John Petrarca, Tribeca architect and guardian, 51

By Albert Amateau

John Petrarca, a Tribeca resident and architect whose design work and public advocacy put a mark on his neighborhood, died Fri., May 9 at his home on Reade St. at the age of 51.

He died from lung cancer, which he had for two years, said his wife, Sarah C. Bartlett.

His architecture combined advanced technology and innovative design with a deep respect for the surrounding historic context. A row of Reade St. townhouses, the first new single-family homes to be built in Lower Manhattan in decades and the conversion of the former state office tower on Broadway and Chambers St. into a residential and commercial complex, indicate the range of his activities.

At the same time, he was a leading figure in the “Greening of Greenwich St.,” a community-based project reconfiguring and landscaping Greenwich between Chambers and Hubert Sts. As a member of Community Board 1 from 1994 to 1999 and chairperson of the board’s landmarks committee, he was a guardian of Downtown landmarks and historic districts.

“There is no question that John Petrarca literally changed the face of Tribeca, not only by his innovative architecture but by his advocacy for the Greenwich St. project,” said Doug Sterner, a founder with Petrarca of the Greening project. “The landscaped street is a living memorial to John and the neighborhood will enjoy the fruits of his labors for years to come,” said Sterner, who also paid tribute to Petrarca’s ability to solve political as well as design problems.

The Greening project to widen the sidewalk and add trees was funded by Shearson Lehman (now Citigroup) in connection with construction of the company headquarters on Greenwich St., took years of persuasion, design consultation, stop and go construction and was finally completed at the end of 2000.

Nancy Owens, a landscape architect and former member of Community Board 1, recalled the many projects that Petrarca worked on. “He was so knowledgeable and a great collaborator,” she said. “He was very organized and optimistic. If someone said ‘You can’t do that,’ he’d always say ‘We can try.’ He was able to see beyond the problems and focus on the goals.”

He and Owens organized Lower Manhattan Designers League in 1996, a group that held periodic forums on land use and design issues. “We had 100 members and held forums with guest speakers. City Planning sent someone to our first meeting,” Owens said. “He was a can-do guy, very confident and he inspired confidence in me,” she added.

Bruce Ehrmann, a real estate broker and current head of the community board landmarks committee, also called Petrarca a visionary. “He would build things that other developers wouldn’t – projects that cost more to build but were much cheaper to run four or five years down the line,” said Ehrmann. The Reade St. townhouses, for example, had two sets of exterior walls for insulation and were designed for geothermal heating and cooling that required a 1,250-ft well.

“John had a beautiful eye for design and he was a stickler for protecting landmarks. I learned how to chair the landmarks committee from John’s example,” said Ehrmann.

Erhmann recalled the time he was acting for an owner of a landmarked building who was seeking permission to attach a sign. “It needed bolts that pierced the exterior wall of the building, but John said we couldn’t do that and suggested another method that was much more expensive. We told him that everybody does it the way we wanted to, but John said if we did, he’d file a landmarks complaint. So we did it John’s way.”

Petrarca would often encourage fellow architects before his committee to look for modern ways to preserve and recapture the industrial spirit of Tribeca.

John L. Petrarca was born in Vandergrift, Pa., a small town north of Pittsburgh, to John and Velma Petrarca. He studied architecture at Carnegie-Mellon University and worked as an architect in London where he met his future wife, a financial journalist.

They returned to New York in 1981 when he joined Gwathmey Siegel & Associates and moved to Tribeca in 1982. John founded Architecture Plus Furniture in 1984 and in 1991 he joined Robin Guenther in the Guenther Petrarca architecture firm. In 2001 he established his own firm, Studio Petrarca.

In addition to his wife, who is a business journalism professor at Baruch College, two children, a daughter, Emilia, 11 and a son, Ian, 8, also survive. His mother, of West Vandergrift, Pa.; two brothers, Daniel of Colorado, and Carl, of Vandergrift, and a sister, Mary Ann Greenlee of New Kensington, Pa. also survive.

Perazzo Funeral Home, 199 Bleecker St., was in charge of arrangements. A memorial service was held at St. Andrew’s Church on Centre St. on Fri. May 16.


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