Local Obituaries

He built a big airport terminal in the middle of 9/11. ‘Gentleman’ architect dies at 77

Architect Henry Alexander won numerous honors in his field. But his other great passion was photography. Here, in a photo taken by his sister-in-law Gail Rieke, he shoots at The Kampong in Coconut Grove in January 2017. He was a docent at The Kampong and at the Lowe Art Museum at University of Miami.
Architect Henry Alexander won numerous honors in his field. But his other great passion was photography. Here, in a photo taken by his sister-in-law Gail Rieke, he shoots at The Kampong in Coconut Grove in January 2017. He was a docent at The Kampong and at the Lowe Art Museum at University of Miami.

Architect Henry Alexander went big — a $1.1 billion Miami International Airport South Terminal expansion for which he served as a co-project manager. And he went comparatively small, as when he designed his own family home in Coconut Grove.

In both instances, Alexander, a former president of the American Institute of Architects’ Miami chapter (AIA/Miami), left behind a legacy.

Alexander died May 17 from pulmonary fibrosis, his wife and sole survivor Karen Alexander said. He was 77.

“Henry lived in the design of his own house and he lived in his ability to command and handle large projects such as the airport. Those are the two that stand out to me the best. The airport was the most special because of its magnitude and quality,” said prominent preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, founder of the Coral Gables firm, R. J. Heisenbottle, and president of Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA).

“Henry truly was one of the finest men I knew and his dedication to the service and to the profession of architecture was virtually second to none. So many AIA fellows owe their fellowship to Henry for the encouragement he put in for so many years,” Heisenbottle said.

house
The Alexander home in Coconut Grove was designed by architect Henry Alexander, who lived here with his wife, Karen Alexander. In 1982, the home won an award of excellence from the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architecture. Dan Forer

The home Henry and Karen Alexander shared proved an architectural marvel. Designed as a square within a circle plus another square on a diagonal, the three-level Grove home, with its weathering cypress exterior and white interior, sits at a 45-degree angle from the street. The idea, which teased Alexander’s mind for years, takes advantage of breezes and the sun’s positioning, giving the home a sense of movement.

The design won the Miami-born architect an award of excellence from the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architecture in 1982.

Alexander undertook the massive 12-year airport expansion as project co-manager in 1996 when he was executive vice president of Mateu Rizo Carreño & Partners, a Miami firm.

Architect Roney Mateu, who called Alexander “the embodiment of the gentleman architect,” credits his unflappable nature with bringing the complicated, million-square-foot airport project to fruition as he dealt with contractors, airport executives, fellow architects and a world changing attack on American soil.

“That was 12 years from design to construction and in the middle of all that 9/11 occurred, so a bunch of new things were added to the project after it was designed. And all that work had to be built while the airport was open,” Mateu said.

“Henry was saddled with an incredible amount of responsibility and it took someone like Henry, who had the ability to maintain a very level-headed, captain of the ship kind of role — which I would never have. I would have lost it 50 times. He was handmade for this complexity,” he added.

Judy Carty, his co-project manager on the MIA expansion when she was with Borelli + Partners, agrees.

“Henry was what we all wanted to grow up to be like — myself and Roney — who tend to be different characters,” said Carty, who now runs Carty Architecture in Coral Gables.

God must be planning a major renovation in Heaven.

Miguel A. Rodriguez, Rodriguez Architects, Inc., on Henry Alexander.

Alexander “had a way of making everybody feel included and comfortable in a scholarly manner,” Carty added. “His intent was for younger architects to make sure they understood what we were doing. Teaching was as important to him as getting the job done correctly.”

But it was Alexander’s gracious manners that drew Karen Alexander when they were students at the University of Florida in 1963.

She was a graphic design major in the art department living off campus. He was in the architecture building, living on campus in converted army barracks. The women in the graphics department would often walk the short path to the men’s barracks, where the coffee machine was located, Alexander’s wife said.

“He had his own studio, a teeny room. Henry had wallpapered it with pages from the Wall Street Journal. I thought that was a good sign. He was acknowledged as one of the best designers in class and he was a lovely man. He had absolutely beautiful manners,” Karen Alexander said.

OBIT HENRY ALEXANDER faia award
Henry Alexander, FAIA, won the AIA Florida Gold Award ho

After school, Alexander went into the Coast Guard during Vietnam and Karen “went to New York to seek my fortune,” she said. “I never found my fortune.”

Instead, she rejoined her family in Miami Beach and reconnected with her beau.

“We were driving on a Saturday on Biscayne by the Jewish Federation. He stops the car in the middle of the street. He said, ‘Karen, there’s an injured bird over there. I need to pick it up and take it home.’ That sealed the deal. He was very tender-hearted,” Alexander said.

The couple wed at her family home on Alton Road and 42nd Street in 1967. June 25 would have been their 50th anniversary.

Alexander’s career affiliations included regional director of the national AIA board, representing Florida and the Caribbean, from 1995 to 1997. In 2007, the Florida Association of the AIA recognized his contributions by awarding him the AIA Florida Gold Medal.

After he retired, Alexander became a docent at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami and The Kampong in Coconut Grove, where he developed his passion for photography. He filled his computer with photo albums. “As an architect, you tend to develop a good eye,” his wife said.

His moral compass never broke and his staunch example of honor was unchallengeable.

Roney J. Mateu, principal Mateau Architecture, on Henry Alexander.

“Henry was the consummate professional, devoted to architecture and enmeshed in the life of the community. He and Karen were a familiar sight at both architectural and cultural events, and enthusiastic urban explorers,” said Beth Dunlop, editor of Modern Magazine and the Herald’s former architecture critic.

Services will be at 10 a.m. June 17 at The Kampong, 4013 Douglas Rd., Coconut Grove, where donations in Alexander’s name can be made to The Kampong. AIA/Miami is establishing a scholarship fund for undergraduate architecture students at University of Miami and Florida International University in Alexander’s name, said executive vice president Cheryl Jacobs. Call 305-448-7488 for information.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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