30-some years ago and still have that expertise and that interest sustained over that time.”

Rahill feels that his long-standing relationships with the community and colleagues and partners in the building business have been a huge part of the firm’s success. Dale Wells, president of Dale Wells Building Contractor Inc. of St. Johnsbury, has worked with the firm since the late 1970s.

“They were pretty tiny back then,” says Wells. “They have always had a team approach, but now their strength is in their experience. They have a diverse group of partners and architects, and they take input from all their sources, establish a set of goals, and work to attain those goals. In the construction business, you run into all kinds of personalities and stressors, and my experience with them has always been nice. It is a pleasure to work with them.”

Ancel echoes Rahill’s beliefs in the importance of community, pointing out the sense of place each Vermont town or village holds at its core. He and Anita, his wife of 11 years, live in Montpelier but are restoring an 1890 Victorian home in Newport. “To come to a place where there’s a sense of history and community was a new thing I hadn’t experienced [in Colorado]. It is strong.”

Black River Design also looks at adaptive reuse, he continues, “so that old things can function with the current world. When you go to an old building and you see where there is a hand-shaved piece or something original, you can communicate with that craftsman. I just did another Lambert Packard building in St. Johnsbury, and you can just see the signature elements of his designs. That’s exciting. It’s almost like a time warp. You try to understand and work with it — and respect it.”

Joel Cope, administrator for the town of Brighton, began working with Black River Design in the late 1980s, when nearby Burke Mountain was slated to become a ski resort. The town wanted to do a study to learn how to deal with the impact it would have on their area. “Rahill was the architectural part of that study — to this day, I still give his report to new planning commission members.

“We got involved again through Preservation Trust of Vermont, and had a couple meetings about the historic town hall building. When we decided to restore the building’s exterior, we went to Jay Ancel for the design work. Jay hired Jim Duprey, and he did an excellent job. As long as we can keep them as a sole source, we will.”

When Rahill is away from the office, he takes to the road on his BMW motorcycle, and loves to work on cars. “I like anything that stinks and burns gas and goes fast,” he says, laughing. He lives in Middlesex, and has two sons from a previous marriage: Charles, 46, and Jin Wei, 16.

Ancel and Anita (who is a leadership and team coach) have six adult children from previous marriages. They enjoy restoring old boats as well as buildings, but, Ancel adds, “If I were picking an additional parallel career it might have been music. I have a music room and four or five guitars and other instruments. I try to play at least one song on each one.”

Black River Design has evolved with Vermont, working new fiber into a weave of old. “Respect the masterpiece,” said Frank Lloyd Wright. “It is true reverence to man.” •