Steve Schuster, architect who helped revitalize downtown Raleigh, other cities, dies

Steve Schuster, an architect who first helped revitalize downtown Raleigh by giving new life to old buildings, then had a hand in remaking the city with signature works such as the Marbles Kids Museum and Raleigh Union Station, has died. He was 68.

Schuster had been battling cancer for three years and died in his home on West Martin Street downtown. He was surrounded by family and friends and the hubbub of urban life that to most seemed unimaginable when he and his longtime friend and business partner, artist Thomas Sayre, and their wives moved to adjoining apartments they carved out of an old plumbing supply warehouse in 1989.

Sayre, who joined with Schuster to create the design firm Clearscapes in 1981, said summing up his partner’s legacy is difficult.

“It’s best to walk around downtown Raleigh or go to any one of dozens of small North Carolina towns, where often old and decrepit historic theaters and other kinds of buildings were revitalized, often into art centers, that were transformative to those towns,” Sayre said Saturday in an interview with The News & Observer. “The word transformative comes to mind about Steve’s work.”

Schuster was not an architect with a signature style, creating buildings that were recognizably his. Instead, he sought out projects that he thought could help bring life to a town or neighborhood, then crafted designs that fit the context of a place’s surroundings and history.

“I think that speaks a lot about Steve,” Sayre said. “He was not the facile designer who would come out with an ascot on and expect people to just take his word for why this design was worth doing.”


Schuster’s first impressions of city life came as a young boy visiting Chicago from his home in suburban Lansing, Ill., in the 1950s and early 1960s. Going to museums and Bears games and visiting the brownstones where his aunts and uncles lived provided a lasting vision for what a city could be.

He spent the second half of his childhood in Chattanooga, Tenn., then came to Raleigh in 1969 to study architecture at N.C. State. He went to Colorado to earn a master’s in architecture, but returned to North Carolina, where he eventually met Sayre.

The central part of Raleigh was on the decline in the 1980s, as businesses moved to the shopping centers and office parks on the periphery. Interest in downtown was so low that Clearscapes struggled to find any clients that wanted to work there.

But Schuster and Sayre, a sculptor and painter, had a long-term vision for downtown and knew that it would return to prominence again.

They believed that architects could play a leading role in redefining how cities look, feel and operate, by breathing new life into spaces that had fallen into decay.

“Design is critical to help cities become something different,” Schuster told The News & Observer in 2002.

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(Raleigh News and Observer, 8/17/19)