Montana State University

MSU architecture student in final round for international essay prize

April 2, 2015 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Montana State University architecture student Jennisse Schule is the lone American to reach the final round of the 2015 Berkeley Prize essay competition. Schule detailed the case of a 19th century Kalispell structure, the Sykes building, which has been a longtime institution in her hometown. She says the proprietors of the Sykes market and cafe have given away thousands of Thanksgiving turkey dinners and have never raised the cost of a cup of coffee above 10 cents. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University architecture student Jennisse Schule’s entry in the 2015 Berkeley Prize essay competition, which made her one of eight international finalists, detailed the case of a 19th century Kalispell structure close to her heart. As Schule tells it in her essay, the Sykes building is an institution in her hometown, a place “where nobody goes home a stranger.”

The Berkeley Prize, which promotes an understanding of the interaction of people and the built world, asked 2015 entrants to showcase a local example that addresses the topic “architects confront poverty.” Of the scores of essays received, the Berkeley Prize is narrowed first to 25 semifinalists, then down to eight finalists. Schule is the lone American to reach the final round.

Schule’s essay on the Sykes building details how one Kalispell businessman felt so strongly its impact on Kalispell residents in need that he decided to save it from the wrecking ball, lest it be replaced by condominiums. Schule said the premise behind the Berkeley Prize seemed to beckon with special significance from the moment Maire O’Neill, associate professor of architecture, assigned the essay contest to Schule and her fellow second-years in MSU’s School of Architecture.

“The essay competition is about community architecture and the question, ‘how does this discipline create something that contributes to the greater good?’” Schule said. “How can it be about more than just building multi-million dollar houses for people who only live in them six weeks a year? And what’s cool is that it reaches architecture undergrads right when they are forming their identity and thinking about what their want their career to look like.”

O’Neill said Schule’s essay on Sykes looked at a simple building and illustrated the enormously significant role it has played in influencing the tenor of an entire community.

“This place has become imbued with meaning because a tradition of good-heartedness has taken place there over the decades,” O’Neill said. “This tradition was respected by the owners and their architect, and it influenced the way in which the renovation design and construction effort took place. The community felt they had a voice and as a result they continue to feel invested there.”

O’Neill said Schule’s essay on Sykes is successful because it reflects both her sense of connection to the place and her drive as an aspiring architect. Schule’s essay also showed her sensitivity, O’Neill added.  

“That Jennisse was able to recognize that this place had extraordinary qualities and bring all that to life in her essay is really satisfying,” O’Neill said. “She worked incredibly hard on this, which is just her way and how she approaches everything in school. Because she’s had a lot of other life experiences, she cherishes these MSU experiences and she’s incredibly self-motivated in her approach.”

O’Neill, who received a master’s degree in architecture from University of California, Berkeley, said she had been requiring MSU’s second year architecture students to submit essays for the Berkeley Prize for more than a decade. MSU has had some very successful years with the competition, O’Neill said, placing five students in the semifinal round one year. This year MSU student Kelli Littleton joined Schule in the semifinals.

“It is fantastic to have the two of them reaching the semifinal round,” O’Neill said. “And to have Jennisse get this far, as her professor, it’s really nice to see.”

Schule, who had previous careers as a school administrator and a military translator, said if she could, she’d pick an architecture career that included projects like the one that refurbished the Sykes building.

The central Kalispell building became home to Sykes market in the 1930s, when Cecil Sykes put up a sign promising to be the town’s “economy grocery and meat market.” It was a place where area ranchers and townsfolk alike could come for a cup of coffee and a bit of friendly conversation by the woodstove.

Over the years, new owners Doug and Judy Wise added a café to Sykes. But the philosophy stayed the same. The market was only closed one day a year, on Christmas. Turkey dinners were given away on Thanksgiving. The price of coffee was never raised above 10 cents. A pharmacy, owned and run by Schule’s father, joined the mix in the 1980s and the building took on a vital function for the lower-income residents living in Kalispell’s center. A number of assisted-living facilities are also close to Sykes, Schule said.

“So, when you come to Sykes market, and you see the people going to the pharmacy to get their medications or to get some essentials, there’s a lot of people there you wouldn’t otherwise see,” Schule said. “It’s not like it’s in a retirement community. It’s in downtown Kalispell and it happens to be surrounded by these people who really need these services.”

But when the Wise family needed to sell to facilitate their own retirement, the only portion of the Sykes building to stay commercially active was the pharmacy. Schule said it really looked like the whole thing was going to be demolished. But Ray Thompson, who founded and then sold the Semitool conductor company, decided to buy the building.

“He noticed all the people going into the pharmacy even though the rest of the building was vacant, and he knew of the reputation that Sykes had in the community,” Schule said, referring to the ethos that led to free turkey dinners and perpetual 10-cent coffee.

A team was put together to determine how to preserve the building and the philosophy, Schule said. Though some sections of the old structure had to come down, the core of the old building was refurbished and revitalized, the market and café reopened.

Schule said she was pleased that her essay about saving Sykes had been well received by the judges for the Berkeley Prize, which was established in 1998 by an endowment gift from Judith Stronach to the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. By reaching the final round, Schule said she was invited to apply for a travel fellowship of her choosing. If she wins the Berkeley Prize she will earn a scholarship award of up to $6,000.

Schule, who landed a job at Intrinsik Architecture in Bozeman after querying the company about local community architecture projects, said it wasn’t until she went home to see her family that it dawned on her to write about the Sykes project.

In one of her own essays, Stronach, a poet, journalist, teacher and philanthropist, wrote: “Teaching is the creation of a circle of safety bounded by attention in which something new arises, something new that surpasses those in the circle.”

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, seppjannotta@montana.edu.