When architect Jamie Wyper bought his first beehive 15 years ago, it was the most terrifying day of his life. But soon he realized that being a good beekeeper meant creating an ideal environment for his bees — access to meadows, woodlands and gardens to forge for pollen — and then getting out of their way.
“I realized bees actually don’t need much help,” says the 70-year-old managing principal of JacobsWyper Architects, the award-winning Philadelphia-based firm he started with friend and former college-rugby foe Terry Jacobs.
Creating an ideal environment to thrive – for bees, and people – is what Wyper is good at —exceptionally good. Like beekeeping, Wyper doesn’t try to impose his own personal style on his clients.
“We don’t go in with any preconceived notions of what the solution will be,” says Wyper.
Instead, he listens to what the client needs, what the site demands and the budget before designing buildings that enable people and organizations to flourish. This approach has gained the firm a large and diverse roster of loyal clients from pharmaceutical, higher education labs, dorms, museums, industrial and corporate sectors.
Clients include big names such as GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Princeton University. He recently finished up a facility for the largest vaccine manufacturing company in the country. Of particular pride to him are his cultural works — his designs for sacred spaces such as The American Bible Society’s Faith & Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia and the Klehr Center for Jewish Life at Franklin & Marshall College.
“We have a really broad range of stuff we do, and I love that aspect of the work,” he says. “It’s not boring. We’re not pigeon-holed in any type of thing.”
The firm has won more than 70 awards, including a 2018 Buildy Award for its work on the addition for The Franklin Institute’s Karabots Pavilion. The Karabots Pavilion is a 53,000-square-foot addition to the venerable science museum that provided additional permanent and traveling exhibition space, a new conference center, and smoothed out some of the institute’s interior circulation issues.
“While a distinctly different, modern architecture style, through appropriate massing and similar materials, the Pavilion respects the Beaux-Arts architecture of the original building,” said the Mid-Atlantic Museum Association, which presents the national awards to the outstanding recent museum building projects.
From Bodies to Buildings
At 70, Wyper is at the top of his game and more excited than ever about his profession and his firm. With such a passion for what he does, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t Wyper’s original calling.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Wyper attended Phillips Academy before heading off to Princeton to become a doctor. His interest in architecture was ignited when he volunteered for the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) — which became part of AmeriCorps — building rural housing.
“I discovered architecture and thought it was a more interesting way to serve,” he says.
Wyper first met partner Terry Jacobs when he played rugby for Princeton and Jacobs captained the Dartmouth team. Wyper got his master’s degree at Princeton and Jacobs got his master’s at University of Pennsylvania, and they decided to team up after working for different architects in Philadelphia.
“I have a great partner in Terry Jacobs,” says Wyper.
Career at a Crossroads
Although he has always loved his profession, it hasn’t been without the ebbs and flows that come over a long career. When Jamie and Jacobs were in their mid-sixties, they hit a midlife career crossroads and questioned the path they were on and the future of the firm.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do? We’re getting on. We could retire in some fashion,’ ” recalls Wyper. “We decided we would double down at that point.”
Rather than hanging it up, they acquired another firm, redid their marketing materials, upgraded their technology and went on an aggressive business development campaign.
“We decided that we’re going to be in this for the long haul, reinvest and make the business better,” he says. “We’ve been on a tear for the last five years, and we both feel incredibly energized by this.”
Preparing for the Future
They also brought in more partners — younger partners with complementary talents who can help the firm stay at the top of its game. It also provides Wyper and Jacobs with the knowledge that they can continue working as long as they want, with others who can run the business when they’re ready to hand over the reins.
Wyper says he still feels young and doesn’t foresee retiring for 10 to 15 more years, thanks to his exercise regimen — he goes to the gym three days a week — and a healthy diet. His diet is centered around the Whole30 Program which eliminates soy, dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes, and sugars. He periodically strays for social eating and drinking. He also fasts for 12-14 hours a day, eating dinner and then not eating again until lunch, a practice he says gives his system a chance to absorb everything.
Guided by Quaker Principles
Although not religious, Wyper says he’s guided by Quaker principles: there is God in everything, do no harm to anything or anybody and nobody stands between you and God. “Those are the most wonderful religious beliefs I’ve ever heard,” he says.
Wyper sent his sons to Quaker schools (Pennsylvania is the locus of Quakerism). He needed to adjust his attitude when they both joined the military. The answer — a recurring theme of his own life — was his focus on the military’s service to others.
“My older son [a captain in the Marine Corps] believes he’s providing a service, just not the peace service [the Quakers] were looking for.”
Growing up with an alcoholic, disengaged father, he has always strived to have a close relationship with his own sons. And although both live west of the Mississippi, he says he maintains a close relationship with both of them.
After his first marriage ended after twenty years, Jamie met his current significant other, Isabelle, a native New Yorker, eight years ago who he credits for keeping him energized and on top of global design trends through their commuting relationship and the many trips they take together. Together they live in a stone farmhouse built in 1820 that sits in the middle of a nature center in Philadelphia. He has spent years renovating the house, but says visitors comment that it doesn’t look like a clichéd house of an architect.
A Window into the Natural World
“He was so infectiously passionate about bees,” Wyper says of their decision to buy those first hives.
Wyper says he’s not an industrial beekeeper. His five hives produce four to five gallons of honey a year, which he distributes to his co-workers. He says the hobby is a “wonderful window into the natural world, which is truly amazing.”
Reflecting on his life, Wyper doesn’t take his good fortune for granted. He has the Jewish blessing on his mirror that reads “Blessed art thou, lord of the universe, for bringing us alive to see this day.”