Richmond's median IQ dropped considerably with the unrelated passing of two intense and underheralded leaders who wore their respective brilliance quietly: Louise Burke and Morton Gulak. They saw tremendous possibilities in their adopted city and worked tirelessly to celebrate its landscapes and historic spaces with the unstated goal of empowering its people.
Burke and Gulak were natural communicators who spent most of their adult lives sharing their respective ideas of how the community could be enhanced by studying, preserving and enhancing existing resources such as the James River and the area's distinctive neighborhoods.
Louise Burke (1921-2012)
Louise Burke was 91 when she died March 9. Reared in the intellectually rich atmosphere of the San Francisco Bay area and having taught at the University of Oregon, she was well ahead of the environmental curve locally when she and her husband moved here in 1956. So a decade later, when local officials announced plans for an expressway that would follow the south bank of the James — sure to destroy hundreds of acres of meadows and woodlands — she swung into action, forming the Richmond Scenic James Council. After she and her comrades successfully halted that roadway, she shifted her talents and determination to expanding the then-nascent James River Park System. Her considerable writing and photography skills are evident in two books, "Discover the Native Trees of the Richmond Area" and "Parks-Preserves-Rivers: A Guide to Outdoor Adventures in Richmond's Capital Regions" (an indispensable tome which she wrote with Virginia Commonwealth University associate professor Keith Ready).
The monument that announces the Louise Burke Nature Trail in the Pony Pasture Rapids Park now becomes a fitting memorial to this elegant and articulate visionary.
Morton Gulak (1938-2012)
Gulak, who died March 12 at 73, was a soft-spoken but intense architect and scholar who shared his love and knowledge of American cities with two generations of students as a professor in the urban studies and planning department at VCU.
A native of Pittsburgh, one of the nation's most transformed cities, Gulak honed his design skills as a modernist while studying at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania, and as a practicing architect in Sarasota, Fla., a treasure trove of midcentury architecture. But in Richmond, it was the aesthetic and economic potential of evocative, old neighborhoods that sparked his thorough and influential research. He headed Richmond Revitalization, a research-based program that engaged students, residents and local leaders in trailblazing benchmark studies and action plans for such districts as Shockoe Bottom, Hull Street and Brookland Park Boulevard.
If Gulak's public efforts dealt with macro aspects of design, his more private endeavors embraced the micro. He was a talented painter and a designer of playful and witty children's furniture — pieces that reflected his own warm and knowing spirit.