Architectural delineator Wallace McTammany has made a career out of being very deliberate
By JOHN NELANDER
Special to the Daily News Monday, December 14, 2009
Perhaps the most prominent landmark on the West Palm Beach skyline is the Northbridge Centre on Olive Avenue. The building, which rises tall, sleek and black into the warm, azure sky, is better known by its local nickname: “The Darth Vader Building.”
Here’s an interesting factoid about it: The first person ever to see it — to admire its jutting, quirky coolness towering over the South Florida coast — was Wallace McTammany. It came out of his head.
He worked slowly and methodically to create a picture of it from an architect’s plans. When he was finished, McTammany looked at the building and said: “This is it. This is what it will look like.”
And he was right. The Northbridge Centre is one of the 3,512 projects he has brought to life as an architectural delineator over his career, which has spanned seven decades.
“I don’t think anybody has made as many perspective drawings as I did,” he says. Of the Northbridge Centre he adds: “It’s a landmark. For a modern building, I think it’s dashing.”
McTammany and his wife, Margaret, have lived in the Patrician condominium in Palm Beach since shortly after it was built in 1969. Until this year, they spent summers at a home in the North Carolina mountains.
McTammany’s home office is decked out top to bottom with memorabilia from his long and colorful career, highlighted by some of his most striking renderings. He has a framed 1960 letter on the wall from the governor of Rhode Island, congratulating him on his rendering of the Providence post office, which was made into a commemorative stamp.
On another wall there are photographs of his 1951 Jaguar, a classic car he drove to parties in Newport when he lived nearby. That was a sprawling home he designed on 10 acres — the structure was based on a 1698 house in Massachusetts.
“I tell you,” he says, nodding in the direction of the framed Jaguar photographs. “That was really a flashy car.”
He’s put together a booklet featuring some of his favorite renderings. An accompanying list of project sites goes on and on, from St. Augustine to Immokalee to Key West. In the United States, from Maine to Kentucky to Colorado. Worldwide, from Acapulco to Paris to the United Arab Emirates.
Architect Eugene Lawrence, founder of the Lawrence Group, has been working with McTammany since the mid-1960s. He says the business now uses a lot more computer-generated images, but they still can’t match the detail and quality offered by McTammany’s brand of hand work.
“To this day, some of the better delineations are done by hand,” Lawrence says. “They have to give people a 3-D look at what something is going to look like, whether it’s for a homeowner or a potential investor. That’s why it’s so important for them to be accurate.
“Wallace has always been very deliberate. When you got a Wallace McTammany delineation, you knew what your building was going to look like.”
Drawing and painting
McTammany has been doing renderings in Palm Beach for more than half a century, from private homes to hotels to fire stations. He began in 1944 when the Allies were still fighting their way through France. He was in the Army stationed in West Palm Beach with an office on Clematis Street.
His personal story, though, begins in 1921 when he was born in Providence, one of a family of five boys. His father was an architect but left the family when McTammany was 4. His mother managed to keep things together while nurturing her children’s varied talents.
“I was always interested in drawing,” McTammany says. “I had a lifetime of it. At our home in Providence we had a blackboard in the kitchen. Half the blackboard was my mother’s notes — what to buy at the store. The other half was my drawings, in chalk.”
McTammany always preferred to work in charcoal and pencil. “It’s softer, I think.” But one day his mother brought him a set of oil paints, and he recalls: “I wouldn’t go to bed. I stayed up all night doing all sorts of things, just fooling around. I painted a guy in a Mexican sombrero, someone else skiing.”
His favorite oil painting hangs on the wall of his dining room — a picture he made of Margaret. “He did it when I was 60,” Margaret says. “But when he did it, he made me look younger.”
War and paradise
McTammany wanted to be a pilot in the war, but couldn’t because of an eye problem. So, he decided to be an airplane mechanic. He arrived at Morrison Field, the military forerunner of Palm Beach International Airport, in 1942.
“I immediately got out of my heavy clothing and into a light khaki uniform. Then they said, ‘We’re going to send you overseas,'” he says. But overseas turned out to be Nassau, and he spent a year living in the classic British Colonial Hotel.
McTammany got married — to his first wife — and lived in an apartment on Worth Avenue toward the end of the war. He eventually designed and built a home in the south end of West Palm Beach.
As the war ended, South Florida remained and undeveloped paradise, its potential untapped. “I used to take my children out to Military Trail so they could listen to the frogs at night. The only other way for them to keep cool was for them to lie on the terrazzo floor.”
Love of the classics
Through it all, McTammany has always worked at home. He says he’d still be working now if it weren’t for the economy — projects have been canceled or put on hold.
One such project is a hotel in North Carolina, for which he recently finished a strikingly detailed charcoal and pencil rendering. Color would have come next, had the project not been shelved.
Of course, the truth is that McTammany never really liked working in watercolor anyway. Clients began demanding it, so he complied. But even the color work is completed with astonishing detail. He has spent his life, he says, working under a magnifying glass.
“I love the classics,” McTammany says, paging through his booklet. “I love the refinement and scale, the artistic stuff. Like this house in Beaver Creek, Colorado,” he adds, pointing to a mountainside mansion on the front cover. It’s a single-family residence with 10 bedrooms.
“I thought it was just so neat,” he says. “If you look very closely, in the doorway you can see a tiny 6-foot man.”
Occupation: Architectural delineator.
Favorite quote: ‘See what you’re looking at.’ — A principle developed by McTammany.
Most admired person: New York architect Seth Harrison Gurnee, who was involved in the design of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Favorite movie: ‘Summer Lease,’ a 1989 UK film about an English family who rents a villa in Tuscany for the summer.