When acclaimed architect Patrick Ahearn ’73, G’73 takes on a project, he practices his “greater good” theory: the idea that any new build—whether ground-up construction, restoration or renovation—should fit seamlessly with its surroundings. He calls it “non-ego-driven” architecture and encourages clients to be respectful of the community when considering their plans. “As I like to say, if a project’s done right, I’m a ghost in the night,” says Ahearn, a Syracuse University trustee who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the School of Architecture. “You never knew I was there, and the project will be more successful.”
For Ahearn—a Fellow of the prestigious American Institute of Architects—success has come from drawing on the lessons of nearly five decades of practice. During his distinguished career, he has been involved with the reinvention of Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, led efforts to revitalize Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, worked on hotel projects in the Middle East, and helped guide the transformation of Edgartown on the island of Martha’s Vineyard into an inviting seaside town. He counts captains of industry and other luminaries among his clients, and his work has been featured by numerous media, including Architectural Digest, Country Living, Ocean Home and HGTV. A recent Wall Street Journal article called him the “Ultimate ‘Carchitect’” and focused on his love for collecting classic cars and creating luxury accommodations for fellow collectors’ prize rides. Ahearn shares many of his stories and insights in Timeless: Classic American Architecture for Contemporary Living (ORO Editions, 2018). “Throughout my 48-year career, two core beliefs have inspired me and shaped my architecture: that design—good design—has the power to improve people’s lives and that learning from the past is crucial to creating the future,” he writes. “Together, these principles have led me to craft timeless, human-scaled private homes and public environments that balance preservation with innovation.”
Ahearn’s commitment to his craft is reflected in his dedication to Syracuse University. He’s a member of the Board of Trustees’ Facilities Committee and, along with fellow architect and Trustee Steven Einhorn ’64, ’67, shared advice on the Hildegarde and J. Myer Schine Student Center renovation. He’s served on the Boston Regional Council since 2010 and the School of Architecture Advisory Board since 2014. This spring, he is sponsoring a one-week symposium on the business of architecture that will be offered every semester for three years. “We’ll have accomplished architects come in and talk to fourth- and fifth-year students so they can understand what they need to know to be successful architects in today’s world,” he says. “If you can talk the language of development and understand real estate, construction, zoning and contract law—as well as have design skills and learn the art of presentation—you can become the most important person at the table.”
Creating a Sense of Place
Ahearn’s attraction to architecture and sense of community have gone hand in hand since childhood. He grew up in Levittown, New York, a Long Island suburb that was the first mass-produced, planned community in post-World War II America. “Production housing—17,556 of basically the same house,” he says. “Just like the Model T Ford.” He ticks off detail after detail of the home features and talks about tree-lined streets, green spaces and bike paths. “It was an incredibly nice way to grow up,” he says. It proved influential as well. He devoted endless hours to designing and drawing cars and adorning his American Flyer HO train-set layout with Levittown-style houses he created from shirt-packaging cardboard. “I spent more time making my houses and village than playing with the trains,” he says.
When it came time for college, the question was: Car designer or architect? Ahearn selected architecture and enrolled at Syracuse University, where he discovered his affinity for what’s now called “new urbanism.” In particular, he cites the late professors Kermit Lee Jr. ’57 and George von Scheven for their instrumental role in his development. Lee, one of the first African American graduates of the school, was a “fabulous mentor,” he says, who taught him about the importance of spaces between buildings, scale and sense of place. As a graduate student, Ahearn took von Scheven’s course on urban design. It heightened his knowledge of space and scale, and he also learned to value the public realm, how to fashion intimate outdoor spaces and “how density’s our friend and how you can create a livable village,” he says. “Those two professors stuck with me all these years.”
