Belmont (Monty) Freeman (b. 1951) founded his New York-based, currently eight-person practice, Belmont Freeman Architects in 1986. Its active projects are half institutional and half residential, with a special focus on adaptive reuse, predominantly in New York and nearby states. Among the firm’s most exemplary projects are the LGBT Carriage House on the University of Pennsylvania campus, a series of restorations at the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, renovations at the Yale Club in Manhattan, and the renovation of the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, designed by Kevin Roche. Current projects include an expansive but minimalist residential compound on Martha’s Vineyard, branch library renovations in New York City, and redevelopment of a former meatpacking building into a new Innovation Hub for Columbia University’s Business School.
Monty Freeman was born and grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of an American father and a Cuban mother. His father, a native of North Carolina, was in intelligence service during World War Two and then in diplomatic service. His mother was from a cosmopolitan Havana family. His parents met at the University of North Carolina where the architect’s father was doing his PhD work in French history and language. In 1959, the family, which included Monty’s three sisters, moved to Brussels, Belgium where the father was a political attaché at the U.S. embassy. Living in Europe, the Freemans made frequent trips to France, Germany, Spain, and other countries, which was out of the ordinary for an American family at the time. “That’s when my eyes were opened to the beauty of architecture, getting a sense of a bigger world and richness of culture. Ever since then, I have been interested in art, buildings, design, and the surrounding beauty,” Monty Freeman told me in our interview over Zoom from his vacation house on Long Island. What follows is a condensed version of our insightful conversation about his studies under Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania and Vincent Scully at Yale, a decade-long experience of serving as the President of the Board at Storefront for Art and Architecture, being the “house architect” for the famed Four Seasons restaurant, his interactions with Kevin Roche, organizing architectural tours to Cuba, and about a dinner that fundamentally changed the course of his life.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You studied architecture first at Yale University where you received a degree in Urban Studies and Art History in 1973 and then at the University of Pennsylvania, from which you earned a Master of Architecture in 1976. Would you credit anyone there as a particular influence on you?
Monty Freeman: It was the time when the Art and Architecture Building at Yale still had the smell from the infamous 1969 fire. The morale at the Architecture School was low, which was one of the reasons I decided not to major in architecture as an undergraduate and why I did not consider staying at Yale for my master’s degree. Anyway, at that time everyone wanted to go to Penn because Louis Kahn was still teaching there. It was the place to be. He was not my professor, but I attended many of his lectures. And, while at Yale, I was exposed to Kahn a lot because Vincent Scully, the famous history professor, would invite him to New Haven to talk to his students. Kahn died the first year I was at Penn. But I had a chance to be around him and many of his former students and employees. He was the ethos of the school.
Speaking of the primary influences on me, one certainly was Vincent Scully and his lectures – both on general art history and modern architecture, as well as a seminar that I took with him. That supercharged my interest in architecture and compelled me to commit to studying architecture in graduate school.
VB: What was the decade between your graduation and opening your own practice like?
MF: That was the time of the mid-1970s recession when many architects had little work. Students benefitted greatly from that circumstance because a lot of good architects went into teaching during those years. I met Lew Davis and Sam Brody of Davis, Brody & Associates from New York when they came to teach a studio at Penn. I loved working with them. When I graduated, they offered me a job. They had just gotten their first significant commission after the recession, during which their firm had gone down from 200 to 20 people. I was their first hire, as they started growing back up to about 100 people during my tenure there. I stayed at DBA for almost ten years – from 1977 to 1986. At a very young age, I was the lead designer on important projects, mainly academic buildings – at Brown University, Yale, Columbia, and elsewhere. That’s where I learned how to make a building.
VB: And yet, you decided to strike on your own. Why?
MF: As I was approaching my ten-year anniversary at Davis Brody and my 35th birthday, I felt that I either had to break away and do something on my own or commit myself to the firm for the rest of my life. But I felt young, still, and it seemed foolish to me to just do one job for my entire career. There were no negative reasons for me to leave. I was happy there and I was clearly on the road to partnership.
VB: Were you all alone in starting your company?
MF: No, I had an accomplice. A co-worker at Davis Brody, Max Pizer, was my classmate at Penn. We were running projects together at Davis Brody – Max as the project manager and I as designer. So, we already had a routine going, and we decided to start our own practice together. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do so solo. For a while, I was waiting for a big freelance project to come along to justify this move. That never happened, but we left anyway. That was really the most deliberate decision I ever made in my life. It changed everything. In 1986, we became Freeman & Pizer Architects.
