Carnegie Mellon University
Betty Rexrode on a boat.

Finding What Matters

Betty Rexrode Follows the Passions of Her Environment

written by
Pamela Wigley

Betty Rexrode learned from an early age to appreciate the environment. Growing up in York, Pa., she was the middle child in a family with a strong farming background. Her paternal grandfather was a farmer; her maternal grandfather served as the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Agriculture. The love of the land passed on to later generations, and Rexrode developed an appreciation of the surrounding farmland’s natural beauty.

It may seem odd, then, that Rexrode ultimately landed in New York City. After studying in Rome during her time as an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture, she moved there briefly to practice after graduating in 1989. Her career path then took her to Pittsburgh, Texas and, finally, New York, which allowed her to live closer to family. As a practicing architect, Rexrode’s appreciation for beautiful environments continued. Since 1995, her primary work has focused on the design of art galleries: first as an associate with Richard Gluckman Architects, then at Rexrode Chirigos Architects NYC where, since its founding in 2006, she has created 25 more New York art galleries.

Art, a first love, became incorporated in her studies as an undergrad at CMU, where she earned a minor in art (painting) and subsequently continued post-bac studies at the University of Texas at Austin in fine arts. Now, 28 years later, her combined interests contribute to her success designing galleries in New York City.

“I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farms,” she said. “I learned to appreciate and love the land and environment, and what you need to do to maintain, conserve and restore it. All of this comes full circle with our Living on Net Zero project and our urban initiatives in New York.”

Net Zero, described as “off the grid 54 miles from Times Square,” is Rexrode’s connection to her roots. Although her professional work showcases some of the world’s greatest art galleries, her personal work highlights her ongoing dedication to the natural environment. Even while maintaining her New York City apartment with husband and business partner Michael Chirigos, there came a time when the family recognized that having a strong connection to the outdoors to raise their family was important to them.

They found Oak Island, a community highlighted in The New York Times, where their house at the time was covered in vines and looked a bit like a chicken coop, she remembered. The island was, and still is, like stepping back in time — no public utilities (no electricity, gas or water), emergency services provided by fireboats, and all trash hauled off the island by owners. Undaunted, Rexrode, Chirigos and their kids (4 and 2 at the time) felt like they had come home and thought they might thrive there, learning about the land and living in harmony with it.

They bought their home and became part of the community, sharing the island with 50 other neighbors. The family eventually installed solar panels and lighting, along with other renovations to the home, but kept its original structure intact while updating — always mindful of the natural environment. The children learned to “plant what you can eat,” Rexrode recalled, embraced raising vegetables and oysters, foraging beach plums and berries and, most recently, adding scallops to their aquafarm.

Rexrode said she loves the juxtaposition of her city life with her life on the water. Both fulfill her desire to create, she said, as an architect of structural spaces and natural wonders. She thinks back often on her time at CMU and the inspiration of several people who encouraged her to pursue her architecture studies.

“Slee [Steve Lee] hooked me in pre-college,” she said. “He later became one of my first-year professors, and I was fortunate to work with [his firm] Tai + Lee during my junior year.”

Rexrode also gave kudos to then-faculty member Walter Boykowycz, whom she called “the quietest member of the faculty with the most thoughtful comments,” who also led her summer studio experience in Rome with Nino Saggio. Doug Cooper also served as an influence in “every level of drawing” and independent study, as did Mike Chirigos, who taught the design build program and with whom she connected after returning from studying abroad.

“He was the architect that explained to me what an employer needs to do to make you an architect,” she recalled. “I took the job [with his firm]. He taught me how to think on a practical level and get things built. And the perk? He introduced me to his son, Michael — my husband and business partner!”

In her daily work, Rexrode refers back to her CMU education, which instilled critical thinking as an essential part of her process. “Learn that, and there’s not a thing you cannot do or master.”

“I am in debt to those who gave their time to teach me, and I’m grateful to be able to do the same through having summer CMU interns, having CMU join our staff, being able to mentor through the American Institute of Architects, and teaching third-year students at Pratt,” she said.

To those architecture students and recent graduates, Rexrode passed along advice she thought would be helpful as they pursue their degrees and their careers.

“Take the time to identify what matters to you,” she said. “Ask why, and meet with people who share that interest. Challenge what matters to you and refine what that means over time.”

During her own time at CMU, Rexrode was grateful for exposure to other areas of study on campus. She advised current students to explore the departments and colleges outside of their own. “The world is vast. What you can do and how you make your impact have endless opportunities.”

She hopes students take the time to explore Pittsburgh. Whether that’s getting a “late-night fix” at one of Oakland’s many diverse food establishments or going to the Carnegie Museum. Or visiting the industrial mills and Pittsburgh bridges (which she focused on with faculty members Charlee Brodsky and Doug Cooper), which influenced her on-going research on the New York Bridges as public spaces and her involvement with Transportation Alternatives.

From the vast farms of eastern Pennsylvania to the heart of Manhattan and, still, in her environmental community on Oak Island, Rexrode has made the most of her passions. She said she loves where she’s landed but, if she weren’t doing what she currently does, she would see herself in painting, expanding her oyster raising and encouraging Aquaculture as a means to restore the bays, or venturing into landscape design.

“But who’s to say those are not all a form of practicing architecture?!” she said with a laugh. And with that, she dons her bicycle helmet and heads back to create something special in whatever environment is her current focus.