How Survival and Determination Formed a 55-Year Professional and Personal Partnership
Contact: Brandi Lewis
Phone: (513) 556-1143
Call it fate, destiny or great timing. Whatever it was that brought alumni Werner Feibes (’54) and Jim Schmitt (’54) to DAAP, it became the catalyst that launched over 50 years of professional and personal partnership.
Their story starts around World War II. In 1938 Werner’s Jewish-born father decided to flee Nazi Germany with his wife and two sons. The plan was temporarily thwarted two weeks before their planned exit when the SS stormed into Dr. Feibes’ medical office and arrested him. Werner’s savvy and gutsy grandmother paid a visit to the SS headquarters. She waved before them the already-acquired visas, ocean liner tickets and the Iron Cross of the First Order Dr. Feibes earned as a medical officer for Germany during the First World War. Purported bribery money may have also played a factor in Dr. Feibes’ release. The family boarded the USS Washington to a new life in America, ending up in Schenectady, New York, where nine-year-old Werner would someday become a sort of hometown celebrity.
Meanwhile, Jim Schmitt came from a more modest family that endured the Great Depression. Determined to make a better life for himself he vowed to attend college and become an architect. But first, when the U.S. entered the war, Jim felt the call to enlist. “He wouldn’t talk about it much,” recalls Werner. “But the amazing thing is that every battalion he was part of did not survive. It happened time and again. He was meant to survive.”
So fate brought the two survivors to study architecture at UC. “It was 1948 and I was ready to leave home and make my own life,” says Werner. “The daughter of one of my father’s patients had been to Cincinnati and was very taken by the program. I was ready to give it a try.” His grandmother offered to assist with college expenses.
The impact of Cincinnati defined the rest of their lives.
The moment Werner arrived he was captivated by the metropolitan feel of downtown Cincinnati. He ushered at the Cincinnati Symphony and couldn’t get enough of the museums. His apprenticeships encompassed carpentry and work as a construction laborer. “I got the wonderful advantage of understanding the intricacies of construction in addition to architecture because of DAAP. All those co-op experiences led to the success we had for over 50 years in business.”
The Licking Riverside Historic District of Covington enthralled Jim. In fact, upon graduation from DAAP he rented an apartment there and walked over the Suspension Bridge daily to his first job at a downtown architectural firm.
The two men became quick friends, sharing the same interests, especially for art and design. Then home called. Schenectady tapped Werner to be a partner in an architectural business. Werner needed one last adventure before settling down. “I told them I had some travel planned but I had the perfect person for them to hire right away: Jim Schmitt,” he recalls with a laugh. “They took my suggestion. Jim moved there right away. I came soon after. We were business partners for 55 years and life partners for 60 years. It was all meant to be.”
Schenectady became the perfect city for Jim’s interest in historical preservation. He discovered an area dating back to 1661 that reminded him of his days living in historic Covington. He bought one of the homes and when Werner returned from his trip, Jim smiled and said, “Let me show you where we’re going to live.”
Renovating the property took 10 years, spurring on a neighborhood transformation that continues to this day. The men used their DAAP co-op experiences to restore the home to its former grandeur then parlayed their knowledge of construction and architecture into the award-winning firm they ran together for over five decades. They consciously avoided specializing in any one area of architecture, opting to design churches, libraries, municipal buildings and whatever else that came their way. Work came steadily. Before long they were known not only as the “founding fathers” of their neighborhood but as two of the premier architects in the region.
While Jim devoted spare time to civic projects and zoning changes to protect historic neighborhoods, Werner served as president of the local AIA chapter. In 1999 Werner attended the state convention, receiving one of the highest accolades of the couple’s design career. Says Werner, “The group voted on the 50 most significant New York buildings of the 20th Century. Can you believe that along with the Empire State Building and the Guggenheim was our Schenectady Library? We made the list! It’s in the middle of town across from a neo-colonial city hall and neo-classic post office. The library was totally modern but it was ‘a polite building that spoke to its neighbors.’”
Werner, now in his 80s, says the key to their success has been two-fold: listening and commitment. “You have to be a good listener to the client. Our programming stage could last months as we listened to the ideas and concerns of everyone involved. After listening all that time, when you finally reach the design stage, the client is in total agreement.”
The success also spilled into their personal life. “A life together involves active listening and compromise,” Werner believes. “Unlike kids today, we knew what commitment was and how to maintain a long-term relationship. We lived together; we worked together. We never forgot what the word commitment means. It was an enchanting life.”
Together the pair amassed an impressive art collection. They were also civically and philanthropically-minded. They paid for an addition to the Hyde Museum in nearby Glen’s Falls, New York, and donated part of their multi-million dollar collection to the museum. The rest will come as part of their estate plan.
Just about the whole town knew Werner and Jim. They were so involved in local issues and so generous to those in need that they received special recognition from the mayor. Upon issuing the honor the mayor said in front of a crowded City Hall audience, “Let me make one statement: “you made a difference.”
When they decided to marry, their beloved friend, one of Schenectady’s longtime mayors, was no longer in office and could not perform the ceremony. But she had an important cell phone number. She called one of the area’s top judges about presiding over the ceremony who quickly stated, “That’s the best news I have ever heard in my career.”
Word got around town. Everyone wanted to attend the long-awaited wedding. Werner and Jim opted for a family-only ceremony at their home. They donned their tuxedos; the judge wore his official judge’s robe. Werner describes it as “an absolutely charming event.”
Jim died one month later.
That was 3 ½ years ago. Each day Werner feels the loss of his long-time companion. However he is devoted to keeping Jim’s legacy alive. Werner tries to keep tabs on Jim’s beloved town projects. He is also an involved member of Jim’s extended family, willing to pay college tuition for any niece or nephew just as his own grandmother did so long ago so that he could come to Cincinnati, attend DAAP and let destiny take its course.