Our first project was a bridal salon in Belmar, New Jersey. [Laughs.] It involved a total remodeling of an existing structure – new façade and new interiors. Apartment renovations and retail stores followed – all by word of mouth. Then my experience of working on university projects when I was at Davis Brody kicked in. A former colleague from that office had become a campus architect at Columbia University. She knew what I was capable of, and she gave us the opportunity to design some serious projects on the medical school campus – a new laboratory, the renovation of a large auditorium. That’s how I got into institutional work early on. Then in the early 90s, another recession came, and our work dried up. In 1994, Max left the firm, as he needed a reliable income, and I took over the firm, renaming it Belmont Freeman Architects.
VB: Looking at a wide range of your interests one stands out – Cuba. Could you talk about your Cuban roots and how it became a major interest of yours professionally?
MF: In 1998, I found out about a 10-day architectural tour to Cuba being organized. Until then Cuba was pretty much closed to American tourism. I signed up and the experience of seeing the country and its architecture – from 17th century to 1960s modernism, was transformative for me. Plus, I felt at home there. I was the first person in my immediate family to go back to Cuba since the revolution. Then, in 2000, I was able to take my mother and my older sister on a tour that I organized especially for them. The same year, I went back to see the Art Biennale in Havana where I came across an exhibition of vintage photographs of radically modern avant-garde architecture of the 1960s. I had never seen anything like it. Nobody had. It was work totally unknown. I contacted the curator, Cuban architect and historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, and offered to collaborate on bringing this exhibition to New York. At the time, I was the President of Storefront for Art and Architecture. It took three years to bring the show to Storefront, which opened in 2004. That experience totally immersed me into studying Cuban modern art and architecture and led to organizing my own architectural tours there. I must have been to Cuba at least 50 times. Those were blissful trips and people still remember them as the most amazing experiences. I have also led larger, “official” tours for the Society of Architectural Historians and Docomomo. I have become an expert on Cuban architecture, and I am regularly asked to give lectures on the subject. In 2019, I acquired a home in Havana, and I hope to practice there, eventually, once the Cuban and the U.S. governments establish normal relations.
VB: How did you get involved with Storefront for Art and Architecture?
MF: In the 1990s, when business was very slow, I was working essentially pro bono for the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit that celebrates culinary culture in America. It was started by friends and colleagues of James Beard, the famous American chef and cookbook author, after his death, and I was involved in the renovation of his house on West 12th Street. The foundation was planning a gala dinner at the Four Seasons in the Seagram Building. Because of the history of the restaurant, my idea was to turn it from just a culinary event into also an event to highlight the architectural and design significance of the place. So, I rather boldly contacted Phyllis Lambert, who famously commissioned Mies van Der Rohe to design the Seagram Building on behalf of her father, Samuel Bronfman. I suggested that we put together an architects’ table. Phyllis liked that idea and agreed to give a talk at the gala on how the restaurant came about.
The people whom we invited to that table were Terence Riley from MoMA, Barry Bergdoll from Columbia University, Suzanne Stephens from Architectural Record, Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio who haven’t built anything yet, Kyong Park, the founder of Storefront and his partner and co-director Shirin Neshat, and Ada Luis Huxtable, whom I revered and I made sure would be seated next to me. [Laughs.] Philip Johnson who, of course, designed the Four Seasons, was invited but not able to come due to illness. I am very proud of engineering that gathering. We had a wonderful conversation, one of the most memorable and exciting evenings of my life.
A few days later Kyong and Shirin invited me to Storefront. I guess they had an impression that if I co-hosted such a party with Phyllis Lambert, I must be rich and important, which was far from the case. [Laughs.] Not long after that they asked me to join their board. I was elected to become the board’s president because one of our first meetings was held at the conference room of my Midtown office with good wine being served. I was the only one, at the time, who headed a real architectural office, not a studio on the side of a teaching job, as other members had. It was a time when Storefront was facing a lot of debt and uncertainty, and it was stressful. For example, there were months when I had to pay the rent out of my own pocket, and the people working at Storefront were on my office medical insurance policy. Still, to me it was the best of times; intellectually it was very stimulating. It kept me involved in the realm of architectural ideas and was very gratifying socially. I got to know everyone in the world of architecture, and they got to know me. I am still on the board, but not as active.
VB: What would you say your architecture is about?
