A Life Remembered: Artist-citizen architect had 'spirit of an angel'


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CHAMPAIGN — The arts community is mourning the death of Jack S. Baker, a University of Illinois emeritus professor of architecture and architect whose buildings stand as a testimony to a minimalist and poetic aesthetic.

Mr. Baker, also a philanthropist and arts patron, died Sunday (Nov. 24, 2013) at Carle Foundation Hospital. He was 93. Arrangements are pending at Morgan Memorial Home in Savoy.

Mike Ross, director of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, once cited Mr. Baker along with the late Dan Perrino and Erma Bridgewater as elders who had inspired him.

"Jack Baker was simply the finest example of artist-citizen I know," Ross said Wednesday. "His was the spirit of an angel — strong, gentle and infinitely generous.

"He was so gifted as an architect, producing design after design of unpretentious elegance. He pioneered the downtown loft-living movement in Champaign decades ago, and his home became a legendary center of cultural and social gathering and inspiration for students and colleagues and friends within and beyond the arts."

Among celebrity guests Mr. Baker entertained at his Old Town loft, which he had purchased in 1957 and transformed into a living and work space with a tri-level performance space, were dance giant Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and designer Michael Graves.

Articles about his loft on the southeast side of downtown Champaign were featured in national publications and in The News-Gazette, in 2002.

That article prompted UI emeritus professor of architecture Robert Selby to write a letter to the editor, in which he called Mr. Baker one of the nation's finest architects and educators.

"Jack's work is timeless because, in his words, 'Space, movement and light never go out of date,'" Selby wrote. "His work is simple but never severe. The simplicity of his work belies the talent it takes to include only the necessary and exclude the superfluous."

Among other notable buildings in C-U that Mr. Baker designed are the Erlanger House, 303 W. Indiana, across from Carle Park, Urbana; modernist homes including 4 Pine Circle in Yankee Ridge, Urbana; and the striking Hessel Park Christian Reformed Church at 700 W. Kirby Ave., C.

A memorial service for Mr. Baker will take place at the church; the date has not yet been set.

Mr. Baker designed a range of projects, from a $17,000 church addition in Fisher to a $17 million church complex in Michigan.

"Most of his work was done in this area," said UI architecture Professor Jeffery Poss, who with others is working on a book about Mr. Baker and his contemporaries, Dick Williams and the late John Replinger.

Born in Champaign, Mr. Baker had grown up in a traditional Midwestern-style home on Elm Street.

He told The News-Gazette as an architect he was influenced by "everything."

"From Japan I've learned an unmeasurable quality of calmness, emotion and spirit," said Mr. Baker, who helped Allen Marx design the Japan House, a unit of the UI College of Fine and Applied Arts on South Lincoln Avenue, Urbana.

Mr. Baker received his bachelor's and master's degrees with honors from the UI, and had a Beaux-Arts Institute of Design diploma.

He established a private architectural practice and taught at the UI until 1990. There he was a model for how to combine a full-time teaching load with a private practice, Poss said.

Mr. Baker won many awards for professional excellence — for decades almost one a year at the regional or national level. In 1977, he was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and awarded the fellows' silver medal. "Jack reminded us all that there is indeed a more sublime view of life to be embraced," Ross said. "Knowing him was one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received."

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