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Burlington native Thomas Ryan pays homage to modernist master architect Frank Lloyd Wright

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Burlington native, now a Californian, making quite an impression with architectural designs

By Charity L. Cohen

Special to The Alamance News

Not many can say they accomplished a goal that they dreamed of as a child – even fewer can say they turned that dream into a career. But Burlington native turned Californian Thomas Ryan, 45, can say he did them both.

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His journey began in 1991 when he stood surrounded by the tapping of hammers, buzzing of drills, and whirring of cranes. The new Alamance Regional Medical Center was being built under the administration of his father, Tom Ryan, the then-CEO of the hospital.

From the moment the building’s steel went up, his childhood dreams became a tangible aspiration.

Alamance Regional Medical Center under construction.

“As a kid, you don’t realize that something has an impact on you until later.  Just seeing that project and my dad’s involvement and to see something go from the idea to the physical thing, had an influence on me for sure.”

– Thomas Ryan, T.W. Ryan Architecture, mill valley, california

“As a kid, you don’t realize that something has an impact on you until later,” the younger Ryan recalled in an interview with The Alamance News.  “Just seeing that project and my dad’s involvement and to see something go from the idea to the physical thing, had an influence on me for sure.”

The impact of what seemed like a regular “take your kid to work day” visit with his father, added a new piece to the blueprint of his life. One that would lead him to become the founder and award-winning principal architect at T.W. Ryan Architecture in Mill Valley, California.

He has designed and overseen the construction of several contemporary residential and industrial buildings across the United States. A few of his most noteworthy projects include the Adrian Rosenfeld Gallery in San Francisco, the Mission House, also in San Francisco, and the Four Roof House in Helmville, Montana.

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Four Roof House in Helmville, Montana

He has been recognized  by Architectural Record magazine on two occasions in their “top 20 home designs” (both in 2023 and in 2021) and by other trade and professional publications and organizations.

He received both his Bachelor degree in Visual Arts and his Master of Architecture from North Carolina State University. Through his professor and Raleigh architect, Frank Harmon, Ryan met Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect, Richard Meier, for whom he worked as a designer in New York. He worked with Meier and architect Christoff Finio for a few years before establishing his own firm.

None of Ryan’s designs is like the other, each having its distinctive flair and form, featuring materials and design elements that reflect the location in which they’re built.

Ryan uses materials that can be found in the area of the sites he plans to build. This practice is best known by world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who described it as “Organic Architecture.” This term is used to describe architecture that is inspired by, and suited for, the environment where the structure is built.

“In the end, hopefully, they all look like they’re done from one place, but they all actually kind of have their own character and language based on where they are,” Ryan said.

He first became aware of this architectural style while on a trip to Taliesin West in Arizona,  where he saw a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was made from naturally existing elements like native stones from the site. It was this project along with the Guggenheim Museum in New York that solidified Wright as Ryan’s primary architectural influence.

Before going to school for architecture, he spent time studying his craft all over the world, including in Ticino, Switzerland to apprentice for Franc Sidler, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright who he met through a colleague of his father’s in Alamance County. Sidler connected him with other students of Wright’s who showed him their own work as well as different structures around Switzerland.

“That was a really formative time, and I feel really lucky that before anyone told me what’s good and what’s bad, I got to see all these things that I could make my own opinion on,” Ryan said. “And I love that the connection came through Burlington; it was kind of amazing that Frank Lloyd Wright had somehow tapered down to Burlington.”

“My family is from eastern North Carolina – Goldsboro – and when we would drive to go there, Tommy was very aware of the old barns and all of the old buildings and everything, you know, just looking out the window.”

– Thomas Ryan’s mother, Susan Ryan, of Burlington

But even before these “study abroad experiences.”, Ryan’s eye for design and desire to create structures that honor their region began to take root right here in North Carolina.

“My family is from eastern North Carolina – Goldsboro – and when we would drive to go there, Tommy was very aware of the old barns and all of the old buildings and everything, you know, just looking out the window,” his mother, Susan Ryan, recalled.

“When I was a kid, you know how driving around, especially in eastern North Carolina, you would often see the old sharecropping houses or farm houses where the house might have been long gone, but you’d still see the chimney just standing there.  It’s like that idea of where the chimney somehow marks the house on the site, and Frank Lloyd Wright used to always talk about how the chimney was the center of the home.”

– Architect Thomas Ryan

One of Ryan’s most notable designs, the Three Chimney House in Charlottesville, Virginia, profited from these astute childhood observations.

“When I was a kid, you know how driving around, especially in eastern North Carolina, you would often see the old sharecropping houses or farm houses where the house might have been long gone, but you’d still see the chimney just standing there,” he said. “It’s like that idea of where the chimney somehow marks the house on the site, and Frank Lloyd Wright used to always talk about how the chimney was the center of the home.”

Whether he’s using Corten weathering steel to make a home that will endure extreme summers and winters in Montana; or designing homes in Virginia using brick walls and copper roofing to follow the hundred-year home building tradition of the state; or even building structures in California with stones and wood because of that state’s history of wood-building, he always approaches his projects with a conversation with the client and a visit to the site.

His process – from design to build – with the Three Chimney House is a perfect example of such conversation.

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Above and below, the Three Chimney House in Charlottesville, Virginia

“Since there’s been humans, we’ve all gathered around the fire, and so I love that idea and the fact that it’s part of all people no matter what country or where you are in the world, the fireplace is always going to be an important thing,” he said. “So that’s where we started talking about the chimneys.”

“Tommy’s a quiet guy and to be honest with you, I don’t know half of what’s going on in that creative brain.  But I’m just proud of him.”

– Proud father Tom Ryan of burlington, former CEO of ARMC

This level of creativity and insight never ceases to amaze Ryan’s family.

“Tommy’s a quiet guy and to be honest with you, I don’t know half of what’s going on in that creative brain,” his father, Tom Ryan, said with a laugh. “But I’m just proud of him.”

Tom Ryan jokingly likens himself to a “little league baseball dad,” because of his swelling pride for both Thomas and his sister Molly, who works as a contracts attorney for a major pharmaceutical company, and all of their accomplishments.

The younger Ryan also works as a senior lecturer at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He currently lives in California with his wife Lauren of 19 years and their 11-year-old daughter Gracie. He says his wife, who is a partner at Anthony Meier Art Gallery, has been one of his biggest supporters and motivators since they were in college together at N.C. State.

“I know for a fact that it has been a really good match and they’re very supportive of each other,” his mother said, “It’s been fun to watch them grow and just see where they go.”

Where Thomas Ryan will go next, he can’t say for sure; however, he hopes to get into public, community oriented projects.

“My dream project would be a library or community center, these kinds of things that people get to use every day and hopefully, have a good impact. I’m hoping in the next five years to find a way to transition to doing small scale public work.”

– Architect Thomas Ryan

“My dream project would be a library or community center, these kinds of things that people get to use every day and hopefully, have a good impact,” he said. “I’m hoping in the next five years to find a way to transition to doing small scale public work.”

And though the young boy who, with awe and excitement, watched the Alamance Regional Medical Center being built is physically far from Alamance County, his heart is still planted here in the soil. A soil that he hopes to someday plant his architectural gift as well.

“It would be great to get a project in North Carolina, if anyone in Burlington is interested,” Ryan said with a hopeful laugh. “I’ve never actually done a project in North Carolina, so oh man, that would be fun!”


Photos courtesy of Thomas Ryan, T.W. Ryan Architecture; architecture photos by Joe Fletcher, Architecture Photographer 

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