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Eugene J. Mackey III: Renowned architect designed and advocated for urban excellence

Provided by Mackey Mitchell Architects
Eugene J. Mackey III worked for strong urban design.

The St. Louis landscape was Eugene Mackey’s architectural canvas; his palette was integrity, artistic genius and spirituality.

“You work on a project until you find the soul of it,” his longtime friend, Van Brokaw, said he once told him. “Spirituality was an important underpinning in his life."

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Mr. Mackey infused more than 3,000 spaces with a spirit of humanity, inextricably interwoven with beauty and functionality. He died on Sunday (Nov. 27) of an aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma (skin cancer) at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He was 77 and had lived in Ladue.

Henry S. Webber of Washington University, which is replete with 50 years of Mr. Mackey’s work, said he was “the most humanistic of architects.”

“Gene designed beautiful and functional buildings, made the work of other architects and planners better and enriched the lives of everyone he touched,” said Webber in a website tribute.

From cultural institutions to university dormitories, Mr. Mackey followed in his father’s footsteps, putting his stamp on architecture in St. Louis and throughout the nation.

His Father’s Son

Mr. Mackey’s artistic talent was both inherited and practiced. Neither father nor son was ever without a pen and pad.

Eugene Mackey III, as was the case with his father, could usually be found with pad and paper.
Credit Undated | Mackey Mitchell photo
Eugene Mackey III, as was the case with his father, could usually be found with pad and paper.

His father, Eugene J. Mackey Jr., moved his young family to St. Louis when Mr. Mackey was around 3 years old. His father came to St. Louis to teach at Washington University. The elder Mackey became known for his architectural innovations that included the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Olin Library at Washington University and the Court of Honor of the World War II Memorial.

“My father drew beautifully, so I was inspired by that,” Mr. Mackey told the St. Louis Business Journal in 2011.

He also came to embrace their shared talent.

“I can look at a drawing and tell you whether it was hot or cold, I can tell you what the air smelled like, the warmth of the sun. It brings back the experience of a place.”

But for Mr. Mackey, at first, it was merely a hobby. He planned to go into advertising or public relations, so he majored in English. His plans changed when his father unexpectedly – perhaps cleverly – invited him on a six-week trip to Europe during his sophomore year at St. John’s University. He gladly accepted.

There would be no more talk about advertising.

“All of it goes back to that trip,” he told St. Louis Public Radio in 2013, when he published his father’s elegant drawings and animated, handwritten documentation of their journey in a memoir modestly titled Impressions of a European Journey 1958. They took no camera.

Designing for Humanity

Upon their return, Mr. Mackey changed colleges and majors. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in architecture from Washington University in 1962, and a master's in architecture from Harvard University a year later, he worked five years for Murphy & Mackey, the firm founded by his father and Joseph Murphy.

He struck out on his own in 1968, the year his father died. He was 29.

“I knew it was going to take about 10 years to become established, and it took every bit of that,” he told the Business Journal, noting he was grateful for both the opportunities and the disappointments.

The A. Wessel Shapleigh Fountain at the Missouri Botanical Garden was one of Mackey's favorite creations.
Credit Provided by the Missouri Botanical Garden
The A. Wessel Shapleigh Fountain at the Missouri Botanical Garden was one of Mackey's favorite creations.

The fledgling firm of Mackey  Associates began with small jobs, like the Ellisville City Hall, law firm offices, home additions for friends and the Shapleigh Fountain at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

“It’s a powerful place,” said Dan Mitchell, who joined Mackey Mitchell Architects in 1978; he became a partner in 1981.  “Gene understood the power of the spaces around and within buildings.”

Mr. Mackey’s assignment was simply to design a water feature; he found a way to make it magical. He declared it one of his favorite creations.

“It is such a joy to watch how people react to it,” he told St. Louis Magazine in 2013. “I’ve seen people walk right through the fountain and laugh as they are doing it.”

The number and size of the projects grew, and to his joy, some gave him the opportunity to build on his father’s legacy. Those included renovation of the Old Cathedral, which his father did in 1960, and the current renovations of Soldiers Memorial and Court of Honor, both originally designed by the elder Mackey more than 60 years ago.

His designs are transcendent and diverse. Chaifetz Arena on the Saint Louis University’s campus brought simplicity to a multi-use facility, Alberici’s 110,000 square foot headquarters is a marvel of sustainable materials and the new Central Institute for the Deaf campus is designed to match its existing 1927 Mediterranean-style building.

Mr. Mackey reveled in his work, but it wasn’t the end product that kept him drawing.

“I really think about it more in terms of client relationships,” he told the Business Journal. “It’s the client relationship that produces the project.”

Architect as Advocate

In 1992, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that he was “one of the tiny handful of local architects ever to go public with views on issues of urban design.”

At the time, Mr. Mackey was repeating his “oft-uttered but rarely heeded warning,” about the proposed location of the football stadium. He said that it would wall off downtown from north St. Louis residents.

The following year, he objected to the planned location of the federal courthouse downtown. He noted that such a tall building would "detract from the Arch and its powerful simplicity."

To the disappointment of many, both projects proceeded as planned.

He had better luck through his involvement with Ladue’s Architectural Review Board in limiting “McMansions” in his neighborhood. He also helped save the historic Cupples 9 building, part of the Cupples Station complex that once numbered 24 buildings.

In 1989, city leaders proposed demolishing the building to make way for a parking lot. Mr. Mackey’s firm developed a comprehensive viability study and he became the building’s most ardent spokesperson. Cupples 9 was saved and has been home to Mackey Mitchell since 2013.

He served on numerous boards of directors, including the Frank Lloyd Wright House, Bellefontaine Cemetery, Channel 9, Tower Grove Park, the Whitaker Foundation and Rainbow Village.

A Spirit of Thanksgiving

Eugene Joseph Mackey III was born Dec. 19, 1938, in Manhattan, Kansas, to Eugene J. Mackey Jr. and Mary Curtin Mackey, who preceded him in death. He graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School in 1956.

He received numerous honors, including elevation to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and he served two terms as president of the local AIA chapter. He received the chapter’s Gold Honor Award, the organization’s highest individual award.

Whether drawing, picking apples, traveling with his family or golfing, Mr. Mackey did so in a spirit of thanksgiving. No matter the circumstances, said his friend Van Brokaw, the refrain was always, ““This is the day the Lord has made, be glad and rejoice in it.”

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by a brother, John E. Mackey.

Mr. Mackey was formerly married to Augustine Mackey, with whom he had four children.

Among his survivors are his wife, Ann Meyer Mackey; two daughters, Elizabeth Perrin of St. Louis and Augustine (Mark) Shodeen of Dallas; two sons, Philip (Mary) Mackey and Eugene Mackey IV of St. Louis; three stepchildren, Clint Whittemore, Barbie Mattie and Katie McAllister; a sister, Ellen Mackey, of St. Louis; nine grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

Visitation is scheduled for noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at Lupton Chapel, 7233 Delmar Boulevard in University City. Mr. Mackey’s funeral and burial were private. 

Tributes can be found at Mackey Mitchell Architects' website.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.