Coronado has lost one of its most creative, interesting, and enthusiastic citizens. Architect/artist Dale St. Denis died peacefully of cancer on the afternoon of May 18th in the Parkview Place house he designed. His wife of 38 years, Doug St. Denis, was holding his hand. He was 80.
Dale was born on June 15, 1935, in Fargo, North Dakota, to Genevieve and Alphonse Denis. (Note: As a young man, Dale legally “took back” the “Saint,” which his forebears had dropped to “Americanize” the surname). Dale’s father was the second-generation owner of Denis Bros. Furs in Fargo, where, as Dale often said, “If you wanted to survive the Fargo winter, you wore fur.”
Of French-Canadian/Native American decent, his ancestors were either farmers or fur trappers, migrating to North Dakota from Trois Rivières, Canada in the late 1800s. Says Doug, “That North Dakota pioneer spirit of his got him through life and stayed with him until the end; he was amazing.”
After graduating from Shanley High School in Fargo, Dale entered St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota as a seminary student. It was there that he was introduced to the internationally known Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. Breuer’s charismatic personality, along with the powerful modernist church he designed for the campus, was enough to inspire St. Denis’s architectural future.
He was accepted into the architecture program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, working his way through school (including one interruption to join the U.S. Air Force aviation cadet program). The first member of his family to attend college, Dale received his Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 1962, under the tutelage of the great Dean, George Hasslein.
While in architecture school, he married artist Merrilee Ludwig. The couple was married for 14 years and had three daughters. Dale and Doug met in June of 1976, when he moved in next door to her to “house-sit” a client’s Coronado house. “It was a summer of love,” remembers Doug. They were married two years later.
Early in his career St. Denis worked for architecture firms in Los Angeles (Risley Gould Van Hueklyn), the City of Santa Rosa (Architect/Planner), and San Diego (Deems Lewis Martin). He became a registered architect in California in 1969. He bought an 1887 Victorian house in San Diego’s Little Italy area, renovated it, and established the firm of St. Denis and Associates there in 1971. It soon became a creative hub for young talented members of the San Diego design community.
A brand new chapter in Dale’s architectural life began when his actress/artist wife Doug enrolled at Newschool of Architecture San Diego at age 50, inspired by her part-time work at St. Denis & Associates. She graduated in 1994. They had great fun working together as St. Denis partners, especially when they both served as Coronado Planning Commissioners at the same time – a definite first for the City of Coronado! Their Parkview Place house was always a creative work in progress for them (and still is).
St. Denis was known primarily as a residential architect, yet his edgy Iguana’s Nightclub in Tijuana (with co-owner/promoter Rob Tonkin of L.A.’s The Marketing Factory) received much press coverage and garnered a national design award in 1989 from the Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Institute, Washington, DC for “creative use of chain link,” which was presented in Newport, RI.
The San Diego Tribune writer David Coddon called Iguanas, “raw, funky and fun…it has the primal, no-frills feel of rock ‘n roll itself, mingling the excitement and spontaneity of a live concert performance with the energy and communal spirit of a dancing cabaret. This place cooks. It’s got grit. It’s a reason to go to Mexico.”
For many years St. Denis was active in the San Diego Chapter of the AIA, chairing the awards programs and coaxing illustrious architectural names such as Joseph Esherick, Frank Gehry, John Lautner, and Esther McCoy to San Diego to judge the local competitions. In the mid- 1980s, Gehry hired St. Denis as a consultant to help solve leak issues in those famously complicated Gehry rooflines in several of his Los Angeles projects, including the California Aerospace Science Building.
St. Denis served the City of Coronado in many capacities: Design Review Commissioner (1979-1983; Chair 1981-83), Planning Commissioner (2004-2009; Chair 2008-2009), and various other boards and committees, including the development of the first performance-based Residential Design Guidelines for Coronado and the drafting of the Bay Front Subzone Ordinance along First Street.
His work received numerous awards and was widely published in both local and national publications. His popular class, “Designing and Remodeling Your Own Home,” which he taught at UC San Diego for many years beginning in 1984, was always full, with a waiting list.
In addition to the award for Iguanas, he received several AIA San Diego/San Diego Home Garden Magazine Awards, including the “Best of Competition” in 1982 for the remodel of an Irving Gill cottage at 1037 Star Park Circle, Coronado, which was also featured in a cover story in a 1986 issue of Home Magazine. In September 1983, St. Denis was named “One of the Top Established Single Architects in San Diego” by San Diego Magazine, in a feature article, “Our Heavyweight Architects,” by Joan Levine.
