Lunch with Mimi: Listening – and working some very early hours – have helped Bob Hoffman leave a lasting impression on Centre County’s architectural landscape
As senior principal of Hoffman Leakey Architects, Robert (Bob) Hoffman has made his mark on the architectural landscape in the Centre Region for more than 48 years. His keen eye for design and his leadership skills are visible in many significant projects, including renovation and restoration projects at Penn State University.
His business has evolved since 1972 from a small design studio to its current location at 110 West Main Street in Boalsburg. Born in Williamsport and raised in State College by his adoptive parents, he earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Penn State in 1964 and a master of architecture degree from the University of Minnesota in 1967.
When he is not in the studio, Hoffman is active on the College Township Planning Commission and is a member of the Boalsburg Fire Company; he was the original chairperson of the State College Area School District Facilities Committee. He enjoys taking young architects under his wing to share his vast knowledge with them.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith interviewed Hoffman via Zoom to discuss how an architect collaborates with clients to bring the vision of a project to fruition, and how to stay optimistic even during this difficult time.
Mimi: Being an architect has to be a very frustrating job at times because you're trying to please people, but at the same time, you're trying to introduce your ideas into the needs of the client. How do you handle that?
Bob: Well, I learned that over time. But I think the common denominator of the answer is that at the very beginning of the project, listen extremely carefully to your client. Whether it be corporate or personal, you need to make them feel comfortable that they can express to you what they're trying to do. And if you start with that kind of communication level, it allows you to begin to build a relationship with your client, that they gain some trust in you and your methodology. And you know a little bit more about what they need to do to understand the whole process.
One of the things that I do with young people who come to the office is to indicate to them that after the first meeting with a client as we start to show them options, start from where they had us begin, not where you think you should be. And then, through examples, lead them possibly from what they're thinking to another way of thinking, which may be more comprehensive.
Mimi: It's probably a question of your ability to help the client have greater confidence in you.
Bob: Yes. And you have to prove that in sometimes a very humble way. I know that architects and I, myself, are “A” personalities; we are very outgoing, and we very much have a passion for what we do.
Mimi: Control freaks at times.
Bob: Yes. My wife will ascertain that comment. But I think you need to try very hard not to be the king of the hill, but rather a partner in the process. And in so doing, we each have a role that we can offer. The days when an architect would go listen to a client and then disappear in the back room and produce all these marvelous sketches and then come out and say, “This is the way you need to do it” – well, I found out very early that doesn't work.
Mimi: What was your worst experience with that?
Bob: I think it had to do with when I was working to develop a project for one of the earlier (Penn State) president residences in the late ’70s out here in Boalsburg, Harris Township. And I went in there a little bit too cocky. And our interaction didn't sit well until I finally learned that I needed to listen to them more and to try to understand where each of them was coming from.
Mimi: You've done a lot of work restoring and preserving older properties in the community. Is that a specialty of yours?
Bob: It is something that I do take a lot of time and pride in trying to solve. I was working in Boston right after school, and, of course, Boston has a rich palette of old and new buildings. Being a young architect and observing, plus being able to work on a few projects up there, it became quite evident to me that one of the secrets of the richness that you can bring out of a building might be to recognize and honor the old character and bring in some new design features that work with it. And so, when I did the Little Brick, which was my first office next to Duffy's Tavern, I exposed all the brick because being from that Boston background, brick is a wonderful material. I put a skylight in, put some new lighting in, which was modern.
But yes, I have done a lot of renovation: the Harris Township offices, with the old meeting room, which was the carriage house, the Boalsburg Fire Company, putting a museum out front of an old schoolhouse. So, there have been wonderful examples that I’ve been fortunate enough to work on.
Mimi: As you look back on your lifetime of architecture, 48 years, what job are you most proud of and why?
