WEST ORANGE, NJ — Gerald Gurland, noted architect and longtime member of West Orange’s Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Board, died at the age of 81 on Feb. 2.
Gurland played a consistent role in maintaining the character of West Orange for more than 20 years, initially as member of the Planning Board’s board of appeals before joining the HPC and Planning Board. With his experienced eye and care for detail, he stayed on top of property owners and developers to ensure they were following all regulations and building structures appropriate for the township. Just last year, he was one of the HPC members who brought attention to the fact that Prism Capital Partners had made changes to its Edison Village drawings without alerting the commission. And even in his final days, as HPC Chairman Brian Feeney recalled at the Feb. 7 Township Council meeting, Gurland was giving notes on some redevelopment drawings from his hospital bed.
But Gurland’s accomplishments in West Orange were a mere fraction of his success in the world of architecture. After graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1961, and serving as a Fulbright Scholar in the Netherlands from 1962 to 1963, he worked at the prestigious firm of I.M. Pei and Partners from 1963 to 1968. There he participated in the design of prototype air traffic control towers for the Federal Aviation Agency, in addition to other projects.
Eventually Gurland became a partner at the illustrious firm of Richard Meier and Partners, where he served as the architect for award-winning projects over a 20-year period. They included the Westbeth Artists Community housing project in New York City and the Bronx Developmental Center, which won the Reynolds Prize for best use of aluminum. He was also often tasked with making drawings to flesh out Meier’s preliminary sketches of ideas.
For all of his efforts — including his work as architect for the U.S. Embassy in Chile, among many other international and national projects — Gurland was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1990.
Perhaps his proudest achievement, however, was his time as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s director of museum development and coordinator of construction. In the span of just four years Gurland made the now-iconic museum a reality, from overseeing the construction of the building to integrating exhibition design into its architecture. He also traveled to several Eastern European countries to gather information on concentration camp sites, even discovering that his wife’s grandparents had died after being in Theresienstadt. And Gurland did not give up his dedication to Holocaust studies when his contract ended in 1992, instead joining the board of associates at Drew University’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study upon its creation that year.
In addition, Gurland taught at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and served as an architectural consultant for organizations such as the Stevens Institute of Technology. He also served as a mentor to countless young architects starting out in the business, becoming longtime friends with many of them.
Overall, as his wife Evelyn Gurland said, he lived up to his credo that “architects never really retire.”
“He lived a good, full life,” Evelyn Gurland told the West Orange Chronicle in a Feb. 10 phone interview. “He was a man immersed in his work. Architecture and the details that accompanied his profession were his passion.”
Few saw that passion as closely as HPC Vice Chairman Martin Feitlowitz, Gurland’s close friend for more than 40 years. Feitlowitz said Gurland was always a strong advocate for architecture and had a brilliant mind for it. He recalled that Gurland would often sit silently during HPC discussions until pointing out the one aspect of the project at hand that desperately needed to be addressed but had been somehow overlooked by everyone else. He was always thinking, Feitlowitz said, and he always had a way of getting to the heart of an issue.
The vice chairman said he is going to miss “tag teaming” with his friend in questioning those who came before the HPC, each taking their turn grilling people until they understood exactly what needed to be done to make their project acceptable. He said he is also going to miss spitballing ideas and talking matters over with Gurland, something they did often. Sometimes they would start talking shop in the middle of their weekly lunch with friends who are not architects, to the point that their friends would have to ask what language they were speaking.
And while Gurland might not have received the recognition that Pei or Meier did, Feitlowitz said his friend was the one whose rigorous attention to detail made sure contractors stuck to the plans so that his more famous colleagues’ visions would come to life. That was not lost on anyone.
“He was a bulldog,” Feitlowitz told the Chronicle in a Feb. 8 interview. “His name may not be on the plaques, but I think a lot of people knew that when Gerry Gurland got on the job, it was going to be done right.”
Aside from Gurland the architect, Feitlowitz said he is going to miss Gurland the man — the lover of food, baseball, movies and politics. Gurland was never afraid to speak his mind, his friend said, but nothing he ever said was intended to be malicious. He said he was also an “eternal optimist” to his dying day, never feeling depressed or self-pitying even as his health deteriorated. In fact, Feitlowitz said Gurland viewed his difficulty walking as a chance to show off his Maasai warrior cane.
Just as significant to Feitlowitz was Gurland’s kindheartedness. Gurland made friends throughout the world through his travels, he said. And he was always thinking about others, like the time he wrote a letter to their synagogue, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, requesting that Feitlowitz’s name be added to a plaque next to a special display case Feitlowitz had designed for a historic Torah. Gurland never told him he was going to do this and certainly did not need to, Feitlowitz said, but the fact that he would think to speak up for someone else shows the type of person he was.
“The guy was just a very special person who, I think, leaves a legacy behind,” Feitlowitz said.
Feeney told the Chronicle he will always remember Gurland as a wonderful storyteller. The HPC chairman recalled that Gurland could pick up a fork, announce “This reminds me of something” and then launch into a truly interesting narrative. Looking back on them, he said those stories gave an insight into Gurland’s mind.
“It was the curiosity of a child locked inside this brilliant man,” Feeney said in a Feb. 8 interview. “He was an observer of people and of life and of circumstances in a way that many people were not.”
The chairman himself learned a lot from observing Gurland during their time on the commission together. Specifically, he said Gurland taught the HPC to “look beyond the obvious” when it comes to studying a building. He always examined things a little differently than one would do casually, Feeney said, which certainly benefited the commission’s review of the Edison Village plans.
Gurland’s insight was also an asset to the Drew Holocaust/Genocide Center, according to director Joshua Kavaloski. Gurland was the only original board member still involved with the center, Kavaloski said, so his knowledge and ideas were always appreciated. Plus, he said, Gurland’s connection to the Holocaust Museum made him a wealth of information every time the center would send a group to visit.
Most of all though, Kavaloski said Gurland exuded warmth each time he attended a board meeting, always asking people how they were. He said Gurland was also incredibly thoughtful and creative with a great sense of humor, a real mensch. In all, the director said Gurland was a “pillar” of the center whose loss is still being felt.
“His passing has deeply affected all of us,” Kavaloski told the Chronicle in a Feb. 10 phone interview, adding that the center plans to host an event in honor of Gurland in the near future. “In some ways, we don’t really know what we’re going to do without him.”
Councilwoman Susan McCartney also said Gurland’s absence fom the Planning Board will be difficult to fill, adding that he was so respected that no one wanted to accept his resignation late last year. His meticulousness and impeccable listening skills were truly invaluable to the board, she said.
Gurland always had something to contribute, McCartney said.
“He was a quiet man, yet he was full of boisterous ideas and opinions,” McCartney told the Chronicle in a Feb. 9 phone interview. “When you have that eye for detail, it just makes for a really thorough review of any application.”
Mayor Robert Parisi agreed that Gurland’s professional background and expertise were laudable, pointing out that they definitely played a role in getting Edison Village off the ground. And while the work of the HPC and Planning Board may often go unnoticed by residents, he said Gurland’s death is unquestionably a blow to all of West Orange.
“He’ll certainly be missed,” Parisi, who appointed Gurland to the Planning Board, told the Chronicle in a Feb. 10 phone interview.
Gurland is survived by his wife, Evelyn Gurland; son, James Gurland; daughter-in-law, Leslie Gurland; grandson, Ariel Gurland; sister, Roberta Futterman; and brother-in-law, Vernon Futterman. He was predeceased by his son, David Gurland.