John Pitman
Courtesy Photo

He was a quiet and gentle man, John Pitman, FAIA. Having been his friend for almost 30 years, I now wonder how I came to know him at all; in so many ways we were so different, and it’s hard to get to know a quiet man.

But we were both architects-we had that in common-and perhaps that’s why he took me under his wing, he the native Santa Barbaran, and I only from Iowa. “How are things in Grundy Corners?” he would tease me. “Grundy Center,” I’d correct him. “Oh yes,” he would say, smiling, and I would smile, too. It was one of his few jokes, because John was a serious man. And it was with that seriousness that he undertook all his endeavors.

Once I had the opportunity to joint venture with John on a golf course project. Working with him was a perfect experience. He performed with focused seriousness, preparing the construction documents carefully, thoroughly, and professionally, and always with an eye to beauty.

It was this quiet professionalism, and his incredible attention to detail that brought John success. Whether in the practice of architecture, or in the affairs of the commissions and boards on which he served, these qualities lifted him to leadership, which he executed with gentle dignity. Perhaps nowhere were these characteristics more in evidence than in how he, as chairman, conducted the architectural reviews of the Historic Landmarks Commission.

Architectural review is in every sense peer review, and many architects find it difficult, with respect to critiquing and modifying their designs. But John brought to the deliberations of the commission the balance of fairness and a quality of review that earned the recognition and trust of his colleagues. His knowledge of our historic architecture, his love of beauty and preservation, and his professional esteem all served to enhance the prestige of the commission’s deliberations. It was, I believe, his favorite endeavor and he suffered deeply whenever he sensed the commission had failed, just as he enjoyed its many successes.

He also enjoyed lunches at the Paradise Cafe and Mousse Odile, and we shared many in their patios, back in the days when you could smoke there, which John did. “Why don’t you quit, John?” I asked him once. “I can’t,” he said. “I just love it.” And that was that. There would be no changing John. He wasn’t perfect and he wasn’t changeable.

Breakfast at Judge for Yourself Cafe was another of his enjoyments. Ed Lenvik, Brian Cearnal, John, and I began meeting there once a month in 1989 when we were trying to defeat Measure E. Well, Measure E passed. We lost, but we gained one another’s friendship-and continued the breakfasts ever since.

For the last few months, John’s health didn’t permit his attendance, but before that, he was always there and usually the first to the table. He never ordered breakfast. An early riser, he would already have eaten, so he just had coffee, but he always insisted on paying one fourth of the bill.

Several years ago, we and our wives Harriet and Nyna began going out for Chinese food once a month. Coming out of the restaurant one evening last fall, I was following John and I noticed how bent over and weak he looked as he walked. Several weeks later, Harriet called to tell us that John had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

He took his radiation and chemo without complaint, but the surgery last February took a heavy toll. “I wouldn’t do it again,” he admitted to me of the surgery. But that was the only time I heard John complain about his illness.

Recently, Ed Lenvik and I took over lunch to share with John. We sat in his beautiful patio next to Mission Creek, shaded by the ancient oaks that embraced his home and gardens. We talked about the usual things, but somehow in that chitchat the question of John’s care came up. “Oh, don’t worry,” he assured us. “Harriet is the most wonderful caregiver.” Of course we knew that, but it was good to hear John say it.

We were still sharing our monthly Chinese food except that now we did takeout instead of going to the restaurant. On one of those occasions, I was especially excited to share with John that I had met the El Paseo architect James Osborne Craig’s daughter and granddaughter. John listened to my account of the meeting and then he told me that it was good I had made contact with them because he had some things to give them. “What?” I asked, astounded. “Well, that drawing of the Hoffman House in my office.”

“I thought that was a print,” I said.

“No, it’s an original, by Craig. And I also have some letters of his and original photographs of the Hoffman House under construction.” I was speechless. “My father was an associate of Craig’s,” John continued. “He helped with the designs of El Paseo and the Hoffman House.” I had known John for almost 30 years and he had never told me any of these things.

Later, Craig’s granddaughter, Pamela Skewes-Cox, met with John. She received with great appreciation the letters, photos, and original drawing of her grandfather, and John was very pleased.

On Sunday, July 29, we took Chinese food over to John and Harriet’s to share. John was drinking beer instead of his usual Charles Shaw Chardonnay, which he swore was the best. I asked about the beer, and he said he was trying to take on some calories, as he was losing so much weight. We talked quietly and his words were often interrupted by a deep cough, which seemed to be getting much worse. As we were finishing dinner, John began to cough and he excused himself. Ten minutes later, we found him on the bed, dead. I know, and all of John’s family agrees, that the way he died was a blessing. I don’t use the term “blessing” lightly, but I know this was one.

His funeral mass, celebrated by Father Daniel, was at Mission Santa Barbara, and that beautiful old church was packed to the last pew with John’s family, friends, and colleagues. John always loved beautiful music and it filled the church that morning. He also loved beautiful words, and so when I spoke to the congregation on behalf of his family, I ended with these words from Hamlet:

Good night sweet Prince,

May flights of angels

Sing you to your rest.


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