Bob: Oh, boy. Well, I think I might start by [talking about] when Ralph Way rode his bicycle to Boalsburg and came in the front door of the Little Brick and asked me if I ever had designed a life-care community. Up to that point, I had just done residential. I said, “No, but I think I can learn and study and do a great job.” And so, he got on his bike, rode back to State College, and invited me over one night to the rest of the Quaker group. And then, of course, [came] the design of the (Foxdale Village) facility, going from a cornfield into an interesting layout of buildings, featuring outdoor spaces that had scale, that weren't too large, that encourage conversation. And then, of course, the building of it.
Obviously, I’m extremely proud of it and proud of the process that we all had to go through to get through some of the regulatory agencies. There were some neighborhood issues, but we worked around that. That probably stands out as a project that got me started as a larger-project architect in the community.
Some of the work that I've done at Penn State with some of the dining halls that we renovated, I’m very proud of. I'm very proud of Sarni Tennis Center, the indoor track facility; all those are meaningful. The Victorian Manor (Restaurant, in Lemont) was interesting.
I have to say that probably one of the hardest projects architecturally I ever worked on was the president's house, the Schreyer House at Penn State. It was a Tudor piece of architecture with very high, sloping rooms. And it became very difficult to blend in the new additions to that type of architecture. So, we went through two phases. We did the first phase, where the building was developed, and Dr. and Mrs. Spanier moved in. Then, the second phase was the greenhouse and taking the porch and creating the solarium for the governors’ conference that was to be held. That is more of a modern, up-to-date example of a project that I'm extremely proud of.
Mimi: Which was the worst project in your experience?
Bob: I would say that there were a few projects that I was disappointed in. And sometimes, the reason is not necessarily because of the client-architect relationship. It's just I misread and didn't take the opportunity to develop some more exciting ideas. In other words, when it was built, I looked at it and said, “I should have done more,” or “Why did I do that?” Architects are supposed to know everything about three-dimensional reality before it's built.
Mimi: You've been affiliated with the Boalsburg Fire Company for a long time. It's unusual for architects to be firemen, isn't it?
Bob: Well, it might be. I joined the fire company back in the 1970s when I really didn't have a lot of work and had some free time. But I also wanted to be a part of the community. Sitting behind a drafting table and thinking is a wonderful thing, but it's not very physical, and I wanted something to get my hands dirty. And so, I joined the company. They accepted me even though I was a little bit different in my looks. And I worked up through the various levels, from the president to in charge of bingo, to doing sausage sandwiches, to fire chief.
Mimi: But you had a lot of fun doing all that.
Bob: It was absolutely amazing, and I met so many wonderful people. I learned a lot about myself, my patience, my need to step on my ego every once in a while, and just listen to people.
Mimi: You're a member of the senior citizens now. How long do you think you want to work?
Bob: Well, that's an interesting question. I've been in business now 48-some years in State College as an architect after a little bit in New Jersey prior to that. I have been a self-proprietor for such a long time that it's sometimes hard to understand what I'm going to do if I retire because this is everything that I've done my whole life.
A number of years ago, six years ago, plus or minus, I was very fortunate to find an architect (Michael Leakey) that wanted to join the firm with the interest of buying out the firm. Presently, we are in the final stages of that buyout. And so, in the next two years, we should be consummating that relationship. I have thought that perhaps in the year 2021, to move away from the office, maybe to work if we have a working relationship on certain components, but literally to let Michael take charge of the office, bring in new ideas, and allow me to step back and kind of appreciate just being a little bit more relaxed.
Mimi: I sold my business back in 2008, all of it, and I'm still working part-time. I wonder when I'll hang up my cleats. It's hard to give up work that you always love doing, and that made you proud. And I think you're saying that also.
Bob: Absolutely. I observe people who can't wait to retire, and I wonder what their thought process is, what they plan to do. Some have moved into other kinds of jobs and professions, and that's wonderful, they keep themselves active. I go to work at 4:30 every morning.
Mimi: 4:30? Why so early?
