Industry Legends

Published on July 18th, 2015 | by UC&D Magazine

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Cecchini Retiring After Stellar 40+ Year Career

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After a lengthy career in architecture spanning more than 40 years, Dennis Cecchini of Salt Lake-based MHTN Architects has announced his retirement.

A native of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Cecchini, 65, leaves big shoes to fill at the firm he started at in 1978 after seven years working for Roger Van Frank, but felt the timing was right.
“I want people to remember me as a completely ethical guy, one who knew what he was doing and was not afraid to do it, and who created things that people get real use of,” said Cecchini, who specialized in K-12 school design throughout his career.
“The way he does business is through developing trust,” said MHTN President Peggy McDonough-Jan. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with somebody who is…as direct. It’s no nonsense first, which I appreciate. There is nothing Dennis won’t do for anybody he’s working with. He builds trust with a person and understands the integrity of the person he’s doing business with.”
“We sit and have chats and he’ll sit back and listen initially and he’ll see what the response is from the group,” said Chad Nielsen, who recently replaced Cecchini as CEO of MHTN. “Another thing that stands out with Dennis is that he’s very ethical in his architecture. He has a client’s interest in mind and is always open and up front with clients. He has a deep understanding of the architecture, engineering and construction industry and can advise clients through the process. He’s very concerned about employees’ well being and puts other’s needs ahead of his own.”
Cecchini grew up in southern Wisconsin – which includes the home of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who is from Racine – and had three older brothers who were in construction, including Thomas, who owned a fairly large firm called United Construction in Racine. Cecchini says it was easy to be drawn into a career in architecture and credits Wright’s influence along with working with his brothers for much of his understanding on how to design projects that can be built efficiently.
“When you’re in Wisconsin (architecture) is kind of in your blood,” he said. “And working in construction gave me a sense that I could have the best of both worlds building things and creating things at the same time. It helped me in terms of where I wanted to be and it showed me I could do some great things for people.”
Cecchini worked in construction with his brothers during summers while in college, something he thoroughly enjoyed.
“Part of what I enjoyed about construction was the intellectual banter with people – it was fantastic!” he said. “Of course you worked hard too. Back in those days, architects were revered, particularly in the Midwest. I remember being on a jobsite and my brother Tom rolled up. He said ‘the architect’s coming, I want this place ship shape – you’ve got two hours.’ When the architect was on site, he wanted to be there. Contractors don’t seem to revere us, and that is partly our fault.”
Cecchini graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture in May 1972, married his wife Celeste in August after a year engagement, and set off on a 30-day honeymoon through New York, Maine and Canada.
One of his professors in college had attended Utah State University and told Cecchini that the Beehive State was a great place to live, so he made some inquiries and landed work at Van Frank & Associates under the direction of Roger Van Frank. He credits the seven years working for Van Frank for making him self-reliant.
“We would even do the mechanical and electrical development of projects in house,” he recalled. “It made me much more detailed in my thinking of all aspects and components of a building and made me consider how to make an environment that is one, comfortable, and two, economical. One of the things about Roger, he always let you handle the project. If he trusted you, he let you go. It’s not often you get that kind of initial education.”
In 1978, Cecchini decided it was time to move on to a bigger firm that offered more opportunities and bigger, more complex projects. He interviewed with a couple of firms and ended up at MHT Architects (later MHTN) after being impressed with the main principals.
“I met with Fred Montmorency and quite frankly I wanted to be near that individual,” said Cecchini. “In architecture, I look at the people. I wanted to be by Fred. If you had ever met Fred, you would know what I’m talking about. He was very people oriented, very knowledgeable – he just knew the built environment. I knew I was in the right place because the firm culture was that way.”
He also praised Eldon Talbot’s leadership and design abilities. “He was someone I could really look up to in terms of abilities and ethics,” Cecchini said. “Eldon probably influenced me the most on school design. He was the most ethical man I ever met and he knew the business. He had a lot of humor, and he worked hard. All those things taught me how to be a professional and how to give my clients the best part of me.”
In late ‘88, Celeste developed thyroid cancer, so the Cecchini’s and their two young sons packed up and moved back home in January ’89 to Wisconsin so she could be near her parents. Dennis took a job managing the architectural division of an A/E firm in Wausau, about 75 minutes from his in-laws house in Minocqua. In the fall of ’90, Cecchini got a call from Bill Hoster asking what it would take to come back to MHTN. Celeste had fully recovered by then, and frankly, the family missed Utah’s much milder weather, particularly the winters.
“Wisconsin is very beautiful and very brutal – the climate is so harsh,” said Cecchini. “All of those (career) gaps, while they may be disruptive, they expand your experience level with the people you meet, the differing cultures. That all goes toward making you a better steward of the environment. You have a better chance of doing the right thing when you’re developing a building that people are going to live, love and work in.”
Cecchini will be remembered for his commitment to K-12 design excellence, and for the many schools he designed. He’s particularly proud of the $9.4 million Odyssey Elementary and Astro Camp project that was designed for Ogden School District in 2007.
“What I enjoyed was the collaborative effort of our team to come up with innovative solutions that meet that vision,” he said, particularly referencing the space shuttle that encompasses the second floor of the school. “Students can actually sleep in the classroom – it’s a full immersion program. It’s like they’re running a real (space) mission.”
Cecchini also worked at the Salt Lake International Airport for more than 25 years and enjoyed the various projects he was involved with.
“They have always been some of the most innovative clients I’ve had,” he said.
Other recent projects he mentioned include Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy for The Canyons School District and the Logan High School reconstruction, which he says will pay homage to the B.Y. Academy that was built in 1898, and will have a “very classy 1800’s look to it.”
Cecchini has also been an active participant over the years with the Utah Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Utah), including serving as President in 2012. He urges local architects to get involved with AIA Utah, as it offers numerous benefits to members.
“I look at professional organizations as a means to improve the professional capabilities of its members,” he said. “What I’ve always tried to do while I was chair on architecture for education was always provide members with opportunities to see cutting edge work we’re doing in the built environment. I’ve had the opinion that it was important for architects in the K-12 realm to be the best they can be doing those kinds of buildings. They obviously affect the children in such an important way….I was perfectly willing to share my knowledge, any knowledge I could get nationally, to make sure they had the best ideas to support K-12 and higher education. I’ve never been afraid of competition – competition makes us better. You tend to strive to be better because of competition.”
He continued, “I’ve always said, the most wonderful time for me with a new school building is when I go back and the kids are in it. They are a component that you can’t get any other way. The building can’t live the same way. We’re always trying to design it to how it will be when children are in it. Talking, laughing, running, enjoying it. That is the design we’re after.”
“He’s really been a leader in the K-12 arena because his focus is on the kids and the pedagogy, and that very core reason the building translates into what we do as architects,” said McDonough- Jan. “It’s brought meaning in developing the team we have in K-12.”
As for his retirement, Cecchini said he and his wife will be focusing some of their time and efforts on educating people about the ills of drug addiction, as their son, Tennyson, died of a drug overdose on May 12 at the age of 33. Tennyson, which means ‘Son of Dennis’ in Old English, battled addiction to painkillers and ultimately, heroin, and had only been out of rehab for a few days when he died. Cecchini said he and Celeste were frustrated at having little control over their son’s treatment and are going to push for new laws with Utah Legislators.
“It is a disease – it’s not something you can control,” said Cecchini. “I know he worked hard at it. One of the things that made it hard as parents, because he was an adult, was to direct his care. We could not mandate how long he was in a recovery residence. There are necessary changes that need to be made in the way addicts are clinically treated. They are not different than someone who has a mental illness. It’s been hard.”


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