MF: I like to think about my architecture as one of restraint and creating order out of complex programmatic and contextual situations with the fewest moves, physical and aesthetic. I consider myself a minimalist. And I think the environments that I design to be minimalist but also humane and occupiable. Most of my projects are adaptive reuse, which is a very sustainable practice.
VB: How do you make yourself visible in those projects?
MF: By very judicious and calculated insertions of modern design. I am totally committed to the notion that preservation and good modern design can coexist to their mutual benefit, both on the level of materials and details and on the urban scale.
VB: Asking an architect about his or her favorite project is like choosing who is your favorite child. Still, is there a particular project, which you could call your manifesto?
MF: I would say the Carriage House at the University of Pennsylvania, which is the LGBT Center. It is a pair of cojoined carriage houses from 1876. Getting that commission was very meaningful to me, being a Penn alum, being gay, and loving that campus. We did a landmark quality restoration of the building’s exterior, but the interior had been so badly mutilated over the years that we had to gut it, preserving and highlighting a few intact elements such as structural wooden trusses. Otherwise, it was a totally modern interior – polished concrete floors, steel and glass stair, a new elevator. There I succeeded bringing together preservation and modern design into equal balance. The Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University is another favorite but that was more of a preservation project of a modern building where I left fewer fingerprints.
VB: The Zilkha Gallery was designed by Kevin Roche. How did you receive that commission and why didn’t it go to the original architect?
MF: Good question! [Laughs.] He did not have a good relationship with Wesleyan at the time. In 1970, he and his partner John Dinkeloo designed this beautiful complex of buildings, one of which was theZilkha Gallery. But he disapproved of alterations done in later years by the university, especially because they had not consulted him. He was offended by that. When the time came to renovate his Zilkha Gallery the university felt that they really couldn’t go to Roche Dinkeloo. I was thrilled to be selected, especially since I was chosen over some well-regarded architects who specialized in art gallery design. Later the chief curator told me that I listened to her during my interview, whereas the other architects were too bossy, telling her what needed to be done. I credit my father – diplomat and conciliator – for this important skill. [Laughs.]
Once I got the commission, the very first thing I did was to write a letter to Kevin Roche. I got a very gracious response from him. He invited me and my project architect to meet at his office. He and his original project architect pulled out the old drawings and shared everything with us. He was very appreciative of my reaching out to him, and I went there again to share my schematic ideas and choices of materials with him, which he blessed. And then he came to the rededication ceremony.
VB: Did he make peace with the university administration?
MF: He made peace. That was very gratifying.
VB: I understand that working on the restoration of the Four Seasons was another benefit of that once-in-a-lifetime dinner party that you described earlier, right?
MF: That’s right. In the years after Philip Johnson’s death things started going astray there, design-wise, and Phyllis felt that a place like the Four Seasons needed a “house architect” just to look after things. She picked me for the job, which led to about five years of working there, executing a number of renovations, mainly very subtle –metalwork, woodwork, lighting, bar accessories, and a gut renovation of the women’s lounge. We investigated and researched the place throughout, identifying the original materials and fixtures, and planned out how to proceed in small phases to avoid the restaurant ever having to close. And I consulted with Ada Louise Huxtable, who had been involved, with her husband, the industrial designer L. Garth Huxtable, in designing components of the original restaurant. But then, the developer Aby Rosen, the new owner of the Seagram Building, refused to renew the lease with the restaurant owners and their investments in renovation projects were stopped. In 2019, the restaurant was closed.We lost an institution that was of incomparable cultural value. Not just because of its design, as the “High Temple of Modernism,” but also the history that transpired there. For example, John F. Kennedy’s 45th Birthday dinner after the party at Madison Square Garden where Marylin Monroe sang her famous “Happy Birthday” song. And so many deals were made in the Grill Room, the birthplace of the “power lunch.”
VB: When you discuss your work, you mention such words as craft, process, minimalism. What other words would you use to describe the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?
MF: I think the most sustainable architecture you can achieve, which is the number one goal now in the profession, is to reuse the existing structure. We were invested in this before it became a fashionable thing to do. Restraint is an important part of my aesthetics. I think there are too many gimmicks crammed into architecture and design these days. I would rather be known as an architect of elegant restraint. I also like projects that have technical complexity. I love working on floor plans to make them work, as Louis Kahn used to say, “to make them sing,” meaning achieving a perfect harmony, when everything seems to be just right between the plan, section, and elevation, and not in a boring way but in a way that’s very much alive and stimulating to the senses. So, I try to work on my designs until I know that everything is in the right balance, in perfect equipoise.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Adaptive Reuse. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.