Making Massachusetts Home
After graduation, Ahearn began his professional career in Boston and settled in a townhouse basement apartment in the Back Bay. He did design work for the Architects Collective and Benjamin Thompson & Associates. As a member of Thompson’s team, Ahearn was immersed in the multimillion-dollar adaptive reuse project of Faneuil Hall Marketplace (also known as Quincy Market), which transformed the centuries-old buildings into a festive destination, complete with street performers, flower vendors, boutiques and restaurants. For Ahearn, it was also a lesson in “narrative-driven” architecture—scripting a storyline to give projects a sense of history and community—a practice he continues to this day. “It felt like this European street model of outdoor cafes…. You had indoor-outdoor seamless environments, this rhythm of the street scape,” he says. “I ended up drawing by hand all the street patterns between the buildings—every cobblestone.”
I really believe in giving back to the communities where we earn our livelihood.—Patrick Ahearn ’73, G’73
That project led to work in the Middle East on hotels in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Cairo, and he was a lead designer for a new industrial city in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. Along with his architecture work and teaching nights, pro bono, at the Boston Architectural College, he entered the development arena, seeing the Back Bay—a once grand neighborhood of brownstones that had fallen into disrepair—as an ideal place to pursue his urban design vision. In 1976, taking advantage of Boston’s relatively new condominium law, he sold his car and rounded up funds to buy an apartment building, which he renovated and converted into a condominium. He continued to redesign Back Bay apartments into condos and work on hotel projects, and in 1978 he established his firm, Patrick Ahearn Architect LLC, opening an office in Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Since then, Ahearn estimates he’s spearheaded nearly 400 building projects in the Back Bay. One of his major focuses was on Newbury Street, which he helped transform into a renowned stretch of boutiques, restaurants and art galleries. As an example, he cites his renovation of an old horse stable into the iconic café Sonsie, where he swung open the foldaway doors to the sidewalk, creating a Parisian café-style atmosphere—and buzz. “I became the go-to guy in the Back Bay for many, many years,” he says.
An Imminently Recognizable Style
Today, Ahearn has studios in the Back Bay and Edgartown, where he bought a house as a retreat in 1989. “Back then, Edgartown was vinyl siding, T-shirt shops and fluorescent lights,” he says. Like the Back Bay, Edgartown captivated his imagination and appealed to his urban design sensibilities. It was a 350-year-old, walkable village with historical architecture, a harbor and beaches. “Edgartown was all the things I learned at Syracuse about density and scale,” he says. “It had everything that people were starting to talk about in architecture and urban design circles in a real community that wasn’t Disney and wasn’t plastic. But it really needed that next layering.”
On his own, he created a revitalization plan for the village and shared it with the Edgartown Board of Trade. Though the plan was never adopted, the village moved in that direction. “So much of what I wrote back then has happened and been successful,” he says. “A lot of the lessons we learned from Newbury Street I could apply to Edgartown.”
Today, he counts work on about 350 houses on the island, a majority of them in Edgartown, which is known for its Greek Revival, Colonial and Federal-style homes. Ahearn has also strongly supported the community. He recently retired as chair of the board of the Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns and oversees 23 historic properties on the island that were put back into public use. He worked pro bono on several of them, including the village’s Carnegie Library, which he converted into a visitors’ center. “I really believe in giving back to the communities where we earn our livelihood,” he says.
Giving Back and Sharing Knowledge
Ahearn’s commitment to community has been a common thread throughout his career, and it extends to his role as an educator. Whether lecturing or teaching at Syracuse, Harvard or Boston Architectural College, or guiding his team of 21 architects, Ahearn values his role as a mentor. He regularly posts blog entries of helpful information on topics ranging from purchasing land to shutter etiquette. In September 2020, he launched Patrick Ahearn’s Studio, a free 15-session online master class in which he shares insights from his career and his philosophy of architecture for the greater good. And there’s plenty of work, with current projects in California, Ohio, Utah, Michigan and Vancouver, British Columbia, as well as Cape Cod and throughout New England. He’s designed houses in Scotland and the Bahamas and is contemplating a project in Australia. “With the technology today and the way we do our computer-generated renderings, I think we are on top of our game in terms of our product, the context in which we work and the different places I really embrace and enjoy,” he says. “I’m 71 years old. I don’t play golf. I’m never going to retire. And this is what I love to do.”