Roll of Fame: Bill McDowell ’75, Alumnus, Parent
First awarded in 1962, the Roll of Fame recognizes CHA alumni who have made significant contributions to society. In choosing members of the Roll of Fame, the Alumni Association weighs a candidate’s respect among his peers, where he is considered an expert in his field, and whether his work has had an effect that reaches beyond the bounds of a single community.
While Bill currently goes by the title Head of Real Estate at Spring Creek Management and at the Barnes Foundation he was known as an Independent Project Manager, his skills and the magic he brings to any project belie these monikers. In fact, his keen ability to manage many people, constituents, and designs was supremely evident in his most public project to date: the building of Barnes Foundation. It sits majestically on Ben Franklin Parkway, as if it has been there forever. But if anyone can tell you that its mere existence is nothing less than a miracle, it is Bill. Thanks to him and several other miracle workers, the Barnes Foundation is one of Philadelphia’s crowning jewels.
Trained as an architect but recognized as a building project manager, Bill was hired by the Barnes to serve as liaison between its trustees and staff and the architects and builder and to ensure the project’s smooth progress. “The trustees were incredible in their commitment to the project, but there was no in-house understanding of how a building gets designed and built, so I was hired full-time to manage the process,” he explains. “I’ve always believed that the ability to achieve a great building is not just the result of a good architect; it’s the result of a good client as well. If the client isn’t able to deliver a realistic program to the architect, then the architect doesn’t have boundaries to design to. It’s a very technical process that responds to very technical criteria. My role was to ensure that the Barnes was as good a client as it could be.”
The legal stipulations governing the display of the foundation’s collection added to the project’s complexity. The design of the Gallery had to allow for the replication of Albert Barnes’s “ensembles” (his arrangements of paintings, decorative arts, and artifacts) while allowing for the ambitious vision of the architects in a modern form. The architects concluded that the best way to achieve this dual goal was to situate the new Gallery building—which mimicked the dimensions, sequence, and configuration of the rooms in the Merion, PA, building—within a larger, light-filled, contemporary envelope. The final design manages to honor the original artistic vision of Barnes while offering a stunningly modern architectural experience for visitors. The addition of this new building has helped to reinforce the original concept of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as a cultural boulevard, along the lines of its role model, the Champs-Élysée, in Paris. As a side note, adds McDowell, the architect and planner Paul Cret who helped design Philadelphia’s Parkway also designed the original home of the Barnes Foundation in Merion.
The building also serves another important function in helping to build pedestrian traffic along this busy avenue. “There’s a theory in urban planning that you need something of interest every five minutes if you’re going to entice people to walk,” says McDowell. “Whether that’s a Starbucks, a museum, or a garden, it actually doesn’t matter as long as there’s variety and something of interest.” The new Barnes provides this, he says, and adds to the cumulative momentum that one day, he hopes, will make the Parkway a truly pedestrian-friendly and vibrant avenue.
Bill, we celebrate your work on the Barnes and we also tip our hat to you for being the chair of the Louis I. Kahn Memorial Lecture, which occurs annually in Philadelphia and brings to Philadelphia world-renowned architects who present their works and give a rare insight into their design process.You inspire us with all you have accomplished to date. We are proud to have you as an alumnus and equally proud to have your son, Phillip, here at school. Thank you for the mark you have made in Philadelphia and may you continue to work your magic!