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Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA: Bringing Architecture to the Public

History, play, and preservation are just a few of the ways architects can create a meeting place for architecture and the public.

By Kim O’Connell

Over the past couple of years, Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, has developed something of a personal motto: “From Bethune to Barbie.” The Buffalo, N.Y.–based architect has devoted much of her career to educating the public about architects and architecture, focusing particularly on the role of women. She co-curated a groundbreaking exhibit about the life of Louise Bethune, the first woman admitted to the AIA and first female member of its College of Fellows. Partnering with her University at Buffalo colleague Despina Stratigakos, Hayes McAlonie also collaborated with Mattel to develop Architect Barbie, part of Mattel’s “I Can Be…” career series of dolls, released at the AIA 2011 National Convention in New Orleans.

With a master of architecture degree from Dalhousie University (which merged with the Technical University of Nova Scotia in 1996), Hayes McAlonie worked at Ithaca, N.Y.–based Leathers & Associates designing children’s environments before moving into master planning and academic programming for Cannon Design in Grand Island, N.Y. Most recently, she served as the assistant director and interim assistant vice president of the Capital Planning Group at the University at Buffalo, where she is involved in a range of campus projects.

She just began her term as president of AIA New York State and is now engaged in the ongoing restoration of the Richardson Olmsted Complex (formerly the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane). This is the same massive National Historic Landmark complex that announced H.H. Richardson early in his career as a titan of 19th-century architecture. Hayes McAlonie describes her quest to bring it back from the brink and other ways she’s used architecture and architects to tell the public stories about the value of design.

LESSON ONE: Telling the story—and value—of architecture through one historic woman

Louise Bethune

“Considering that architecture is shelter—a basic need—the fact that many people don’t know what architects do astounds me. My volunteer work is all about educating the public about the value of architecture. In my first job out of architecture school, I worked for a firm where we designed playgrounds, and volunteerism was the cornerstone of the work, because they were all community-built. When I moved to Buffalo, I got more and more active in the AIA and learned about Louise Bethune.

An architect here named Adriana Barbasch, [AIA], spent 20 years researching Bethune. When she retired, she gave all her research to me. I started to write about Bethune in local magazines, and I promoted her to the national AIA, which worked with my old firm Cannon Design to create an exhibit in the Bethune room at AIA headquarters.

Two years ago, I came upon the name of a great-granddaughter of William Fuchs, one of Bethune’s business partners. Going through her father’s estate, she had found a small cache of items belonging to Bethune, including three sets of drawings and a previously unknown photograph of her. Suddenly we had enough material for an exhibit, which we developed with The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. With assistance from my husband, Brian McAlonie, vice president for museum services for an exhibition design firm, we created a seven-panel exhibit in the beautiful state court of the historical society.

The exhibit addressed Bethune’s apprenticeship, career, advocacy, AIA involvement, and her masterpiece, Buffalo’s Lafayette Hotel, as well as her other pursuits. For example, she was the first woman to own a bicycle in Buffalo. Back then it was still not acceptable for women to ride bicycles. She and other women formed the Buffalo Women’s Wheeling and Athletic Club. Susan B. Anthony once said that ‘wheeling,’ as it was then known, ‘has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.’

Bethune was a woman who had a strong sense of herself and her convictions. Who wouldn’t be drawn to someone like that?”

LESSON TWO: Play as public outreach

Architect Barbie

“The Barbie story began when I met Despina [Stratigakos] in 2008. She is a professor in the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, and she had developed an exhibit on Architect Barbie while she was teaching at the University of Michigan. A few years ago, the Mattel toy company had sponsored a vote to choose Barbie’s next career, and architect won, but the company didn’t pursue it. In 2010, Mattel sponsored another election to choose Barbie’s 125th career, so we got the entire architecture community involved and we all voted, but we lost to Computer Engineer Barbie. Despina and I decided to contact Mattel and urge them to create Architect Barbie anyway. We told the company that women were still underrepresented in the profession, and yet at the same time women were actively pursuing architecture in school. A couple months later, we got a call from Mattel about collaborating.

Since her debut last year, Architect Barbie has sparked a huge discussion about what architects do, what they wear, why so few women are elevated in private practice, and why they leave the profession.

My interest in developing Architect Barbie was more about reaching out to the general public and using [it] as a vehicle to teach design to kids. That really came to pass when we did the workshops at the convention. With AIA’s and Mattel’s gracious support, we planned a series of workshops where 400 girls aged 5 to 10 came and learned about architects. We talked to them about women architects and took them through a short design exercise. Each of the girls took the doll home as a gift. It was so exciting to see the look of rapture in their eyes, and their new understanding about architecture and the role of architects.”

LESSON THREE: Historic preservation as sustainability

Richardson Olmsted Complex

“Buffalo has buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and H.H. Richardson—a who’s who of late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture. For the past three years, I’ve served on the board of the Richardson Center Corporation and Buffalo Architecture Center, which is preserving the Richardson-designed buildings and reviving the original Frederick Law Olmsted landscape of what was once the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. This was Richardson’s largest project, and since the 1970s it’s largely been vacant. This is a masterful building by one of the three fathers of American architecture that’s in jeopardy. The mission of the corporation is to rehabilitate it so it can become a mixed-use project for the community.

Our work right now is focused on stabilization and implementing the first phase of the master plan, which is a boutique hotel, conference center, and architecture center. The specific project I’m managing is the rehabilitation of Olmsted’s south lawn. A lot of that lawn is no longer from Olmsted’s time, so we’ve hired Andropogon Associates to design a garden that’s in keeping with Olmsted’s landscape.

It’s been exciting to be part of the rehabilitation and reuse of such an important Buffalo landmark. By showing how a large historic complex can be sensitively and sustainably adapted for modern needs, it will be an unbelievably visible showcase of the national preservation movement and the architecture profession. We’re giving it a new life and a new occupation. The architecture center will be a teaching center on many levels, which is right up my alley.”


Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, at an Architect Barbie workshop for girls at the AIA 2011 National Convention in New Orleans. Image courtesy of Barbara Campagna.

Architect Barbie. Image courtesy of Mattel.

The Louise Bethune exhibit at The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. Image courtesy of Brian McAlonie.

Former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, which is being renovated into the Richardson Olmsted Complex. It will contain a boutique hotel, conference center, and architecture center. Image courtesy of Brian Faix.


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