2012-08-10 / People


Architect reflects on 50-year career
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

John Leasure John Leasure CAPE ELIZABETH—Spend a half hour with John Leasure, and it may be hard to tell when he is joking and when he isn’t.

“How many buildings have I done? I bet I’ve done a billion,” said the architect from Cape Elizabeth.

That might be an exaggeration, but as he flips through a binder full of banks, hotels, libraries, schools, and homes, it becomes clear that in his career of over 50 years, he’s probably designed too many to count.

One of those numerous building credits is the South Portland Public Library, which Leasure designed in 1965; the building opened in 1966.

“It’s a warehouse for books,” Leasure said of the library. “It was the cheapest thing we could build.”

That’s not the most flattering description of a building that has stood on the corner of Cottage Road and Broadway for over four decades in South Portland, but Library Director Kevin Davis described the building similarly in a post on his Director’s Blog.

“The main Library building is a box. An interesting box, filled with wonderful people and things, but essentially just a box,” Davis said.

But Davis has an appreciation for that box. The background on his iPhone is a view of the library, with the windows lit from the inside as the sun sets. Davis has done all he can to make the building more visible to the public. He took down overgrown bushes along the walls of the building and briefly explored the idea of having the city purchase an adjacent lot to clear more sight lines to the library.

When Leasure originally designed the library, he had bigger ideas for the building that the city didn’t have money for. Fountains on the walkway would have cost $2,200, nothing in today’s world but a fortune in the 1960s. Those were the first to go. He also envisioned the side walls extending past the corner of the roof. That was too expensive.

But Leasure said he likes the changes Davis has made to the building over the course of the last few years, which include clearing the overgrown brush away from the side walls and removing the interior window coverings.

Leasure’s other credits include the Franklin Towers apartment building in Portland, the Diplomat condominiums in Old Orchard Beach, and the hotels at the Sunday River ski resort in Bethel.

“Big boxes full of people,” Leasure called those projects. He jokingly wrote off some of his signature achievements, buildings recognizable all over the state, as “boxes for money.”

Leasure is clearly a man who does not take himself too seriously. Still, he takes some pleasure in his work.

“They’re never going to tear it down,” he said of Franklin Towers, the tallest building in Maine at 16 stories and 175 feet.

“It’s a brick box full of little windows. I did something to it. Hey, nobody else has built one in Maine,” Leasure said.

Leasure is 84 years old now, or, as he puts is, “48 and dyslexic.” But he’s still working. He shows off designs of a milehigh skyscraper he’s been working for 10 years to build in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He said he is trying to work through his connections in Qatar to win a bid for a project there.

“I don’t want to quit,” Leasure said, “I’m not young but I’m not dead.”

Part of the reason he keeps going is for his family. Leasure has six children, many of whom are involved in either architecture or structural engineering, and many of whom stayed close to Maine. By continuing to work, he said he can use his connections to improve their businesses as well as his own.

Leasure has been married to his wife, Mary for 60 years, after the two met in their hometown of Altoona, Pa.

“Altoona was a railroad town. My dad worked for the railroad. If you didn’t you were hungry. And the railroad closed. They closed the shops and the town folded 30 years ago, all the young people went to New Jersey, and so I kind of filtered along with them.”

Before heading to New Jersey, Leasure attended Penn State. He married Mary while he was in school, and said he graduated from Penn State with a diploma in one hand and his eldest son, David, in the other.

Leasure is jovial, quick with a joke, and doesn’t get overly serious about his career achievements or his stature in architecture. However, when he said his wife is “smarter than the rest of us (in the family) combined,” he meant it.

But even while discussing his family, an aspect of his life that is clearly important to him, he can’t resist a joke. After describing the enmity between architects and engineers he’s observed in his career, (“They hate us!” he said), Leasure smiled and said, “Two of my sons are structural engineers.”

Walking back to his car after the interview, Leasure is still in a joking mood. “We had fun but you didn’t learn anything,” he said.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

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