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Their firm, Patty Berkebile Nelson Architects, opened shop in 1970, the same year President Richard Nixon enacted a sweeping array of environmental laws. Berkebile celebrated by hanging an Earth Day flag — fashioned from green felt pulled from his in-laws' old poker table — in his new office window.
The firm made a name for itself in preservation architecture, winning contracts to redevelop an old post office in St. Louis, a courthouse in St. Joseph and a performing-arts center in downtown Kansas City. "The Folly Theater was the world's largest pigeon hotel for a number of years, and now it's a poster child for the National Trust," Berkebile says.
Then the firm secured work on a project that promised to vault them to even greater national status — the $50 million, 40-story Hyatt Regency Hotel at Crown Center. Berkebile and another local architect, Herb Duncan, were the two principals on the project. Berkebile led the design work, which envisioned a set of four airy walkways with glass railings. The 120-foot-long "sky bridges" would cross the glass atrium like the center of an architectural "H," connecting the restaurants and conferences halls on the south side of the hotel to the rooms on the north side. It was Berkebile's signature across the seal on the envelope approving the final schematics for the skywalks. It was his name that was indicted in newspaper articles in the days after the collapse.
His guilt about his role as an architect drove him to delve into the environmental ethics of his industry. He went back through his firm's past projects. He learned more about the materials used and where they came from. He decided that designs were either restorative or destructive; there was no middle ground.
Nelson, Berkebile's longtime partner, says Berkebile's environmental research was nearly all-encompassing. "For several years, he had an almost total concentration on the environmental side, and that didn't do anything for the bottom line," Nelson says. "And there was some tension, some 'Bob, you've got to back off a little bit. The rest of us are carrying the architectural load.'"
Berkebile has little allegiance to conventional wisdom, though. He wears a colorful bow tie to business affairs where everyone else is in nearly identical suits. He's known for his offbeat socks — such as the black-with-red-hearts he sports the week of Valentine's Day. While many successful professionals were fleeing to the suburbs in the 1970s, he moved from Prairie Village to Kansas City's urban core, where he restored an antebellum mansion and then went on to design a modest, efficient set of townhomes in Hyde Park. For years, he had a passion for flashy, powerful cars; then he got the first Honda Insight hybrid to hit Kansas City. He stopped pushing the speedometers in BMWs and Porsches and started boasting about getting 80-plus miles per gallon.
The constantly traveling architect admits that his work consumes him. He sees his two grown children infrequently. He thinks his son, Tyler, recently married his Brazilian girlfriend. His daughter, Amy, lives in Maryland, and he's lucky if he sees her every couple of years. Even his wife, he says, has to be patient with his career. For years, their vacations have been a few odd days tacked on to the end of business and research trips to places such as New Zealand and Kenya.
Like his family, though, his partners knew that Berkebile wasn't out in left field when the Hyatt collapse led him to start on an environmental mission. "We also recognized there was something there," Nelson says. "We believed in it ourselves. Not to the extent that Bob did, with the fervor and zealousness about it, but we began to see it would pay off."