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James Gibson: The ‘father’ of Vero Beach architecture
BY MICHELLE GENZ - STAFF WRITER (Week of December 17, 2009)

If there is a father of Vero architecture, it may well be James Gibson.

John’s Island’s fi rst resident architect, designer of the original Vero Beach Museum of Art and Riverside Theatre, dozens of offi ce buildings and hundreds of homes, Gibson has left his subtle mark on the island’s most defi ning structures.

From 1969 to today, his vision of orderly elegance has given the neighborhoods of Vero Beach’s barrier island a restrained and unobtrusive Georgianstyle foundation within the capricious lushness of the subtropics.

It was Gibson, who, in the 45-acre Riverside Park, set the neo-classical museum and Riverside Theatre in the midst of sweeping live oaks, casting ordered lines amidst the wind-hewn landscape.

And when the town of Indian River Shores looked to implement strict building standards, aiming to avoid the high-rise clutter of coastal cities to the south, it turned to Gibson.

Now in his 60th year of practicing architecture, his newest gift to the community is not only a matter of the visual.

Gibson, an accomplished musician, long active on the boards of Vero’s top musical organizations, is donating his cherished 1923 nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano to the art museum. The piano will be featured next month in a concert by the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, long one of Gibson’s favorite causes.

The merging of Gibson’s gifts – the magnificent instrument he played for three decades, permanently ensconced in the serene space he designed — is sure to resonate through the island’s arts patrons as they hear it played for the first time in the museum’s Leonhardt Auditorium.

Though an ardent student of urban design, Gibson arrived in Vero knowing virtually nothing about the place he would call home for the second half of his long life. Gibson, then a recent widower, moved from Michigan with his three sons.

“Vero Beach was absolute news to me,” says Gibson. “It was very, very small.”

The most striking piece of architecture he found was the Ocean Grill. “I’ve always been intrigued by the pure imagination that went into that building,” he says. “That wonderfully wavy floor. You almost get drunk just going to your table.”

Vero, a sleepy town of around 5,000, was just beginning to attract an eclectic island population of warmthseeking retirees with tastes refl ective of the urban centers where fortunes had been made. All seemed intent on safeguarding the natural beauty of the place that added to the air of intimacy and privacy.

The idyllic landscape of the north barrier island had already caught the eye of Gibson’s neighbor in Grosse Pointe, Llwyd Ecclestone, who was about to begin developing John’s Island. Having finished his first luxury gated community in Palm Beach county several years earlier, Ecclestone hired Gibson to give a unique and unifying character to the fi- rst few hundred homes of the now iconic development.

To take in the expanse of ancient oaks, cabbage palms and savage undergrowth blanketing the 3,000 acre tract, Ecclestone took to the air. “We had to view it from a helicopter,” recalls Gibson. “There was no way to walk around.”

Gibson considered Ecclestone’s target audience: affluent New Englanders who wanted to retire to an uncomplicated, leisure-driven, unpretentious life out of the limelight.

In contrast to the Mizner mansions of south Florida that reflected more closely the climates of their Mediterranean designs, Gibson envisioned an understated, more utilitarian style for the homes and clubhouses of the enclave-to-be.

“I didn’t see anything in Florida that particularly appealed to me outside of the Spanish style. That was something that had been seen for years in Palm Beach.”

Long an admirer of Georgian architecture, with its classic lines and symmetry, Gibson felt that Vero’s northern- based winter residents would appreciate the familiarity of the design and “be very comfortable,” as Gibson put it.

“I was given carte blanche,” he says. “Georgian style is what I like to do. And so, that’s what I did.”

In addition to the estimated 600 homes, Gibson designed the gated community’s original golf and beach clubs, its 105-room hotel and 13 oceanfront condominiums and townhouses.

Over the years, Gibson’s buildings went beyond the borders of John’s Island to include homes in The Moorings and Windsor, the clubhouse at Sea Oaks, and dozens of commercial buildings along Central Beach.

He also etched the character of the then-newly minted town of Indian River Shores, putting to paper his ideas of how construction should evolve there.

“It was barely there at the time, but I wrote most of the rules about how the town should look, how close buildings were together, how high they could be. I was interested in maintaining what made this a very appealing kind of town.

“That’s how we kept from suddenly having a bunch of high rises, like what happened to Fort Lauderdale. It’s whoever is at the helm at the particular moment and does what needs to be done to keep mistakes from happening down the road.”

Over the ensuing decades, as Vero’s population grew, it has continued to remind him of the town he grew up in, a suburb of Portland, Oregon, with a viable Main Street encircled with oaks and a vibrant arts community.

Gibson was born into a highly musical family. His father, an attorney, played trumpet. His mother was a fi ne pianist, as was his brother, 10 years senior. His sister had a beautiful voice; she went on to become an opera singer.

Like his mother and brother, Gibson also played piano. But his chief instrument was the violin.

When he wasn’t playing music, he was drawing houses. He was fascinated with the construction sites of his father’s rental properties, and tagged along whenever he could. “I was so intrigued at how they went together,” he says, as if they were made of Legos and Lincoln Logs. “I had nothing to do but follow after the workers and kibitz on everything that was being done. I was just fascinated.”

