“My First Best Building”

Considering that I am well into the fifth decade of my architectural career, and have hundreds of buildings designed by my own hand, my best building is always that I am working on. Therefore, my first building was my best building. Every building thereafter became my best because I gave it my best.
As a student in Yale’s Professional School of Architecture in the late nineteen forties, I was engaged in my third student year, to design my first building…. a Lincoln-Mercury Motorcar Showroom and Service structure to be erected on Whalley Avenue, a prominent corner location in New Haven, Connecticut. This was in 1948 and the story is as follows.

New Haven Lincoln Mercury Dealership, New Haven, Connecticut – 1948; drawing courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

One night, bent over my board, with cigarettes and black coffee, someone yelled, “McDonald, telephone for you”. Who could be calling me at ten o’clock at night? I thought as I walked down the halls of Weir. On picking up the phone, the calling party introduced himself as James Boyce, of the New Haven Lincoln Mercury Dealer-ship. He said he needed a new Showroom and Service Building and would like to discuss my designing it over lunch at the “Quinnipiack Club” in New Haven. In disbelief I laughed and asked who was pulling my leg. He was serious and said to meet him at the club at one o’clock that afternoon.

New Haven Lincoln Mercury Dealership, New Haven, Connecticut – 1949; photograph courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

I decided to meet with him – I had never before been invited to this prestigious club. I met with Mr. Boyce at the club and was impressed with his size and stature. My first question was, “Why me, I am only a student at the School of Architecture?”. He answered as follows, ” I have visited the offices of renown architects in New Haven, New York, Cambridge, Princeton and Philadelphia. I have explained that I wanted a showroom that will be unique. They all nodded their heads and presented drawings of automotive showrooms that were sleek, streamlined, shiny and superfluous. All neon, terrazzo floors, chromium, marble, ornate appointments including lighting fixtures. I dismissed them all as prostitutes…. what I sought was a Virgin!” “I was aware of Yale’s Architectural School and proceeded to review the nom de plum work submitted by the students for each assignment. Every time I selected the student who’s work most impressed me, I learned it was the work of John Randal McDonald. So here we are and you shall design my building.”

John Randal McDonald, Essay – “My First Best Building”; date unknown

Use the audio player to hear John Randal McDonald tell about his First Best Building: