Harry Elson II

Building an Architect

Harry Elson II (Architecture ’91)

Among the posters and pictures on a young Harry Elson’s bedroom wall were drawings of Monticello and the Lawn. Jefferson’s creations still influence Elson’s work.

“The Architecture School continues to be important to my position as an architect every day,” Elson said. He runs Harry Elson Architect PC, a full-service architecture firm in Manhattan recognized for its design excellence. “U.Va. gave me a skill set to tackle any architectural problem. You can still see in my work the seed that was planted in Charlottesville.” His company is not married to any specific style, but approaches each project as a unique design challenge that benefits from the eclectic training he received at U.Va.

The melding of past and future is one of the many reasons Elson was drawn to the University. “U.Va. was absolutely my first choice for architecture school,” he said. “The Lawn and the Rotunda and the idea of the American landscape are rooted in the past but have long tentacles reaching into the future,” Elson said. “The Lawn is a radical concept: an urban solution to a rural landscape.”

In the late 1980s, Elson happened upon an architecture magazine article about renowned modernist architect W. G. Clark (Architecture ’65). The article mentioned that Clark, currently the Edmund Schureman Campbell Professor of Architecture, was on his way to teach at U.Va., and Elson’s course was set.

Elson also had several family connections to U.Va. At the time, Elson’s father, Edward E. Elson (College ’56), former ambassador to Denmark, was rector of the University; the School of Architecture now has an endowed professorship named in his honor. Elson’s brothers Charles (Law ’85) and Louis (Darden ’90) also attended U.Va.

Elson, now a member of the School of Architecture Foundation, is pleased with the school’s growth. “The Architecture School has been right out in front—in research by faculty and students—and has become a much more research-based institution,” he said. He cited ecoMOD, the school’s green, modular housing designs, as an example of the Architecture School’s leadership in the profession.

“My decision to attend U.Va. was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Elson said. “My three-and-a-half years in the Architecture School were the most civilized years in my life. There was a gentleness and sensitivity there,” he said. “My gift is the smallest thing you can do to say thank you.”