The influential architect helped create a community of environmentally conscious designers and participated in the renovation of numerous historic buildings in Springfield, leaving a legacy of revitalization. Morse died on May 28, 2013, at age 69.
Richard Roger Morse was born Feb. 24, 1944, in Pampa, Texas, and grew up in Marion, Kan. He earned his bachelor’s degree in art history from Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., then went on to earn his Master of Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Mass.
Nathela Chatara, Morse’s wife, says they met at Morse’s graduation from Harvard while Nathela was working at the school. She says what drew her to him was his brain.
“He was very creative, artistic and interested in the arts and the environment,” she said. “His smarts were quite impressive.”
The pair got married and Morse began working for a large architectural firm in Boston, but the recession of the 1970s changed their trajectory. Knowing that recent hires are usually the first to be let go when the economy tanks, Morse sought more stable employment. While visiting Nathela’s family in Ashland, Ill., near Springfield, Morse came across an advertisement for a Springfield firm, Ferry and Henderson Architects, seeking workers, and he jumped at the chance.
That’s where Morse met Ralls Melotte, who was working at the same firm then. The pair became fast friends and eventually started their own architectural firm and stained glass company together in 1978. The architectural firm is now Melotte, Morse, Leonatti, Parker, Ltd., and the stained glass shop was sold off in 2001.
When Morse and Melotte started their firm in Melotte’s house in 1978, many of the other design companies in the city were focused on new buildings, so the pair saw an opportunity to create their own niche. They focused on renovating existing buildings and, in the process, learned about green design as a way to make older buildings more efficient.
Morse’s work can be seen all around Springfield, from the Illinois Capitol dome’s restored stained glass to the windows of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House to the observation decks above Lincoln’s Tomb.
Melotte says Morse was especially proud of his work on the New Holland Building in Danville, Ill. Construction of the building began in 1905 and once housed single, professional women, but the structure sat empty and dilapidated for decades before Morse became involved. The renovation earned the coveted LEEDS Gold designation for efficiency, and it now contains more than 40 low-income affordable housing units for families in need.
Cindy Davis, co-owner of office furniture company Resource One in Springfield, met Morse about 15 years ago. When Davis started the Green Symposium for Central Illinois, an annual gathering of environmentally minded designers from around the state to discuss the latest green trends, Morse was eager to get involved and share his experiences with other architects and designers.
“He was doing the right things even before LEEDS,” Davis said. “He was always in a mood to save structures as opposed to tearing them down and building new ones. He was into ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ long before it was fashionable.”
Ralls Melotte fondly recalls Morse’s enthusiasm for living fully. The two men shared their lives and interests with one another. Their children were born around the same time, they both coached soccer for their children, Melotte taught Morse how to ski, while Morse taught Melotte about gourmet cooking. Morse was an excellent chef, Melotte says, adding that dinners with Morse were more of an adventure than a meal. Even picnics with Morse had multiple courses and exotic dishes like strawberry gazpacho, Melotte says.
Nathela says one of Morse’s best dishes – and there were many – was khachapuri, a traditional cheese-filled bread from the country of Georgia.
“Dick embraced my heritage wholeheartedly,” Nathela said. “He was practically more Georgian than I am.”
Morse is survived by his wife, Nathela, one daughter, Eteri, and two sons, Nicolas and Michel.
Besides his architectural work and hobbies, Morse was involved in many local organizations, including the Springfield Public Schools Foundation, Downtown Springfield, Inc., and the Rotary club at both the local and national level. Melotte says Morse spent much of his time urging young people to study abroad and coordinating visits to the U.S. by foreign exchange students.
“Some kid from Japan would be having trouble with his host family in California, and Dick would be on the phone resolving it,” Melotte said. “He literally dealt with this on a national level.”
Melotte says he will miss Morse’s passion, dedication and enthusiasm. Although the two men didn’t always see eye-to-eye on projects, Melotte says Morse was always open to constructive criticism, and he genuinely cared about the people around him.
“I have worked within 15 feet of him for 35 years,” Melotte said. “We were really involved with each other’s lives, so it was not just a business relationship. He was my best friend.”
Cindy Davis, who knew Morse partly through their mutual involvement in the Rotary Club, says Morse always based his decisions on what’s known as the club’s “four way test”: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
“He lived that,” Davis said. “It was sort of a worldview he had, that he applied to his little corner of the world. He truly cared about the whole globe.” –Patrick Yeagle