Mary Ellen Merz of Brooklyn Heights, who died Sept. 15 of cancer, is described as having wanted to be defined more by her deep affinity with nature than by her accomplishments as an architect, which included a revitalization of her Willowtown neighborhood together with her husband and fellow architect Joe Merz.
Born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1926 to Leo and Isabel Linberger, she was early influenced by her father’s work as a builder and her mother’s great interest and involvement in the world of music and the arts.
Mary often recounted visiting a job site at the age of five with her father and volunteering to sweep the wood chips from the floor. The experience of being in that newly constructed space and seeing the bones of the structure, the tools of the trade around her, the smell of sawdust and fresh cement, would mark the beginning of a long devotion to design and architecture.
With her mother’s training as a classical contralto vocalist, the house in Youngstown was often visited by celebrated figures from the world of classical music and dance such as Ezio Pinza, John Charles Thomas and Martha Graham — participants in a musical arts program founded and run by Isabel Linberger at the Stanbaugh Auditorium in Youngstown.
After graduating from high school at 16 Mary studied liberal arts at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, IL. There she was drawn to the many houses of Frank Lloyd Wright in the area. She then visited Racine, Wisconsin, to see Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. Her emotional response was pivotal in her decision to pursue architecture. She redesigned, hand-built and furnished her dorm room at Rosary. Her art teacher suggested she attend Pratt Institute.
Enrolling in 1946 at Pratt she was one of two female students. Under Philip Johnson she studied theory of architecture and design during her sophomore year. That year she met Joseph Merz, a freshman and fellow architecture student who would eventually become her husband.
After graduating from Pratt in 1950 Mary received a fellowship to study Renaissance art and architecture at the University of Florence, Italy. After Florence she went to work as a draftsperson/designer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Tripoli, Libya. In 1955, back in New York, she joined the staff of Edward Larrabee Barnes Associates as the firm’s first woman architect. Joe joined Mary at the firm shortly thereafter. In 1957 they were married.
In 1960 the couple formed their own firm and practiced from their carriage house in the Heights. They designed and oversaw construction of three new townhouses on Willow Place, one of which become their new home and architectural studio. Commissions that followed included dormitories and an advanced science building at Potsdam University, the new headquarters of the Dreyfus Corporation in Manhattan, restorations of the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in Washington, D.C. and numerous residential renovations and new residences.
Dedicated to community service, the pair designed and implemented a new park/playground, dog run and community garden in Willowtown now known as Palmetto Park. They also served as co-curators of Prospect Park in the late 1970s, working toward restoration of the park to the original plans of Frederick Law Olmsted.
As their four children grew and increasingly took part in the work at the office, Mary and Joe began to explore and experience the outdoors together, kayaking, bicycling and hiking through the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Ultimately, Mary would have preferred to be remembered for her deep and thoughtful relationship to nature and all the species that inhabit the earth. This was evident in her love of gardening and in her relationships with all the animals that came into her life. She believed animals’ needs should be considered equal to those of man. She often recalled walking barefoot through the dewy grass in the fields behind her childhood home with her dog, experiencing the pure simplicity, the silence, the beauty, the smells of nature.
She essentially rejected the status quo and hoped individuals would develop their own philosophy and approach to living a creative and fulfilling life.
Mary Merz is survived by her husband Joe and their four children and their spouses: Juliana Merz and Harry Cushing, Katie Merz and Paul Benney, Amy Merz and Curtis Mathis and the Reverend John Merz and Tara Anderson, as well as grandchildren Lily and Ruby Mathis. She is also survived by her sister Ann.
A memorial service is planned for Sunday, November 6, at 4 p.m. in St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church on Montague and Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights. In lieu of flowers the family requests contributions to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), www.nrdc.org.