Architect Who Designed Pontiac Silverdome, University of Michigan Buildings, Dies at 86
ANN ARBOR, MI — Carl Luckenbach, a prolific architect whose projects included the Pontiac Silverdome and the buildings that still adorn the University of Michigan campus, has died at age 86.
“He picked up on anything that was interesting, anything that was meaningful, anything that was challenging, that imbued with some excitement,” said Robert Ziegelman, his friend and business partner of nearly 40 years.
The Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions for 27 seasons and the NFL’s largest stadium when it opened in 1975, brought that thrill to millions.
The colossal arena’s inflatable roof hosted World Cup matches, a mass delivered by Pope John Paul II in front of more than 90,000 people, and concerts by Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley, among other stars.
One morning in 2017, his daughter Elizabeth Luckenbach woke up to thunder under clear skies – what turned out to be the first failed attempt to demolish the stadium, which survived the blast.
The implosion bothered her father, she said, not because his project was undone, but because he abhorred waste. The architect would ask, “How can we make it useful, while respecting and honoring the integrity of the original structure?”
Luckenbach promised useful and beautiful space for the Ann Arbor District Library by creating its Malletts Creek branch, lit by natural light, heated by the sun, and lined with a green roof.
After the library opened in 2004, patronage increased, said AADL director Josie Parker, who also worked with Luckenbach when designing the Pittsfield branch. “He believed in public space,” she said.
Luckenbach, born in Detroit in 1935, made his home in Birmingham and then Ann Arbor before moving to the Jacksonville, Florida area in retirement, where he died Jan. 9.
A 1957 alumnus of the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Design, Luckenbach remained a strong supporter of the Wolverine football team.
The university hired him in 1991 to lower the Big House lot by three and a half feet, increasing capacity, and the architect negotiated his fees to include 50-meter frontline subscriptions. Luckenbach attended as many home games as possible, her daughter said.
His firm, Luckenbach Ziegelman Architects, designed UM’s Sam Wyly Hall, a major addition to the Randall Lab, and undertook a host of other projects for the university.
Design was in his blood.
Luckenbach was photographed on a cluttered workbench at the age of 3, dazzled by his soapbox designs at 11 and built a fiberglass car at 16, according to Elizabeth Luckenbach.
After earning a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1959, Luckenbach traveled the world before eventually joining a firm co-founded by his father, Owen Luckenbach, and lauded for designing the Ford Auditorium in Detroit, now demolished.
His partnership with UM classmate Ziegelman began in 1980, after Luckenbach’s wife suggested they team up, and lasted until Luckenbach’s retirement at age 83.
Ziegelman remembers Luckenbach as a “gentleman” and says the two men shared a mutual respect for each other’s design talent. Their work dots Michigan, and Ziegleman said a particularly notable project for the late architect was the Battle Creek headquarters of the WK Kellogg Foundation.
The architect is survived by his wife, Carol, and his daughters Kim Luckenbach Ladd and Elizabeth Loren Luckenbach, as well as six grandchildren, according to an obituary written by the family.
Through several previous marriages, Luckenbach has shown a knack for “making friends that become family and finding family that becomes friends,” Elizabeth Luckenbach said, referring to lasting friendships with adult stepchildren.
One, Sheila Kirk Walsh, said as a teenager she admired his “quiet discipline”, concentrated each night at a drafting table in a converted garage at the family’s Birmingham home.
Luckenbach then drove fancy cars, including a white Ford Thunderbird convertible, devoted himself to reading every Sunday edition of The New York Times, and gifted Walsh a soup pot when she graduated from college. “My life was transformed in a way because of him,” Walsh said.
The architect loved classic rock, blues and country artists Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, family members said, and at times the volume would crank up as he danced with them in the living room.
Luckenbach inserted himself wherever he lived, and his residences included a home he designed in Ann Arbor overlooking the Nichols Arboretum and across from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Palmer House.
“Living in such a beautiful environment was a wonderful experience and I realized how important our environment is to our total being. Not only the design, but Carl’s ‘light’ was complementary to the weather,” wrote his wife at the time, Lynn Luckenbach Welchli, about the house.
The designer also gutted and remodeled the top two floors of a downtown Ann Arbor storefront on South Main Street, a “labor of love,” down to the details of the cabinetry and finishes, Elizabeth Luckenbach said. .
He always remained humble, she said, even receiving countless awards and some of his profession’s highest honors, such as being named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
Luckenbach, still a planner, has decided he doesn’t want a funeral or eulogy, and parties are being planned in Florida and Michigan to celebrate him, according to his daughter.
“He lived his life well,” she said.
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