The recognition was a long time coming. This past fall, Lyman Perry was inducted into the New England Design Hall of Fame, validating some four decades of design, restoration and renovation work on Nantucket. How did the University of Pennsylvania alum become the most sought-after architect on that tony Massachusetts island? Talent, of course—coupled with enviable marketing savvy.
Now 75, Perry started his architectural firm out of the historic 1720s-era Newtown Square home he still shares with his wife, Kate. As the number of associates grew, he moved Lyman Perry Architects to Berwyn. A vacation spot for Perry, Nantucket also became a place of business, where he opened a second LPA office. Though much of his work—some 200 homes—can be found on the island, Perry has also left an impressive mark in this area. He’s the designer behind Media’s Benchmark School and the Berwyn Veterans Memorial.
After four decades at the helm of LPA, Perry retired in 2010, shuttering the firm. It didn’t last long. He soon joined the acclaimed Hutker Architects in New England, where he takes the lead in design development and landing new clients.
As a celebration of his semi-retirement, Perry’s wife called upon Roxborough-based photographer Celeste Hardester to compile An Architect’s Voyage, a handsome limited-edition book that celebrates his life and career. Published last year, its photos highlight more than 115 projects scattered across 10 states—some as far away as Michigan and Florida. “Lyman has led such an interesting life,” says Hardester, who spent a year on the project. “His wife knew his story was one that deserved to be told.”
In the book, Perry thanks LPA’s many associates, including prominent local architects with successful careers of their own—names like Peter Batchelor, Richard Buchanan, Ann Ledger and Jeffrey Spoelker. “Lyman is a big proponent of listening to the site—and out of listening to the site, you create architecture,” says Matthew Moger, who worked with Perry for 12 years. “He believes that you create architecture of the land, not on the land.”
Undoubtedly, Perry’s philosophy influenced the way Moger goes about running his own firm. “It’s not just the work Lyman has done that has left a legacy,” Moger says. “It’s the work his associates are doing now.”
Prior to enrolling in the graduate program at Penn, Lyman Perry followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a degree from the United States Naval Academy. Growing up, he’d moved all over the country for his father’s naval career. Perry himself served for five years as an officer in the submarine service. “I knew there was more to life than being on that sub,” he says. “I missed feeling the air on my face and seeing nature.”
Perry was also a member of the U.S. Crew Team at the 1960 Olympics. But this Olympian loved to draw, and in the mid-’60s, Penn had an international reputation as the leading school for architecture. With no experience to speak of, Perry was initially denied admission, so he enrolled in some introductory courses and applied the next semester. After he showed great promise in a basic design course, a professor encouraged the dean to accept him.
Fresh out of Penn, Perry spent the next few years working for some of the city’s top architectural firms. He and his wife also built a second house on Nantucket. “This was in the early 1980s,” Perry confides. “The rich and famous didn’t discover Nantucket until the late ’80s.”
The small cottage Perry built on the island was less than 1,000 square feet—tiny compared to the houses he’d build there later in his career. Nonetheless, its beauty and simplicity attracted the attention of House Beautiful and other publications. Around the same time, a house that Perry designed for a Philadelphia lawyer in the Poconos was named one of the top 10 houses of the year by Architectural Record.
His career taking off, Perry began renovating several other homes on Nantucket. As the popularity of the island grew, so did his reputation there. Suddenly, top CEOs around the country were asking him to design their elaborate yet classic shingle-style vacation retreats. As Nantucket’s go-to architect, Perry was hired to design its golf and yacht clubs. “We had a great brand going,” he says.
In 2008, when business began to slow with the sluggish economy, Perry took it as a sign. Now, with more free time, he and his wife continue to split their time between Newtown Square and Nantucket. And he remains true to his vision. “A project starts as a thought in your mind, then you design it on paper and start building it,” he says. “Once it becomes a real thing and you’re walking through it, you feel so familiar with it. It’s like an old friend.”