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Wednesday, April 15, 2020


Stated in 2005, "This house [Suncatch] is one of the greatest pieces of architecture of the 21st Century,” according to the late Julius Shulman, famed architectural photographer.
After I heard San Diego AIA architect Norm Applebaum died on March 25 [2020], I was reminded of when I met him.  It was in the early 1980s I had been hired by the Self Family to manage the day to day editorial responsibilities of San Diego, the venerable city magazine that was then publishing more than 300 pages per month.  That’s a huge magazine by industry standards.   Needless to say, it was my job to help fill those pages.
         At an editorial meeting, Clare White, a young editor brought up the idea of doing a story on Norm Applebaum, who was rising fast in the local architectural ranks.  She showed us the portfolio of Norm’s recent work and it was not a tough decision to publish.  Clare ended up writing the story “Country Aire: Architect Norm Applebaum’s spacious masterpiece of light and wood (Appleby Residence), April 1983. 
The magazine received a classic Norm Applebaum thank you letter.  After that, I would run into Norm at architect events and at the many social gatherings the magazine covered.  He was always quick to thank us again for publishing his work.  He was also genuinely friendly not just to the media but to all those he ran into.  A bright light always came on when Norm entered the room.
         My turn to write my first Norm Applebaum articles for San Diego Magazine came in January 2004 (“Suncatch: Norm Applebaum’s New Masterpiece” and in October 2004 with “Favorite Child: His designs are his children and after 31 years and numerous successes architect Norm Applebaum best remembers the one he lost.” Called the Wedge, the Riegel-Gillespie residence was destroyed by the 2003 Cedar fire.
The Matheron residence “Wings” was lost in 2007 wildfire.
         By coincidence, Frank Lloyd Wright lost his Wisconsin Taliesin homes twice to fires and he rebuilt them.
         Norm rebounded.  He never stopped working.
By 2007, my career brought me to San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine, where I was Design Editor and Architectural Writer. I sat in a weekly editorial meeting with young publisher Mark McKinnon and then Editor Wayne Carlson, I believe another of our top design editors Phyllis Van Doren was also in that meeting.  It was summer 2009 and SDHG/L was in the midst of an annual series “Stars of San Diego,” where we saluted the leading lights in all aspects of local design from A to Z (Applebaum to Zandra Rhodes).  It was the magazine’s version of a hall of fame salute to the top names in local design—architecture and non-architecture. 
         As for our architect candidate for 2010, I mentioned Norm Applebaum as he just completed an opus and was working on another of his signature projects.  I had visions of writing the piece, but Wayne grabbed the assignment for himself. It appeared in January 2010.  Click here.
          By coincidence, I ran into Norm in Europe or New York, we couldn’t remember where exactly, but he did add “what are the odds.”
         Fast forward to a year ago, Norm and wife Barbara Roper were seated enjoying coffee on Sunday at Café Moto in Barrio Logan.  “We meet, again,” I smiled and introduced wife Phyllis Shess.  We decided to continue the conversation at El Carrito, a Mex/Am restaurant created out of a former San Diego electric trolley.  He was about to be presented the distinguished Robert Mosher Lifetime Achievement Award by the San Diego AIA.
         After lunch, he handed me his business card so we could enjoy another visit promising it would be his turn to pick up the check.  I still have the card as a fond memory of the last time I saw him.  But, I have full confidence we will meet by chance in another lifetime.

Norm (left) with architectural photographer Julius Shulman, November 1983
Here are some kind words from his friends and colleagues:

--“...His legacy, while tied to his built projects for many, will be held with many San Diegans who had the pleasure to meet Norm, play music with him, or simply engage in wonderful conversation about appreciating the art in the every day...” Keith York, Modern San Diego

--“ Norm Applebaum is the creator of the quintessential San Diego home...” Dirk Sutro former Editor of San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles Magazine.

--“You are a master at what you do. Your work is tied to the Modernists of Southern California, Harris, Schindler, Wright -- yet it is fresh, new and exciting.” Julius Shulman, architectural photographer.

--“Norm is at once a devoted designer, artist, musician (jazz trombonist), and master-craftsman whose work has elevated the profession.  His thorough devotion to his clients and projects, his aptitude at originating, expressing, and promoting innovative design when approaching a challenge, and his dedication to invention, all set him apart from his colleagues.”  Joseph Wong, FAIA.

To explore more of Norm’s celebrated work, visit his website: Click here.

And for a touching tribute of Norm’s work and life, visit Keith York’s Modern San Diego site: Click here.

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