Unthank honored with installation, award

October 14, 2015

A prolific architect of Oregon buildings, and one of the first of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts' African-American graduates, now has his name permanently installed within Lawrence Hall. An annual $5,000 faculty award in his name is also being initiated.

De Unthank Jr.

A memorial in DeNorval “De” Unthank, Jr.’s name was dedicated on October 7 in Lawrence Hall in a festive gathering of students, faculty members, friends and family. To complement the physical memorial, the annual DeNorval Unthank Memorial Faculty Excellence Award will provide $5,000 for supporting architecture faculty teaching and research, with the first winner, for the 2015-16 academic year, awarded to Associate Professer Esther Hagenlocher.

Unthank, FAIA, graduated from A&AA with a bachelor of architecture in 1951 and served as an architecture professor from 1965 to 1980. He also worked in private practice designing schools, offices, and residences throughout Oregon.

The installation and faculty award in his name are made possible by a donation from Bruce Chambers, whose father, Richard Chambers, worked with Unthank to design and build homes. Richard Chambers founded Chambers Construction Co. in 1955 in Eugene.

“[Bruce] didn’t just want a scholarship and an award,” says Libby Tower, Unthank’s daughter. “He wanted something tangible and visible that he could bring his kids to and say, ‘This is the man who inspired me in my profession.’ He wanted something that would shape the story of the man and the architect.”

The process “of putting this together has been a humbling and a real learning experience for me,” says Tower, who serves on the Oregon Arts Commission. “My dad was my dad. I had no idea how fantastic he was at what he did. The project has allowed me to learn so much more about him and his career. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity, nor probably taken the time, if this project hadn’t come along.”

The American Institute of Architects named Unthank a Fellow in 1980, recognizing his design work on the Lane County Courthouse, the former UO Law School, Central Oregon Community College campus buildings in Bend, the U.S. Consulate Quarters in Fukuoka, Japan, and numerous banks, professional offices, and private residences around the state of Oregon. 

De Unthank at the Crasemann House
Above: De Unthank designed the Crasemann House on Madrona Street in Eugene early in his career.

Unthank joined the Eugene architectural firm Wilmsen & Endicott Architects with a few other UO graduates, becoming a partner in 1960. In 1968 he cofounded the firm Unthank Seder Poticha Architects. His prolific career achievements included modernizing an old warehouse in Eugene that initiated the 5th Street Public Market. Unthank died in November 2000 in Eugene at age 71.

The memorial’s selection committee commissioned Portland artists Joe Thurston and Sean Healy, who work as Healy Thurston, for the memorial artwork.  Thurston calls the forthcoming memorial to Unthank “a kind of time capsule” that will incorporate tools Unthank used that are antiquated by modern standards—slide rules, mechanical pencils—items that Tower calls “artifacts of finals week.”

The memorial will include a right-angle glass “artifacts” cornerstone installed inside a larger glass piece mounted on a clear Douglas fir base. The cornerstone symbolizes “an often hidden but significant aspect of many important buildings—a perfect metaphor for his memorial,” Thurston wrote via email. “By constructing the memorial out of glass and wood, two materials he was fond of using, we felt we were representing the clean lines of his practice.”

The glass will be etched with an image of Unthank's architecture and an adjoining wall-mounted plaque with an image of Unthank and a brief treatise written by his daughter.

Tower served on the DeNorval Unthank Award Artwork Committee with Judith Sheine, head of the UO Department of Architecture; Donald Morgan, assistant professor in the UO Department of Art; and Doug Streeter, a UO alumnus, nephew of Unthank, and design principal at architecture firm Perkins + Will; and Rob Thallon, A&AA associate dean for administration and associate professor of architecture.

The DeNorval Unthank Memorial Faculty Excellence Award will provide $5,000 each year to a faculty member who exemplifies excellence in teaching and/or practice of design in architecture.

“It’s great to have an award that specifically focuses on design excellence,” says Sheine. “That’s something we’re really excited about in Department of Architecture.”

The award will help cover costs associated with field trips, making models, hiring consultants, and other support for the studio. The recipient will be announced before the end of spring term 2015. The recipients’ names will be updated on the memorial each year.

Thurston and Healy’s art collaborations have a number of installations in their portfolio, including the stairwells of UO’s Anstett and Peterson Halls, Portland State University’s Shattuck Hall, the West Linn Police Department in West Linn, Oregon, and the FBI Headquarters in Houston, Texas.

“They’ve got a very robust resume of public art projects that they’ve done and they are delightful to work with,” Tower says. “Of the four finalists, they provided the most creative and nonprescriptive approach and solution to solving the problem. Very inquisitive and also honored by the idea and scope of the assignment.”

Sheine agrees. “[Healy Thurston] have a very interesting way of translating ideas in an art installation that relate to the public institution with beautiful, abstract designs.”

For inspiration, Thurston and Healy visited several Unthank buildings with Tower and Streeter, and met with his former business partner Otto Poticha.

“Our initial research led us to conclude that Mr. Unthank had a great influence on students of UO’s Department of Architecture, as well as designing some very significant buildings in the area and on campus,” Thurston noted via email. “[Unthank] began to take on a refreshingly human dimension … he was a down-to-earth guy who cared a lot about his students, professional relationships, and the work he did. He was a cornerstone of the architecture department during his time there. He didn’t draw a lot of attention to himself. He wanted his work to represent him.”

A memorial scholarship in Unthank’s name was established in 2004. The DeNorval Unthank, Jr. Memorial Scholarship is awarded annually to undergraduate architecture students at the UO.

Healy Thurston's work
Above: Healy Thurston's work "All that Is Solid Melts into Air" (2013) was commissioned by the Oregon Arts Commission for two mirrored stairwells in UO’s Anstett and Peterson halls. Healy Thurston’s memorial to De Unthank will incorporate tools that Unthank used that are antiquated by modern standards—slide rules, mechanical pencils—and a right-angle glass “artifacts” cornerstone installed inside a larger glass piece mounted on a clear Douglas fir base.