The biggest job architect Roger Strout ever worked on was never built. And it didn’t make a difference in his career.
The $53 million justice center — a 48-foot-tall jail and cop offices and courtrooms with underground parking, a job that envisioned closing a street, moving one building and razing another — would have covered a square block of downtown Jackson. But voters hated the idea and the cost and killed it.
And, really, it wasn’t Roger Strout’s kind of project. Instead he spent nearly four decades in Jackson Hole designing homes, public buildings and worker housing projects that were conceived with an eye not just to the housing but the idea of supporting communities through design. It carried into other work he did: As far away from a mega-dollar jailhouse as can be imagined, he lent his skills to fix up an orphanage in Mexico supported by St. John’s Episcopal Church, even laid stones for a patio himself. A big part of his work was doing nuts-and-bolts renovations and additions to historic buildings, many in Grand Teton National Park, saving them from decay and even demolition.
Roger Purdy Strout died Aug. 24 in Jackson, leaving a wife and a crowd of admiring associates. He was 77. Strout had endured dementia and died after a brain hemorrhage he suffered while enjoying a drive through Yellowstone National Park.
One former colleague, Scott Zabriskie, called Strout “an insatiable creative mind that never bent to the traditional monetary measures of success but instead was driven by a tireless and focused commitment to solving challenging design problems for his clients in the best way possible.”
Architect Greg Mason, who worked with Strout over 15 years, called it “an honor to be part of his firm.”
Strout was born Jan. 16, 1944, in Wheeling, West Virginia, one of the many places his father, a Methodist minster, was assigned for a short time. His grandfather was also a Methodist minster; his mother taught elementary school.
Strout’s dad survived polio, but after being confined to an iron lung he emerged paralyzed. Still, the family loaded up regularly for summerlong driving and camping trips, and one of the places they visited and loved was Jenny Lake in Teton park.
Strout graduated from UC Berkeley, worked for a time in California, and when he began to long for something else eventually remembered Jackson Hole. He arrived in 1981 and was, as his wife, Becky Strout, recalled this week, “desperate for work.”
He met Bob Koedt, who did projects in the park for Clay James, head of hotel concessionaire Grand Teton Lodge Company, and found the start of a career in the area.
Strout was described this week by friends as an artist without an ego, who interviewed clients not just about what they thought they needed but probed how they felt about their dreamhouse, who slept on their empty lots to see the sun rise. He thought what the clients wanted was more pertinent than his own view, didn’t show up with preconceived solutions but treated everything as a new problem that merited a fresh answer.
In a statement about his approach, Strout said that an architect who doesn’t listen to the client is “missing the greatest opportunity for innovative, responsible and responsive design.”
“Our ability to create an environment that responds to, reflects and invigorates our client’s life is, I believe, our greatest challenge as well as our greatest reward when achieved,” he wrote.
Architect KJ Morris, who worked for Strout, said that many people saw their land as a “sanctuary” and that “Roger always tried to find or express that feeling” in the design.
Becky Strout said her husband “tried to find the passion and inspiration of the client” early in the process.
Zabriskie said Strout sought “poetic balance ... where the solution grew from the needs of his client’s program and the natural patterns, opportunities and constraints of the specific site.”
Strout was also remembered as generous in letting young architects jump into details small and big, and they mentioned they didn’t spend years “drawing bathrooms.”
“You came in and were working almost instantly on every aspect of a project,” Mason said. “He gave you a chance to flourish.”
“Roger threw us out there, said, ‘Go do this,’” Morris said. “Roger would give you the longest rope and let you run.”
Architects who worked with Strout returned again and again to his view that he was designing not just a building but a space for living, and that he was a man who saw not just the buildings but how they affected neighborhoods and the lives of the people who lived in them.
Some of his approach can be seen on Snow King Avenue, where his own house and the next-door office he designed seem to have been conceived by two architects having an argument: The office is the traditional mountain look, wood-clad and with big beams, sloped roof; the adjacent house is a cinder block and panel box with big windows and a landscaped flat roof, two totally different experiences but “from the same mind,” said architect Mason.
Mason said anyone looking at Strout’s work over the years would “not see a portfolio of sameness,” but instead find what looked like “50 people doing 50 different projects.”
Strout’s house also shows a dedication he and his wife Becky had to community. They underbuilt the lot and set aside only 1,500 square feet for their home while including two 650-square-foot apartments they rent to working people. That kind of home-and-rental combination is fairly common today, but when the Strouts built in 2006 that was “not a thing private citizens were doing without being forced,” Mason said.
In a big, philosophical sense, Becky Strout said, “one of the things Roger was interested in is ‘How are we going to take care of this planet, how are we going to live on this planet responsibility?’”
That big view is manifested in much of his architecture, as seen in his house and its apartments, a triplex approach not allowed at the time by town rules but which Strout talked officials into allowing.
“He had a passion, an inspiration for community living and how we could have a positive effect on workforce housing,” Becky Strout said this week. “We have housed many working people.”
In a town with a housing emergency, “it’s been a positive for us and the people who live there,” Becky said. “It’s real people living there, working here.”
Though the technical word “communal” is often hung on the kind of work Strout liked, in a conversation this week his wife finally chose plainer one: “sharing.”
Strout was also remembered as a man with a pencil in his hand. In an age when most architecture is done on a screen, Strout never stopped drawing, and drawing not only usefully but with flair.
“He loved to design and he loved to draw,” said Zabriskie. “His talent for creating the most beautiful hand-drawn building elevations was unmatched.”
“He had an amazingly beautiful hand as an architect, as an artist, he was a master at that,” Mason said. “Architects can’t draw any more. ... His drawings were off the chart.”
A memorial ceremony for Roger Strout is scheduled for Oct. 16 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“He had a passion, an inspiration, for community living and how we could have a positive effect on workforce housing.” — Becky Strout Roger Strout’s wife