Drafter of dreams: After 50 years, architect Tony Stillson still draws

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Beyond tall windows in the sunroom of her Fox Chapel home, Mikell Schenck sees nothing but a green lawn and a long stand of trees attired in autumn's fiery garnets and honeyed golds.

The elegant English Tudor-style retreat she shares with her husband, Bill, overlooks a wooded hillside. The sunroom, part of a major addition, allows them to appreciate nature's colors and moods every day.

From a spacious living room with a beamed, vaulted ceiling and large fireplace, visitors step down into the sunroom, designed in 1992 by architect Tony Stillson, who has spent 50 years interpreting and drafting his clients' dreams.

"I like to build buildings. It's that simple. Every time I come here, we wind up in this room," he said, a strong note of pride in his distinctive baritone that's a blend of gravel and smoke.

Mr. Stillson's hand has touched most of this home, built in the 1930s for George McCook. The 1992 project included an outdoor terrace that can accommodate 100 people. In 2000, the architect turned a two-car garage into a handsome study for Mr. Schenck; more recently, he transformed an attic into a light-filled office for Mrs. Schenck. The house retains its architectural character and is filled with tastefully updated, livable rooms.

The architect and Mrs. Schenck, a well-known interior designer based in Aspinwall, met in 1968 when she asked him to look at the couple's starter home in Indiana Township. Over the past 45 years, they have collaborated on projects for clients and have become good friends.

Mr. Stillson is so comfortable here that he sits at the piano and gives a soaring performance of "Misty," the dreamy jazz standard composed by Pittsburgh native Errol Garner. But he spends far more time at a drafting table than a keyboard. On the subject of his work, he's realistic.

"Houses are murder. Every room's a project, and the product is extremely personal to the client."

But, at age 75, he's working on three homes for clients in Fox Chapel. Two involve renovations and additions to early farmhouses; the third is a Mediterranean-style house that's in what he calls "the mud stage."

He visits job sites regularly, helping contractors and tradesmen solve problems, including the plumber who cost himself time and money when he installed pipes in a space designated for a clothes chute.

"Tradesmen like to feel that what they're doing matters. They're craftsmen. I'm a craftsman. They went to school on my jobs and we learned together," Mr. Stillson said.

A lifelong night owl, he still uses paper and pencil to draw designs by hand. He is fueled by his imagination, regular doses of caffeine, cigarettes and the quiet that fills his Aspinwall office once the phone stops ringing.

"Pittsburgh's tough because the McMansion imprint is in people's heads. Every era has its cliches," he said, adding that the current one for private homes is "red brick, lots of gables and a catalog of windows, including round."

That type of work holds no interest for him.

"Timeless is the game. A house is a showpiece. You're setting a stage," he said.

His career had a rocky start. A graduate of Shady Side Academy, he achieved an A average in his first year of studying engineering at Penn State University, earning admission to the freshman honor society. But, he was thrown out of school because "my deportment was questionable. They gave me a key and a boot," he recalled.

He sat out a year, then enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology, where "every instructor and professor was a practicing architect," he said. Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, Paul Schweiker oversaw the architecture students. Mr. Stillson recalled one of Mr. Schweiker's favorite sayings: "'I can't create good architects. God does that. But I sure as heck can prevent bad ones.' "

Of the 50 students in Mr. Stillson's class, only 17 finished.

Mr. Stillson won the class prize four years in a row, landing a scholarship to study in France during the summer of 1962. He earned an honorary diploma at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and also studied in Fontainebleau, site of Napoleon's summer palace. After that memorable sojourn, he returned to Pittsburgh and worked for nearly five years as an apprentice with architect Stuart Forsythe.

"We were doing mission churches for the Pittsburgh Presbytery," he said, including the Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church.

At age 25, he had his license. His first clients were James and Edith "Toto" Fisher, who asked him to enclose a side porch and turn it into a glass-roofed greenhouse. He also designed a bird house that could be slid outdoors on a cable.

During his first 25 years of practice, he worked on shopping centers, restaurants, condominiums and townhouses. The last two categories included Hunter's Point in Franklin Park and Woodridge in Mt. Lebanon, both of which were built during the 1980s. Then, he designed a kitchen in Fox Chapel and homeowners came calling.

Today's architects regularly use computer-assisted design software to create drawings so construction managers and contractors can communicate more effectively. Mr. Stillson believes CAD drawings are fine for motels and schools, not private homes.

"You can't do this on a computer," the architect said. "You can't look at a screen and picture the reality of what's being portrayed. I'm trying to transmit to the client the feeling of what I'm doing."

Asked why he installed beams in the sun room, Mr. Stillson replied: "You're asking me why there are collars on shirts.

"Design is not done in a logical way. It's done in an aesthetic way."

Mrs. Schenck loves Mr. Stillson's work because it has given her "mystery, romance and surprise at every turn. It's not something you see. It's something you feel," she said.

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