You have to work hard to preserve the things you care about — that or have a lot of wall space.
Sally DesMarais occupies a handsome duplex tucked back in the suburbs of State College that affords her such a luxury, and boy, has she taken advantage of the situation.
Photos and framed watercolors fill the living room, so much so that it seems almost like a waste to have bothered applying even a single coat of paint to the wall.
Any immediate vacancies that might otherwise register are already claimed by shelves of weathered-looking books that look like they’d be perfectly at home in the library at Hogwarts or the Smithsonian — probably whichever is willing to spring for the bigger truck.
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“I have books that go back to George Washington’s time,” Sally said.
The cumulative effect is homey, warm and just a touch nostalgic. Sally’s late husband, local architect M. Robert DesMarais, supplied most of the brushstrokes behind the décor — and he also contributed a few splashes of color to the canvas that is State College itself.
He was talented. His houses to me, they’re gorgeous.
In the late 1950s, Charles Schlow hired DesMarais to remodel the interior of the building at 222 W. College Ave., the same two rooms he had recently donated as the site of State College’s first public library.
Names are easier to move than buildings (even if they do change just a little), and Schlow Centre Region Library presently resides in a new-ish building over on South Allen Street.
Still, Sally is determined that DesMarais’ connection to State College’s long history isn’t lost to the passing years.
“My mission is not to have him forgotten,” Sally said.
And so, without much further ado, here are the particulars regarding one M. Robert DesMarais.
After completing his service aboard the USS Franklin, our young man left World War II for the University of Illinois, where he completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree in architecture.
The first time DesMarais laid eyes on the rolling Pennsylvania landscape, he was already well established in his craft, traveling by train from Chicago to Philadelphia. Sally thinks it was the hills that sold him, a welcome reprieve from the flat Texan soil where his career had taken root.
When a slot opened among the ranks of Penn State’s architecture faculty in 1950, it seemed like a good fit, as far as 38-year tenures go.
Centre County, after all, was a place rich with history — or chock-full of old buildings, depending on how you choose to look at it.
Either way, it suited DesMarais just fine.
“He believed in saving stuff. People would want to build a new house and he would say ‘do you know how expensive that is?’ ” Sally said.
Some his more ambitious conservation efforts include the Boal Barn Playhouse and the Oak Hall Mill, which was redeveloped as a residence at the behest of local fly fisherman Joe Humphreys.
You have to keep their spirits alive. You have to keep the people alive who helped build State College.
As for his non-grist mill work, DesMarais also designed 16 other known homes throughout Centre County and the Garden Apartments building in Downtown State College, where his daughter resided during her years at Penn State.
“He was talented. His houses to me, they’re gorgeous,” said Robert Malcom, a modernist homes documentarian who has photographed more than 100 contemporary homes in Centre County.
Back in 2009, Malcom worked with Sally to curate an exhibit of DesMarais’ work at Schlow, taking refuge in the collection of old blueprints and drawings she keeps in the family basement.
The style at work was evident — elongated, rectangular, raised — and a certain predisposition toward balconies.
“He loved cantilever balconies. That was kind of his signature ...” Malcom said.
It’s common practice that the work outlives the architect, and DesMarais was no exception. He died in 2004 at 83 years old.
His legacy lives on through his buildings, students and, of course, family.
“You have to keep their spirits alive. You have to keep the people alive who helped build State College,” Sally said.