Richard Van Petten (known to his friends as “Van”) peacefully passed away on March 30th, 2023, at Metro Hospital, Cleveland, Ohio. He was three hours short of his 91st birthday, a celebration he was happily anticipating.
Richard (Van) was born in Fairlawn, Ohio, on March 31, 1932, to Virginia and Harold Van Petten and grew up there attending Fairlawn and Akron schools. At an early age, he showed a deep interest in designing rooms and making models of buildings, with concerns for special issues and amenities for people’s comfort. He graduated with a BA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1954. Graduate work was done at both Harvard and Yale. He earned an MA from the School of Architecture at Harvardin 1958, studying under architect Walter Gropius and later working for him in his office in Cambridge, Mass.
He took the next few years off, traveling throughout England and continental Europe on a Vespa motorcycle, ending with a stay in England, where he began work fulltime as an architect in Walthamstow. Several years later, he returned to the United States and worked for various Boston and New York City architects, designing everything from houses to high rise office buildings. Many of his commissions focused on adaptive re-use of historic or older buildings. As a mature architect, he became an expert on designing schools, waterworks facilities, and even prisons all over the country.
He came to Cleveland in 1967, working for William Gould & Associates. In 1969, he bought a large stone Victorian house on E. 75th Street, the former residence of architect Charles Schweinfurth, built in 1893. He restored the house over a ten-year period with his life partner and husband, Dale H. Smith. Saving important historic architecture became a passion for Richard (Van), and he worked on many other buildings around Cleveland that fit this special category, not only planning various building restorations, but also designing additions that would be required to make them live on with modern, adaptive use. His work on Pilgrim Church in Tremont is a good example of this sort of design. He also used his home for many public tours to help educate people on saving Cleveland’s history and for fundraising events for many cultural institutions.
During this residence in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, Richard (Van) was asked to design a new branch for the Cleveland Public Library on Crawford Road. He regarded this as one of his most unique and important jobs – designing a public space for the people of Cleveland and his neighborhood. He also designed the second home for the Cleveland Gay & Lesbian Community Center in 1990. At this time, he formed a partnership with architect Arthur Saunders, one of Cleveland’s first Black architects, and they worked on many projects, including homes, churches, and businesses.
Later in his career, he worked as a volunteer consultant for several design review and city planning committees around Cleveland. These included, to name a few, the Midtown Corridor Design Review Committee, the Architectural Board of Review for Olmsted Falls, Ohio, the East Cleveland Architectural Design Review Committee, and the Rockefeller Park Design Review Committee.
Richard (Van) touched many lives with his thoughtful, intelligent approach to architectural design and his unwavering determination to make things better. He is survived by his husband Dale H. Smith, his nephew Jay Peters, nieces Sally Peters-Kowelski and Polly Jones-Shiner, and many friends all over the world.
The family prefers that those who wish may make contributions in his memory to the American Institute of Architects, 1735 New York Ave. NW; Washington, DC 20006-5292, or the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44106.
Funeral Services will be held, Monday, April 17th at 4 pm in Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ,2592 W.14th St., Cleveland, OH 44113.