Bob: Because I can get something done without being interrupted. And I noticed that if I take that away, I'm going to have to be doing things early because you have to keep your body and your mind moving.
Mimi: Well, in the summer that'll work because you like to garden.
Bob: I do. That is my therapeutic moment. A garden is an interesting thing to experience. Now I understand why people would build a threshold when you go into the garden, because you leave a lot of the luggage and baggage that you get during the day. Tomato plants don't talk back to you, don’t make you feel like you don't know what you're doing. They just want attention.
Mimi: I note that you're an adopted child. And that has for some people brought problems along the way. I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on being an adopted child.
Bob: Well, I think that I was so fortunate to have parents that loved me and did everything they could to make sure that I was educated and had the proper experiences of travel and so forth. I think that some of my recollections of when I found out that I was adopted were a little hard on me because I thought that maybe they should have communicated it, but they made a decision not to. Just before my father passed away, he asked me, he said, “You wouldn’t need more information about your parents?” and I said, “No, you've done such a wonderful job.” I feel very fortunate to have been adopted and given a life with a great family.
Mimi: It's hard not to speak about the experience of the present time. How do you feel this impacting you personally?
Bob: I tend to still be very optimistic. I think as part of my profession, you have to learn to be open-minded and look at various options in order to create good creative solutions. And in this particular case, with the different methods of communication that we're going through with Zoom meetings and trying to interact in different ways with distancing and so forth, I think some things are going to come out of that, that we can apply to our “standard of living,” when we do get back in force.
I think it's caused me to calm down a little bit and be a little bit more patient in communicating to our staff, to our clients, because of this interaction that we're going through right now. I'm a person, as I know you are, that enjoys the actual face-to-face interaction. You learn so much from people's eyes, the way they move, the way they feel; you can sense so much, which you can't do in Zoom meetings.
Mimi: Do you enjoy your work with the College Township Planning Commission?
Bob: Yeah, I do. Having a planning degree and being an architect allows me to look at land development plans and offer maybe a different opinion or add value to some of the other opinions. We have a wonderful group of people and wonderful management at the township level.
Mimi: You and I have had the pleasure of watching each of these townships, in addition to the borough, grow and work together a little better than they used to, though perhaps not as well as they could. I believe we have such duplication of the same functions. And though we are a whole community, in part, it keeps us divided. Because we are an area. We are not the university, and State College, and all these townships. We should be one large family working for the good of the whole.
Bob: I can appreciate that. When you start to look at details like fire service and emergency management services, and because of the economics and the need for volunteers, a oneness is just absolutely essential. I think as we start to evaluate some of the zoning and regulations that come up, I would appreciate a little bit more continuity among all the townships. How many people have to write an ordinance about food trucks?
Mimi: We tried a vote once, and it was a horrible failure, but I think times are changing. What we’re going through now is a good example of coming together and trying to look at consolidation in a sensible way.
Bob: When I first joined the (College Township) Planning Commission, I was assigned to the Centre Region Planning Commission. That was amazing because you got to hear about the different townships’ and the boroughs’ feelings about elements of discussion. I thought it would be really interesting to have a session where all the planning commission members of all the townships get together and find out why we are writing all these seven ordinances about different things when we could be doing it comprehensively. There will be little variations, perhaps, in each of the areas, but the major thread of the document could come from a regional sense, not an individual.
Mimi: Do you think it’s achievable at this point in history?
Bob: I think a few things will drive it. Not just the times, but the economics. As the area grows, it will find that it’s under pressures we hadn’t had in the 1950s and 1960s. Those types of pressures are going to require a more unified approach to governing the region.
Mimi: I want to thank you for sharing time and thoughts with me, and I want to wish you good luck in your struggle to figure out how you’re going to retire.
Bob: Maybe a year from now, you and I can meet at The Tavern and discuss how we’re both doing with this venture. I’m so honored that you asked me to have this discussion.