The best architecture begins with a story, Lee Skolnick explained.
Typically, it is one of time and place. One of history, culture, mission and dreams — resulting in goal-driven design with purpose and depth, achieved only by diving deep and asking the question, “What is this really about?”
Only then will Skolnick agree to take on a project, he said. And it shows.
“I very much eschew this idea of having a signature style. That is of no interest to me whatsoever,” he said. “There are a lot of architects where you look at it and say, ‘Well that must have been done by so-and-so,’ because it looks like everything else they ever did. When you look at our projects, none of them look alike.”
From Bulgaria to the Caribbean to New York and the East End, Skolnick has left his footprint — though, as a child, he never intended to. The now principal of his firm, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, once had his sights trained on music theory and composition.
“I wound up taking, like everybody does in college, a whole spectrum of different subjects — whether it’s the sciences, the humanities, philosophy, literature, sociology, psychology, political science, physics, mathematics,” he rattled off. “And I faced this dilemma, after a year or so into my college education, where everything that I was taking seemed tremendously exciting.”
On any given Monday morning, he found himself sitting in class, daydreaming about becoming an anthropologist. By 2 p.m., he wanted to be a physicist. By week’s end, he would be questioning his entire future — and then the cycle would repeat itself.
But an elective he took showed him another way. It was an integration of all disciplines, he recalled, encouraging a lifelong education to inform the work he would pursue — a melting pot of history, culture, values, creative expression, the environment and the arts.
The class was architectural history and theory.
“It was like getting struck by lightning,” Skolnick said. “That was it.”
He traded his undergraduate studies to work for an architect, spending the better part of a year making blueprints. He was undeterred, and applied to Cooper Union — “the best architectural program perhaps in the world at the time,” he said.
“By some miracle, they accepted me,” he said. “That changed my life. That put me on a completely different path. I graduated in ’79, so it’s almost 40 years that I’ve been pursuing architecture as an ongoing creative exploration, really.”
What began as small projects in Sag Harbor — where Skolnick first rented a circa-1752 cottage on Madison Street, as a respite from Cooper Union — soon blossomed into a full-fledged international career, which has spanned the design of residential and commercial projects alike.
“The two big bonuses of working in architecture are that you create something that exists in the world — it’s not ephemeral, it’s not simply conceptual, it’s physical — and it has potential to improve people’s lives, whether it’s individuals or communities or the world at large,” he said. “We look to architecture to embody the values, the beliefs, the political and social and cultural and even religious beliefs of any given society or civilization.
“You want to participate in that tradition,” he continued. “You want to do things that represent who we are now, and in an optimistic way, who we hope to be. That makes places feel intrinsically right, when we embody those things. You feel it.”
Skolnick finds it easier to be devoted to the East End than his native New York City and has partnered with a range of East End organizations, from the Sag Harbor and Shelter Island Historical Societies to Mulford Farm and the Children’s Museum of the East End — his brainchild.
This particular project presented a set of unique challenges, the two largest being its 12-acre site, which was highly environmentally sensitive, and a limited budget.
“The entire exhibit hall and most of the building is a pre-engineered steel frame building, which I think we did a very good job of disguising. And then we built up the building in the front — there’s a more conventional construction to give it a lot more character — and we put it on a raised boardwalk so we didn’t disturb the wetlands,” he said. “Between the environmental limitations and the budgetary limitations, we tried to do as much as we possibly could to create a holistic experience.”
Present day, Skolnick is navigating between three long-term projects, the first being “a number of enhancements” to Guild Hall in East Hampton.
“They have the new director, who is a real visionary and powerhouse, and she and the board are extremely desirous of making Guild Hall much more of an everyday community resource that people feel welcomed into and part of,” he said. “We’ve been working with them to bring that message forward in a much more obvious way.”
That same drive is mirrored within the Cedar Island Lighthouse project, explained the architect, who is restoring the landmark for Suffolk County. Dating to 1868, the current lighthouse is in desperate need of a facelift, if it has any hope for future use, Skolnick said.
“The building was in pretty dire straits, so we’re slowly — with a whole host of special consultants — restoring the outside, getting a new roof on, getting it water tight so it’s no longer deteriorating, and then we’re working closely with the Friends of Cedar Point Lighthouse to help them envision how the interior might be converted into more of a public amenity and possibly even a bed and breakfast,” he said. “It’s a long-term vision that will take years to accomplish, but we’re on the road, and we’re getting the first phases into implementation.”
Most recently, Skolnick has taken on a new project at the former Sag Harbor United Methodist Church building on Madison Street, which was recently purchased by the artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik — who live and work in their North Haven home and twin studios that Skolnick designed in the late 1990s.
Together, they aim to transform the building into a flexible space for artisans to experiment and create — a haven for innovation that will only add to the village’s artistic fabric.
To that end, it is a story in the making, Skolnick said.
“There’s just a tremendous energy around this project,” he said, “and the fact that this church could become an anchor and a resource in the broader community, that was tremendously attractive. But, also, Eric, April and I are the closest of friends, and we have been for going on 30 years.”
“My wife, Jo Ann, has pointed this out to me on numerous occasions. She said, ‘Have you ever looked around and noticed all our closest friends are your former clients?’” he continued. “That’s very significant because you do develop these relationships that are lifelong relationships. It’s not about just a project, it becomes — whether it’s a museum project or someone’s home — you have such an intimate collaborative experience with people that it lasts. It becomes a part of your life.”