His doodles were always of little buildings. By the time he was in high school, his sketches had reached such a level of proficiency that his father used two of his designs.

At the University of Oregon, he chose to study music. On graduation, he joined the infantry, leading to a combat stint that included the Battle of the Bulge. After four years in “the olive drab life” as he puts it, he assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become an attorney, and pursued a law degree at Duke.

In the midst of his studies, though, his father announced he had an excellent offer on the family law fi rm. It was a moment of truth for Gibson, and he told his father to sell.

“I would have made the lousiest attorney in the world,” he says, “because I had always wanted to be an architect, from the time I was a little kid.”

Fulfulling that childhood dream, he earned his architecture degree at the University of Michigan.

For the next two decades, he worked with a Michigan firm specializing in large commercial projects and general architecture, eventually as a partner. In his tenure, he worked on two major wings of the mammoth Detroit Institute of the Arts. He also worked on a building housing the Department of State in Washington, DC, as well as the Henry Ford Library and a number of buildings at Michigan State University.

When his wife died, his neighbor Ecclestone, who lived across the street from Gibson’s Grosse Pointe Italianate mansion (totally restored by Gibson over the course of 20 years, as was a later purchase: a 200-year-old home in Charleston) suggested he come make his mark on a little place called Vero Beach.

“When I first came here, everybody knew everybody else. It’s not a place where people are social climbers. Although many of them are very social, and very important, they don’t try to prove it. I find it a very graceful place to live.”

Gibson was immediately embraced by the arts community, who found the elegant prematurely white-haired gentleman as handsome as his buildings. Modest to his own detriment, many who know him say Gibson appears to take far more interest in the accomplishments of those around him than in his own contributions.

“This dear man says very little and means very much,” says Jean McMullen, whose gratitude for her old friend runs deep , in particular for his part in the genesis of the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, founded by her husband Andrew McMullen.

“All those ads for John’s Island real estate that call a house a ‘Gibson’ house? Those are his,” she says.

Over the years, it has thrilled Gibson to see so many interesting residents choose Vero as he did.

“Look at how many authors we have around town, and two Metropolitan Opera singers – it just goes on and on. It’s remarkable for a small town like this, that’s kind of quiet and laid back. That’s its appeal, as far as I’m concerned.”

Most impressive was the way so many high achievers, now with time on their hands and a craving for cultural quality, seemed to make grand ideas come to fruition. Things would sprout overnight, seemingly out of nothing more than idle chatter at a cocktail party, Gibson says.

“That’s the way things happen around here,” he says. “They all get together and say, ‘We’re going to do it,’ and then they do.”

There was also an interested party: his new wife, the late Susan Gibson, herself an artist and mother of four.

“It helps to have someone egging you on,” he says with a smile.

Among the institutions to sprout in that manner: Riverside Theatre, built to Gibson’s pro-bono design in 1973.

“Once they decided to have that auditorium, they went out and started working for the money to do it. I’ve never seen anything happen so fast in my life. It seemed like within a month they raised what they needed.

“Or thought they needed,” Gibson adds. Originally built to stage performances by the Vero Beach Theatre Guild, funds ran so low that they ran out of money before a curtain could be hung; exterior steps were built rather than aisles to seat the audience, in order to save on air conditioned space.

“That’s part of the fun of being an architect,” he says. “It’s little bits of solving problems all the time. You respond to the demands and uses and needs of the people who occupy your buildings, not only in a physical way, but in a spiritual way.”

One spiritual lack due to low funds was that the theater had no piano.

Gibson was instrumental in bringing in that Steinway too. He was president of the Vero Beach Concert Association when famed pianist Lili Kraus came to town to play, and afterward, gently complained about the instrument she had performed on. Gibson apologized, explaining that it was only a rental, that there were no funds to buy a piano. Kraus offered on the spot to return the next year and perform another concert to raise funds to buy the theater its own concert grand.

That Steinway, which Gibson and others selected from the Steinway showroom in New York, now belongs to Riverside.

Around that time, Gibson was shopping for his own piano, to replace the smaller parlor grand piano he kept in the living room of his John’s Island home. Along with two harps, the pianos were used for practice by musicians visiting Vero for various concerts from Gibson’s long tenure at the Concert Association, the Treasure Coast Opera Association, and later the Atlantic Classical Orchestra.

When he came across the Steinway concert grand, he knew he had to own it. The piano, built in 1923, had been built for the company’s concert division, one of several hundred stationed in cities around the country and used for concerts by top pianists. When at last the piano was retired after 44 years in use, it was bought by a New Orleans piano dealer, from whom Gibson acquired it in 1974.

For the next 14 years, he kept it at John’s Island, eventually moving it to Charleston, where Gibson has long kept a second home. The 87-year-old piano is valued at $50,000 — about half what a new concert grand costs today.

As for the museum that today proudly houses the Gibson grand piano, its look has changed since Gibson designed it, with a signifi cant expansion that turned the building around to face the parking lots instead of the street. But for Gibson, the building is still his offspring.

“It seems like one of my children,” he says.