James Nelson Kise II | Architect, 75

James Nelson Kise II on South Broad Street, which his firm transformed.
James Nelson Kise II on South Broad Street, which his firm transformed. (GERALD S. WILLIAMS / File Photograph)
Posted: December 30, 2012

James Nelson Kise II, 75, a Philadelphia architect and urban planner who left his aesthetic mark on the local landscape but whose touch was felt as far away as Venezuela and Egypt, died Wednesday, Dec. 26, of a heart ailment at his home in Freeport, Maine.

Mr. Kise was a principal of Kise, Straw & Kolodner, the firm he cofounded in 1984 from the remnants of David A. Crane & Partners. In the role of architect and planner for many high-profile projects, Mr. Kise blended his advocacy of contemporary design with what he saw as the need to preserve historic buildings.

One famous project, Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts, a mix of old and new, was named one of America's great streets by the American Planning Association; it remains a model for other cities.

Mr. Kise's firm's restoration and adaptive reuse of the former Ridgway Library to house the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts won seven design awards, including the National Honor Award of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"Jim was a classy, Southern gentleman who brought a refreshing if slightly antique quality to his projects," architectural historian George Thomas said. "I suspect that the Ridgway Library . . . would not exist had it not been for Jim's powers of persuasion."

Mr. Kise's idea was to move the Liberty Bell to Independence Mall into its own structure, where more visitors could see it.

Between 1974 and 2005, the firm improved and stabilized the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial building at 719 Catharine St. For their efforts, Mr. Kise and partners James Bennett Straw and David A. Shultz were awarded the memorial's 2006 Founder's Award.

Elsewhere, Mr. Kise played a lead role in shaping five new towns: Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela; Raddisson, N.Y.; Peachtree City, Ga.; Sadat City, Egypt; and Kaohsiung New Town, Taiwan.

Of those, Sadat City was the most significant. Situated in the desert halfway between Cairo and Alexandria, it now is home to 200,000 people.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Kise and his wife, Sarah (Sallie) Smith, undertook the conversion of Druim Moir, the 1886 estate of Henry Howard Houston, her great-grandfather, into a residential community in Chestnut Hill.

The mansion and grounds were preserved "with a carefully conceived division of the main house and the creation of modern houses on the grounds that carried the costs of the preservation," Thomas said.

"Jim saw the importance of good design and its connection to nature in ways that anticipated modern values," Thomas said.

Mr. Kise also lent his skills and influence to myriad cultural institutions. He was a founder of the Washington (D.C.) Community School of Music and served on the board of Philadelphia's Settlement Music School. Proud of his heritage as a Rittenhouse descendant, he was active on the board of Historic Rittenhouse Town.

But the Philadelphia Museum of Art was "his true love," his family said. He was a past cochair of the Young Friends of the Museum and served on many of its committees. As building committee member, he helped choose architect Frank Gehry to develop a facilities master plan for the museum in 2006. He had served on its board of trustees since 1975.

"When one thinks of the attributes that make a great trustee, Jim Kise comes to mind," said Timothy Rub, the museum's George D. Widener director and chief executive officer.

"He was devoted to this institution and ambitious on its behalf," Rub said. "He understood and valued its great traditions and its commitment to excellence. And he was passionate about the visual arts and all that they mean to our community."

The University of Pennsylvania was another favorite cause. Mr. Kise, who was born in Trenton and raised in Morrisville, Pa., attended Lafayette College before transferring to Penn. There he earned a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1959, followed by a master's degree in city planning and a master's degree in fine arts.

From 1996 until recently, Mr. Kise was the senior spring term studio master. He had served as a board member of the School of Design Alumni Association since 1995, and as a member of the School of Design Board of Overseers since 2001.

He was a director of the Urban Design Center of Urban America and helped found the National Urban Coalition after the urban riots of 1968.

In 2004, Mr. Kise helped foster the notion that Philadelphia should compete to host the 2024 Olympics.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Kise is survived by sons Jefferson, Triplett, and Curtis; daughter Susanna; three grandchildren; and a brother.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 5, at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, 8000 St. Martins Ln., Philadelphia. Burial will be private.

Donations may be made to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Development Dept., Box 7646, Philadelphia 19101.


Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 215-854-2611 or bcook@phillynews.com.

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