A story in San Diego Magazine’s September 1995 issue, “House With a Past” by Claire White, featured the remodel of the historic 1930 Mustin Residence in Coronado, designed by Dale and Doug, with construction by Lorton Mitchell Custom Homes. The St. Denis husband-wife team also received the San Diego Magazine “2001 Custom Home of the Year Award” for the Phyllis Kraus bayfront residence on First St. in Coronado, built by Lorton Mitchell Custom Homes, with a Japanese garden designed by noted landscape architect Takendo Ari.
Dale was an artist, furniture maker, potter, and jewelry maker. His work was shown in galleries and exhibits in Los Angeles and San Diego. Recently, his ceramic pieces were featured in the inaugural exhibition of the new C3 Coronado Community Center Gallery, and also in the “Florals by Locals” exhibit at the 2016 Coronado Flower Show, which featured paintings by Coronado artists. His ceramic pieces and handmade jewelry have been top-sellers at Penny Rothschild’s Emerald C Gallery in Coronado.
He was a perpetual and tireless student his entire life, always seeking, expanding and perfecting his talents. For the past nine years he was a fixture in the Adult Education Ceramics studio at Coronado High School; he took woodworking, painting, silversmithing, and stone-cutting classes. He practiced yoga daily.
Dale took up lawn bowling several years ago. He fell in love with the sport and the people he met there. After suffering a stroke in late 2014, which left him paralyzed on his right side, he continued to draw and sketch, using his left hand, and enjoyed left-handed lawn bowling from his wheelchair.
Doug and Dale St. Denis traveled the world together, sketchbooks in hand, drinking in the art and architecture, always returning home refreshed and inspired. Europe was an almost yearly destination. Paris was their favorite city, traveling there together on 13 different occasions. Camping trips in the California backcountry and road trips to various points in the U.S., preferably with a good supply of friends, gin, tonic and audio books were always hilarious and memorable. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Jordan in 2009 with a group of 30 Coronado friends was life changing.
Dale was a gourmet cook and a consummate host – the St. Denis home in Coronado was the gathering place for many a rollicking good time, from impromptu drop-ins to planned parties. He and Doug never passed up an opportunity to dance – they were members of Coronado’s Crown Club, and rarely missed dancing on the grass at Coronado’s summer Concerts in the Park.
More than anything, Dale enjoyed their big, inclusive, multi-generational family, especially his grandchildren, whom he adored. He always had time to spend with them, working on projects like clay in the backyard, Legos, or ships in a bottle. They, in turn, taught him to use apps like “Garage Band” on his Mac, which thrilled him.
Dale was a member of the Coronado Rotary Club, the Coronado Lawn Bowling Club, the Coronado Senior Center, the Coronado Historical Association, Coronado Community Church, and MainStreet, Ltd., Coronado. He was very involved in the development and successful January 2016 launch of the Coronado Island Film Festival with his wife Doug, who is CIFF’s Founder and Executive Director.
In addition to his wife of 38 years, the former Douglas Mustin, he is survived by his three daughters, Monica Cutri of San Diego, Lisa Wahl (Jeff) of Silt, Colorado, and Martine St. Denis of Burlington, Vermont; his three step-children, Corinne Lynch (Todd) of La Jolla, Larry Baldauf of Los Angeles, and Terry Curtin (Greg) of Los Angeles, and 11 grandchildren. Also by a sister, Teri Plowy (Jay) of Highland, CA, and a brother Ron Denis (Stephanie) of Camus, Washington. He was pre-deceased by a sister, Joanne Worton, in 2012.
Coronado Community Church will hold a Celebration of Dale’s Life on Saturday, June 18, 3 PM, in Coronado’s Village Hall (Coronado Elementary School), 639 H Avenue Coronado.
In lieu of flowers, tax-deductible donations “In Memory of Dale St. Denis” to any of the following will be appreciated:
Coronado Island Film Festival, Dale St. Denis Student Grant Award, 941 Orange Ave, #212, Coronado, CA 92118
Coronado Community Church, PO Box 181680, Coronado, CA 92178
Coronado Lawn Bowling Club, ℅ Grobe, 516 Fourth St., Coronado, CA 92118