Sylvan's last stand 


Photo by Janet Ni

Linda Sylvan will leave Rice Design Alliance on solid footing this year

When Rice Design Alliance last went looking for an executive director, she was already sitting in the chair. That was 28 years ago. 

 Linda Sylvan had been filling in while serving as part-time managing editor of Cite, the RDA's design journal, until she was finally given the big gig. Now the search has resumed: Sylvan will step down from the job when her replacement is hired, probably this summer. The organization she leaves bears only a passing resemblance to the one she joined.

Tucked into a corner of Anderson Hall, the RDA has grown from a couple of part-time employees in the early 1970s to a significant staff dedicated to design as a nexus for bringing people and ideas together on campus and at events throughout greater Houston.

They include a high-profile lecture series run in conjunction with the Rice School of Architecture in the fall; civic design forums in the spring; guided travel for members to cities around the globe with historian and Rice lecturer Stephen Fox, Rice professor Carlos Jimenez and other Houston architects; charrettes; "hard hat" tours of significant construction projects and an annual local architecture tour that provides public entry to some of Houston’s most interesting buildings.

Almost all of that came to be under Sylvan's tenure.

"Linda Sylvan knows everyone in Houston and her trademark energy and enthusiasm have ensured that every one of the people she’s ever met now pays more attention to design than before they encountered her," said Sarah Whiting, dean of the Rice School of Architecture and the William Ward Watkin Professor of Architecture. "While she will characteristically backseat herself, crediting instead her staff and the RDA’s numerous volunteers, she herself has had a tremendous effect on Houston.

"It took a lot of convincing to get her to let the RDA celebrate her as their gala honoree this coming fall," Whiting said.

Though RDA is located at Rice, Sylvan considers its home to be Houston, and she said it has done a quantifiable job of improving the city in the past four-plus decades. She singled out the "Heart of the Park" project, the start of an ongoing renaissance at Rice's neighboring Hermann Park, as a point of pride.

"The Heart of the Park design competition in 1992 was a big deal for us," she said. The contest that drew 117 international entries kick-started years of improvements at the park, beginning with a master plan by landscape architect Laurie Olin and the subsequent renovation of the central reflection pond. "It didn't have any edging on it, and it was just a mess," Sylvan said of her first view of the site. "When it was finished, I went over there to see it and said, 'I can't believe this is Houston!' It was so lovely."

Sylvan, a native of Texas, first experienced Houston as a Rice student for three years. She met her husband, Dick, on campus and moved with him to New York, finishing her senior classwork at Barnard College. "Rice let me transfer my credits from Barnard so I could graduate from Rice, which was important to me," she said. "I've always been grateful for that."

She worked for five years as a fact-checker at Reader's Digest in New York, learning the publishing game, and returned to Houston in 1978 to work for the startup Houston City Magazine and then for Houston Home and Garden. "Then I had two children and was doing some part-time editing at the University of Houston when my Rice classmate Stephen (Fox) called and told me they needed a part-time managing editor at Cite."

When she became executive director as well, she and an office assistant were the entire staff. "And she was absent a lot," Sylvan recalled. "We depended on our volunteers a lot because our staff was so small. Over time we hired a program director, and then we had a membership director. Now, we have a great professional staff. We love our volunteers and they're still very helpful, but a lot of the things we do are driven by the staff."

Retirement will not keep her from being involved with architects. For starters, she's on the board of the Association of Architectural Organizations, which proclaims its dedication to "enhancing public dialogue about architecture and design." She will also be on the RDA trip to Japan later this year and expects to be present for many RDA events going forward.

She's certainly thought about retiring in the past. "I have two children who went to Rice," Sylvan said. "I thought, 'Maybe I'll stick with this until the girls graduate.' And then it was, 'I think I'll stick with it until we have a million-dollar budget.' And then that passed and it was like, 'I don't want to leave!' So it's been great. Every year we have a fresh group of people, new board members, new officers. It's been such a delight to work here."

Sylvan expects to leave RDA awash with plans to further improve the city she loves. One involves a hoped-for deck park over a section of Interstate-45 on the Near Northside that would offer spectacular views of the city's scenic skyline, provide much-needed park space and reconnect neighborhoods divided by the highway. The other would webify the dozens of themed tours of Houston neighborhoods, as well as national and international cities, led by Fox and others over the years.

"These are big projects and I'm not going to be able to finish them, but I will get them started and moving," she said.

Sylvan, however, will not move. "I don’t like change," she said. "I've been here for 28 years, I've been married to the same man for 45 years, I've lived on the same street in Southgate in two different houses across the street from one another for 38 years. I'm not leaving Houston, except to travel from time to time."

Mike Williams