Architect Richard J. Lareau lit up bank board meetings with jokes. In high school, he maintained his interests in photography, tennis, coin and stamp collecting, then took up sailing and golf.
His decades-long service on the boards of the Point Loma Association and the Peninsula Bank and in various neighborhood causes has earned him the unofficial title “Mr. Pointe Loma.” And he was a prodigious fundraiser for Balboa Park institutions.
But it’s his mid-century modern architectural work that is a permanent legacy – custom wood-and-glass homes and circular-shaped public buildings, like churches and the Mission Bay Visitor Center, in an assortment of public libraries, school buildings and naval installations.
Lareau died April 10 of complications from a stroke. He was 94 years old.
Fresh out of architecture school, he worked on the design of the glass elevator for the El Cortez Hotel in the mid-1950s. A decade later, he was designing his Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house in San Diego State University, where his two lion statues still guard the entrance. He was also the architect for the campus of California Western University, now Point Loma Nazarene University, and designed the Barnes Tennis Center in Ocean Beach.
Like so many successful architects, he knew how to market as well as design. Once, while seeking planning permission for a university campus in Nairobi, Kenya, he failed to correct an official who, looking at Lareau’s business card bearing the words “president” and “California,” called him the “President of California”. .” The official handed over the permit in front of 50 other people in line.
“Prototypically after the war, he started his own little business, got some cool clients, and did a significant amount of work,” said Keith York, who runs the ModernSanDiego.com website as a guide for architects in post-World War II.
Former County Supervisor and architect Ron Roberts met Lareau at SDSU while the SAE fraternity house was being planned and interned at Lareau’s business in the late 1960s. The city and county declared “Day Richard John Lareau” in 2014 in recognition of his decades of civic service and contributions.
“To me, he’s become a lifelong mentor and friend,” Roberts said.
Born October 17, 1927 in Bremerton, Washington, Richard John Lareau moved to Chula Vista with his family when he was 4 years old. At Sweetwater High School, he was the school photographer, played on the tennis team and delivered what was believed to be the longest bike path in the hilly region for The Union-Tribune .
After a V-5 flight training program in the Navy after World War II, he studied at the University of New Mexico and SDSU before transferring to UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. and a master’s degree in architecture in 1955. His master’s thesis was on Mission Parc de la Baie.
“The park should have a unique concept,” Lareau told the Mission Bay Park Commission later that year.
His first jobs were at the San Diego companies Kitchen and Hunt and Paderewski, Mitchell & Dean, where he worked on the now defunct El Cortez glass elevator.
In 1957 he founded Richard Lareau & Associates and increased his staff at his Nimitz Boulevard office to a peak of 15. His “Pan-Pacific House”, still standing in Del Cerro, was featured in the “Parade of Homes” of 1958 for its incorporation. many indoor-outdoor spaces.
Beginning in 1959, he designed many buildings, including the gymnasium, stadium, library, and dormitories at Cal Western, later renamed US International University. He was also master architect of the Scripps Ranch campus of USIU, now Alliant University.
“Dick was an early architect,” Point Loma Nazarene President Bob Brower said. “His creativity and vision coupled with his sincere desire to serve his community has made him a friend to all.”
Lareau’s wife, Vickie, said USIU President William Rust tasked him with planning campuses around the world, asking him to take an international flight on the spur of the moment.
“Dick would find a way to comply,” she said, “and with USIU paying for transportation, got to see a lot of very interesting places and whet our appetite for travel in the world.”
In an obituary interview earlier this year for fellow mid-century architect Hal Sadler, Lareau recalled how on one of his many trips to USIU he convinced Kenyan officials that timber construction rather than stone was an acceptable approach.
“They gave me a desk in the office and I designed what I knew their (national) president would like to have,” recalls Lareau – an African rather than British colonial motif. “We built it and Africans loved it.”
Perhaps Lareau’s most significant project was the Mission Bay Visitors Center, a 4,500 square foot building with an observation tower, which opened in 1969 at the foot of Clairemont Drive. Lareau compared it to a “sculptural seashell”, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York.
“It really is the center of San Diego,” said Bradley Schnell, an architect who is restoring and transforming the building into Mission Bay Beach Club, a restaurant and retail space.
The Barnes de Lareau Tennis Center, which opened in 1995 at the western terminus of Interstate 8, is also visible to freeway motorists and is dedicated to training young tennis players.
“I would say he was very, very visionary in the way he planned and designed the buildings,” said Kathy Willette, who chaired the board in its early days. “We had wonderful, joyful conversations about what would be there and what we could afford.”
In addition to his architectural work, Lareau has served on the boards of the city’s Board of Historic Resources, the Peninsula Bank, the Point Loma Association, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and the Balboa Park Committee. He co-founded the Junto group of local leaders and captained the San Diego Yacht Club’s Cal 25 racing fleet.
“It was his selfless dedication and human warmth that endeared him to all who met him,” said museum executive director Jim Kidrick. He dubbed Lareau “the grinder” for tirelessly seeking donors for museum projects. He co-chaired the annual golf tournament for over 20 years.
At the Point Loma Association, Lareau is remembered for his annual slide shows and at the bank for his light-hearted jokes, taken from Playboy magazine.
Lareau is survived by his second wife Victory and their children, Lisa Traylor and Mark Lareau; and two children by his first wife, Jeanne Doyle, Vikki Lane and Lance Lareau; and nine grandchildren.
A celebration of life is scheduled from 4-7 p.m. May 17 at the Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park. The family offers donations in his memory to the Barnes Tennis Center or the museum.
Roger Showley is a freelance writer for UT.