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“We’d Like to Give You Our Architectural Firm” and Other Amazing Highlights from Don Jacob’s Career

Date:  11/7/2017

Contact: Brandi Lewis

Phone: 513-556-1143

By: Laura Cook Kroeger

Photos provided by Don Jacobs

Photo of an older man smiling at a desk with his hands clasped

Don Jacobs

Accepting legacy gifts from grateful alumni is an honor for University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. Trying to capsulize the actual legacy of a donor such as architect Don Jacobs is downright difficult.

Jacobs is a true Renaissance man. He’s an architect of international high rises, commercial buildings and custom homes. He’s won local and national awards too numerous to mention. And then there’s those penchants for volunteerism, traveling the world to see international F1 racing, the kid-like thrill of driving a fire engine and jumping out of helicopters for ocean rescues.

Most of all, Jacobs’ journey involves being at the right place at the right time for some unbelievable opportunities.

His story starts like so many. The 1967 DAAP graduate was fresh off a co-op in Chicago with Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) when they offered him a position in their San Francisco office.

“Here were my wife and I, two kids from rural Indiana, who had dreams of living downtown in a big city,” he recalls. “I jumped at the chance. We loaded up the car and drove across the country.”

As his fellow alumni teasingly sang the iconic lyrics, “Are you going to San Francisco; be sure to wear flowers in your hair,” and asked him to say hello to Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, he just smiled, knowing that he’d be throwing himself into his work with little time to hang at Haight-Ashbury or check out the hippie counter-culture movement during the 1967 “Summer of Love.”


Older photo from the 70's with a man sitting a desk with a dog and library behind him

Jacobs at his office at Sea Ranch with his dog, Gypsy

“I went to work alongside Ivy Leaguers and bright young architects, but I was the one who rose up the ranks quickest,” he says with unabashed candor. “There’s one reason for that—my education. I was way ahead of these people. Much can be attributed to my co-op experiences and much to the quality of the professors at DAAP. It gave me such a well-rounded education and ability to solve problems creatively.”

Though he was the rising star, Jacobs became disenchanted with the environment of a large corporate culture. Following some soul searching and hiking through the Grand Tetons he learned he had passed all his exams and felt destined for something new. He drove to an impromptu meeting at the now-famous Sea Ranch where they sought an architect to replace someone who had been recently killed in a car accident. Sea Ranch was starting to create buzz as a development of primarily second homes that melded ecology and aesthetics. Located about 100 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, homes were made of California redwood with open floor plans, used native flora and boasted magnificent ocean views. It seemed to be the direct opposite of the cookie-cutter homes of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“I still can’t believe what happened at this meeting,” Jacobs recalls. “First they offered to sell me the firm that was designing homes at the Sea Ranch. I told the head of the firm that I didn’t have any money. The guy said, ‘no worries. We’ll give you the firm.’  That overture was unbelievable. Again I emphasized my lack of funds. ‘Tell you what,’ the executive said, ‘If you can complete the houses already started, you can pay me something someday.’”

Sea Ranch captured the attention of the architectural world. Jacobs designed over 100 custom homes and won 27 local and national awards in a 16-year span. The development was so successful that it grew to 17 resident architects.  Jacobs also served as a volunteer firefighter for 14 of those years, relishing with child-like exuberance the chance to drive a firetruck, jump out of helicopters for ocean rescues and most importantly, assist area citizens in need. 

Older photo of a man in a yellow hard hat climbing the sound of hill or mountain

Jacobs during cliff rescue training in King’s Canyon National Park

His wife’s diminishing health from severe asthma demanded that they move to a drier climate. That’s when the miraculous impromptu meeting number two occurred.

“I stumbled upon a recruiter and pulled my list of requirements from my pocket. I sought a medium sized firm with a strong chance for advancement located in a dry climate. She said, ‘you won’t believe this, but I just got a call a few minutes ago from a client in southern California looking for someone just like you.’”

It was a perfect match. The couple moved to Southern California in 1986. Unfortunately, his wife’s health did not improve and she passed away in 1992. Again he immersed himself in work, now designing high rises. He and his partners purchased the firm, now known as JZMK Partners, in 1994. Jacobs himself cleared the path for the firm to work in China five years later, taking the organization to international status. Projects throughout the Middle East followed.

While he recently sold his interest in JZMK, he is unable to wind down. Jacobs believes, “when you are passionate about what you do, it’s not easy to stop.” He’s still working with clients in China, Dubai, Egypt, Jordan, India and Morocco.  His new website should be complete within the month, leaning more toward residential work, though he admits that he’s also working on a small hotel, a race track and a possible performing arts venue.

Jacobs also maintains his passion for non-profit work. He served on the board of Seneca Family Agencies, formerly Seneca Center, for over two decades. The non-profit meets the mental health needs of children in group homes and foster care. He continues his involvement as a member of the Orange County California Advisory Board.

Medium shot of a couple smiling, the man on the left and the woman is on the right

Jacobs and Brinkerhoff-Jacobs being inducted into the California Builder’s Hall of Fame in 2008

HomeAid America may be even closer to his heart. His second wife, Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, co-founded the agency to house the homeless. Brinkerhoff-Jacobs’ drive and determination has taken the organization nation-wide. It now has 17 chapters and developed over 450 new shelters. Jacobs joined the board and just finished designing his fifth women’s shelter.

He beams with pride over the seemingly symbiotic relationship he has with Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, president and CFO of LifeScapes International. Her striking landscape architecture surrounds some of the largest hotels on the Las Vegas strip and in cities nationally and internationally.

Their unparalleled dedication to giving back to the community was recognized on the national stage when the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) named them Volunteers of the Year in 2008.

What’s next for the busy couple? While they’ll continue their volunteer work and travelling to Europe for Formula 1 racing, their careers will continue to flourish.

“I’m ready to get back to residential design,” Jacobs says assuredly. “I really like working with couples on creating custom homes that reflect who they are like I did with Sea Ranch.  I know other things will come up like some of my other favorite projects I did at Sea Ranch -- a non-denominational chapel, the restoration of an over 100 year old light house and of course the firehouse.”

Perhaps it is Brinkerhoff-Jacobs’ company web page statement that best represents the benevolent couple:

“Whether it’s a scholarship fund, a non-profit or helping the homeless, we are committed to making the world a better, more beautiful place that extends far beyond our commissioned work.”