It was probably around 1995 or so. Bill Rain and David Williams had just finished the Lofts of St. Clair, a conversion of the butt-ugly Pinsky Produce building on St. Clair. The aluminum siding had been torn off to expose a beautiful brick building. It had color- and a roof garden. They’d shoved probably one too many “lofts” per floor into it- making them more like apartments than lofts (lofts then were still supposed to be lofts- with open floor plans- and the only real private room being the “privvy.”
The ground floor had office space – a “mixed use” development. OMG. In Downtown Dayton? The city had given them grief about the amazing old HUGE freight elevator (big enough to put your car on it) being used by mere mortals- the project was a condo- so the building owners would be allowed to use it – but not visitors… or some such nonsense. The basement had become a parking garage- a very tight one- but, it worked.
The architects on the project were to be the commercial tenants in the “front” office space- Mary Rogero and Barry Buckman- who had decided to leave Woolpert to begin doing what they thought was missing in Dayton- urban modernist architecture. At first, they lived off projects for Citywide and social-service type grant projects and a few small commissions, but as time moved forward so did the ambition meter. It was here that I first met these urban visionaries who would go on to transform Dayton almost by themselves.
Barry’s wife opened a hip little gift shop, “GO Home” next door to the first upscale restaurant on Fifth Street in the Oregon District- Pacchia. She sold home accessories from companies like Umbra and Alessi, as well as cards, and gift items. She was an architect too- but saw an opening in the market and went for it. The store was different- in that almost all the store fixtures were made by the owner and her husband. A lot of MDF that looked raw yet finished. The racks were on industrial wheels. People waiting to get into Pacchia would browse and buy, there was a reason to go down to the Oregon District to actually buy something other than entertainment or jewelery. Things were looking up.
As Rogero Buckman grew- and evolved to become just RBA– Dayton saw the fruits of their creativity. I’m not going to list everything- just the ones that seemed to really change things:
They turned the vacant and condemnable church at the corner of Cass and Clay into a rock climbing temple- the Urban Krag. It was a stunning re-purposing of a building that had lost its ability to function in a world that requires huge parking lots to serve the purpose it was intended for. I could take a little credit on this one, as I helped Karl and Melissa find this building after their plans for the still vacant DP&L steam building on the corner of 4th and St. Clair never worked out.
They inspired the church’s owner, Tim Patterson, to also try converting the church that backed up to it at Van Buren and Clay- into luxury condos- and the Buckmans moved into the front one. Here was an architect who lived in his project (something that a surprising number of architects don’t do).
RBA moved into the 2nd floor of what became the Cannery at Wayne and E. Third- and guided that complex project of marrying 6 different buildings into one huge rental block with retail on the base floor. Unfortunately, due to some HUD requirements- their original concept of having other businesses join them on the second floor got nixed, and they had to move yet again. The stupidity of this change added to the number of parking spaces required at night- compared to keeping spaces revolving between daytime and nighttime uses- the city was of no help. It took the city at least ten years to authorize the “radical” concept of end-in parking in front of this building- something RBA suggested along with many others right from the start. Go Home moved over to the corner- and grew to sell modern furniture- making it an upstairs-downstairs work situation for the Buckman family.
The CooperLofts were another groundbreaking work- starting with an old warehouse building downtown- and building a totally modern addition- with funky siding and odd angle protrusions. The building at the corner of Second and St. Clair is just two blocks away from the little office where RBA began- and also about the same distance from the Cannery. The circle of influence of this small firm is probably more compact than any other architecture firm in town. It’s as if Barry and Mary were on a mission to transform the city- by working in a spiral from their original base camp.
The sculptures and the two service buildings for Riverscape as well as the Fountain towers are their design, as is the uber hip black house on Emmet Street across the river, the Firefly building on Webster at First (where their third and final office is). The Real Art building on First St. across from the ballpark, the inside of Therapy Cafe in the Cannery, the Fairgrounds neighborhood- project “genesis” was theirs- along with one custom house tucked away by Denny’s that is really cool… the list goes on. The mark RBA made will last a long time in Dayton.
One of their most interesting projects is the LiteHouses along Patterson. These “manufactured” homes- as in built in a factory and trucked to the site to be snapped together like Lego blocks, were an innovative game changer in Dayton. LEED certified, you could buy a home that the annual utility bill was lower than your monthly house payment. The plan was to build a lot of these- but, with the financial collapse and appraisers not able to get out of their “comp” mindset- financing became difficult for the kind of people that these were built for. In a particularly shitty move- the city of Dayton decided to hand over one of the future sites to Charles Simms development (along with $300K) to build something generic across the street.
Along the way I got to do the RBA website (which sadly never really ever got updated) and was seemingly always in their circle of influence. We were kindred souls in having a vision for Dayton that didn’t include cookie cutter solutions. The annual invite to watch the fireworks from the roof of the Firefly building was always appreciated- especially since I could rub elbows with many of the people whom I use as content for this blog :-)
But, despite all our efforts to attract and keep the “Creative Class” in Dayton- we’ve failed.
About a month ago, Barry took a job in North Carolina for a large architecture firm, and Audry closed up her final and fourth location of Go Home- which got a paragraph in the Dayton Daily.
Was it the frustration of dealing with a chief building inspector who could find a new way to say no on every single project they did? Or the city handing off lots that could have had a really cool LiteHouse style block on it? Was it the difficulty of challenging the big firms with political clout and connections- who seemed to use RBA as their minor league farm club? Or was it just the desire to move back to NC and be closer to aging parents? Or all of the above?
Either way- they slipped out of town, without a celebration of their accomplishments and contribution to this community- one that probably won’t be understood by very many people- until maybe twenty years from now. We were lucky to have a 16-year run of exceptional talent doing fantastic things in Dayton. To me, they set the bar higher for every architecture firm in the region. One day, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are architecture tours in Dayton of their projects- as models of how a small firm can make a high impact mark on a community.
In my opinion the difference between RBA and Frank Lloyd Wright was the lack of a benefactor to propel them to their well-deserved glory. Maybe not from an architectural design standard- but to one for transforming a community via good design. When local kingmaker Clay Mathile went outside the area to hire architects to do the Aileron building- he overlooked an opportunity to give the home team a chance to really strut their stuff. Just like local restaurants- if we don’t support them, we may only have the choice of chain restaurant food through our choices.
The office is still open- being run by South Park resident Matt Sauer, finishing up projects and even taking on a few new ones. Mary has been only peripherally involved over the last 4 or so years- as she accepted a professorship at Miami University in Oxford.
While most of Dayton probably never knew who was behind all these buildings and projects, I did.
This is my tribute to Barry and his vision. I hereby proclaim today Barry Buckman and RBA day. Giving you a key to the city is inappropriate- since you were the living embodiment to being the key to our city through the last 16 years.
Dayton, you won’t fully realize what you lost until long from now. Just remember, you read it here first.