Robert Bliss, who influenced many of Utah’s major architects as the founder of the University of Utah’s Graduate School of Architecture and championed the preservation of Utah landmarks, has died.
Bliss died Nov. 2 in Salt Lake City. He was 97.
“Most of the [architecture] firms in the state are led by graduates [who] were students when he was dean” of the U.’s Graduate School of Architecture, said Edward Smith, professor emeritus of what’s now the U.’s College of Architecture + Planning.
Trent Smith (no relation), a visiting instructor at CA+P, noted that the founding members of prominent Salt Lake City architecture firms like FFKR Architects, GSBS Architects, Prescott Muir Architects and VCBO Architecture “were either close friends or students of Bob.”
For example, Frank Ferguson at FFKR, one of the lead designers on Abravanel Hall, was one of Bliss’ students, Trent Smith said. So was Prescott Muir, whose firm’s many projects include the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
Bliss, Trent Smith said, “brought over a lot of modern aesthetic and ideas, from the East Coast and the West, to a conservative landscape.”
Bliss’ efforts to maintain landmark Utah buildings included campaigns for the Salt Lake City and County Building and the Devereaux Mansion. In retirement, he helped champion the preservation of the Gilgal Sculpture Garden, the strange collection of masonry — highlighted by a Joseph Smith sphinx — in a park on 500 South between 700 and 800 East.
Bliss tangled, politely, with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1971, when he argued against the demolition of the Summit Stake Tabernacle in Coalville. The gothic-style building, which was begun in 1879 and dedicated in 1899, was razed in spite of last-ditch efforts by Bliss and others to save it, including a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Bliss, Edward Smith said, was one of the few critics of architecture in Utah and wasn’t shy about it.
“He was very concerned about the level of design and was very vocal about things that were not the best design,” Edward Smith said.
Robert Lewis Bliss was born May 21, 1921, in Seattle. He attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1939 to 1942, studying with the artist and educator Josef Albers. He left college to join the Army during World War II, serving with the U.S. Merchant Marines in the South Pacific & Far East Service.
At a dinner party in 1947, Bliss met artist Anna Campbell. Three months later, they were married — and stayed together until her death in October 2015. Anna Campbell Bliss, who also trained as an architect, became an acclaimed artist with prominent murals at the Salt Lake City International Airport, the Cowles Mathematics Building at the U. of U., and the Utah Capitol’s data processing center.
The Blisses founded an architectural and design firm, Bliss & Campbell, which operated from 1955 to 1990. They designed houses that incorporated the natural setting in which they were built, Anna’s former assistant Ben Butler told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2015.
The Blisses came to Utah in 1963 when Bob became chairman of the University of Utah’s Department of Architecture. He launched the graduate school there and was its dean from 1974 to 1986. He then moved to a professorship at the U., which he held until his retirement in 1990.
Some of his influence was in looking into ideas that would bear fruit later. In the 1960s, he took part in the Second Century Plan, which was the basis for Salt Lake City’s Downtown Rising plan. In 1970, he took part in devising the master plan for Snowbird ski resort. He also investigated the possibility of turning the Union Pacific depot — now the site of The Gateway — into an intermodal hub.
In retirement, he went into furniture design, coming up with innovative and offbeat pieces. Two of his furniture creations are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection.
Together, the Blisses entertained guests in the art and architectural communities, both local talent and guest lecturers. Adam Bateman, executive director of the now-defunct gallery CUAC, said in 2015 that “Bob and Anna [were] such a power couple in terms of their contributions to the art world in Utah.”
Butler said the Blisses “had no biological children, [but] they ushered in a whole group of architects and artists across Salt Lake. They’ve become family.”
Bliss is survived by a nephew, Richard Morgan, and a niece, Carol Morgan, in New Jersey; a niece, Christine Ferrell, in Seattle; and a grand-niece, Caroline Bliss Larsen, in Provo. He also leaves behind a network of friends and former assistants — including Butler, Trent Smith, Peter Hoodes, Emery Lortsher, Sean Moyer, Jill Schwartz and Camille Thorpe — who were considered the Blisses’ “Salt Lake family.”
A private gathering of family and friends is set for this weekend. A public remembrance, to be organized by the U.’s College of Architecture + Planning, will be scheduled sometime next spring.