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Patricia Belton Oliver

Chair, environmental design department, Art Center College of Design

Pasadena

Specialty: Residential and institutional projects

Just as Patricia Belton Oliver was hitting her stride as an architect in the mid-’80s, her career took a hairpin turn. The Larchmont offices of Oliver, Kurze, Georges Architects the only all-women-partnered architectural firm in California when it was established in 1981 burned to the ground, apparently by someone who wanted to torch another office in the same building. What didn’t burn was ruined by the fire hoses.

“It’s like having your fingerprints erased,” Oliver said.

The firm had “a ton of jobs” going at the time, including remodels, residences and small commercial projects. It had done several studios for Rhythm and Hues, a special effects outfit, and had collaborated with a Seattle firm on the remodel of the Biltmore Hotel downtown.

After the fire, five of the seven employees left the state and most of the projects were farmed out to other firms, while Oliver and one partner continued to shepherd them on a consulting basis.

With her livelihood devastated overnight, Oliver moved more into the academic world, becoming an associate dean of Cal Poly Pomona’s architecture department.

Then the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena established a full-fledged environmental design department, rather than just a small program in the industrial design department. Oliver became the first chair of the new department in 1992 and since then, it has grown from 26 students to 96.

Oliver has kept a hand in design through collaborations with other firms. Projects on the drawing board include a museum and racetrack for vintage cars that are targeted for Rancho Santa Fe and a museum-retail-studio project in Anaheim.

While she sometimes toys with the idea of going back into practice, she said she can’t imagine not being connected with students. “It’s always the students their growth and change is what keep you alive and feeling the current of social change,” Oliver said.

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