MacDonald & Mack Architects’ Robert Mack, FAIA, is honored for his long and influential career in historic preservation

By Linda Mack

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Robert Mack loved to play in his family’s old barn—and try to figure out how it was put together. For his birthdays, he wanted to go to historic sites, not amusement parks.

Now working half time at the firm he and partner Stuart MacDonald, AIA, founded 40 years ago, Mack still loves figuring out how old buildings were put together. This past fall, AIA Minnesota recognized his sterling career in historic preservation by awarding him the Gold Medal, the organization’s highest award given to an individual.

“Bob’s humility and quiet personality stand in contrast to the magnitude of his impact—as an architect, firm principal, educator, and community leader,” wrote the Gold Medal jury. “It is time for Bob to be recognized for all he has done to mentor this profession, to grow our industry’s expertise in preservation and sustainability, and to ensure that our nation’s historic structures are enjoyed for generations to come.”

“Bob was one of the founders of historic preservation in Minnesota,” says Chuck Liddy, FAIA, a principal at Miller Dunwiddie Architecture, another Minnesota firm known for preservation. MacDonald agrees: “His impact on preservation is incalculable.”

His meticulous research and sensitive eye have enhanced the state’s historic landscape, from the Governor’s Residence in St. Paul to Minneapolis City Hall, from Split Rock Lighthouse to Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church. The restoration of that church—a Prairie School landmark in South Minneapolis—was a seminal moment in Minnesota preservation: It garnered Minnesota’s first Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

But Mack’s impact extends beyond Minnesota. His career began with an assignment at the National Park Service researching and writing The Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Rehabilitation, one of the precursors to The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Mack explains: “In 1974, Congress passed a law for tax breaks for people restoring buildings as long as they conformed to standards set by the Secretary of the Interior. But there weren’t any.” The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards are still the litmus test for preservation nationwide.

Mack also cowrote Preservation Briefs #1 and #2, providing technical advice to architects; these documents grew his reputation as a masonry expert. Two summers ago, he was asked to advise on masonry issues plaguing the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana. “The engineer wanted to reline the tunnels,” says Mack. “We found instead that the original drains just needed to be cleaned.”

Other projects beyond Minnesota include restoration work on U.S. president James Garfield’s estate outside Cleveland and historic surveys of 34 army munitions plants around the country. “It was a chance to learn new technology and travel to Oklahoma and West Virginia and other places I’d never been,” says Mack.

Along with his preservation advocacy and his work at MacDonald & Mack Architects, Mack shaped new generations of preservationists by teaching a yearlong graduate course at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture for nearly a quarter-century. He also took students to Orkney, Scotland, to study Scottish architecture and approaches to preservation.

A Mack-led student trip to document the walled city of Baku, Azerbaijan, was even more ambitious. A World Heritage Site, the walled city was also on the UNESCO endangered list. “During our three-week visit, the Minnesota students did 80 percent of the street-by-street inventory, and the students there finished it,” says Mack. “For this reason and others, Baku is now off the endangered list.”

“Teaching gave me a chance to share my passion,” says Mack. “It’s also a great employee recruiting tool.” Virtually all MacDonald & Mack staff members are former students.

Does he have a favorite building? Yes: Wesley United Methodist Church, the Richardsonian Romanesque church next to the Minneapolis Convention Center. “I love the diagonal plan, with its excellent acoustics and sightlines,” he says. What does he value most about his career in Minnesota? “The sense of camaraderie, both in preservation and in architecture.”

The camaraderie was particularly strong in preservation. Consider that in the 1970s and 1980s, MacDonald & Mack’s main competitor for preservation projects around the state was Miller Dunwiddie. “Bob and Foster Dunwiddie would drive to interviews together, do their interviews separately, then drive back together,” Chuck Liddy warmly recalls.

This past summer Mack was surprised to learn that his firm had established the Robert Mack Fellowship for Heritage Preservation at the School of Architecture. Soon after came the announcement of the Gold Medal. Mack was pleased and characteristically modest: “In many ways, the award legitimizes preservation as architecture.”