Chester (Chet) Wisniewski of Menemsha died one year ago on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, at his winter home in West Tisbury. He would have been 94 this March.
Chet was born on March 20, 1921, in Syracuse, N.Y., the second of four children of immigrant parents from Poland. Chet attended Syracuse University, and served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He was stationed in the South Pacific islands and Japan in WW II.
Following the war, he returned to Syracuse University and graduated with a bachelor’s in architecture in 1946. After college, he became an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, in Arizona. Chet’s apprenticeship to Wright had a great influence on his career as an architect, a professor, and an artist. He was always fascinated by the integration of architecture and nature, and the interaction of building and design.
In 1952, along with his partners, Chet started the architectural firm Davis, Brody & Wisniewski in New York, today known as Davis Brody Bond. During his career as an architect, Chet designed many commercial buildings, churches, synagogues, and homes, mostly in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. In 1965, Chet became a professor of architecture at the Cooper Union, where he taught architecture and design for over 23 years. He was always an enthusiastic teacher, and passed on his aesthetic sense, irreverent sense of humor, and passion for building and design to thousands of architecture students during his time as a professor.
Chet first came to Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1950s, drawn by the tranquil raw beauty of the Island and its community of artists, intellectuals, and freethinkers. He often said it was the perfect antidote to Manhattan. He designed a glass house based on the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright, and built the house in the summer of 1962 with a team of his architectural students. The glass house in Menemsha became his summer residence, and one of his lifelong projects and passions, for the next 52 years. After retiring from Cooper Union, he moved to the Vineyard permanently in 1999. He later designed and built another Wright-inspired building in Menemsha in 2001, which served as his workshop for woodworking, building projects, and refinishing his sailboats.
Chet married Lois Wisniewski in 1963, in New York City. They were married for 26 years, and raised three children in Montclair, N.J. Chet is survived by his three sons, John Wisniewski of Montclair, N.J.; Thomas Wisniewski of New York City, and Joseph Wisniewski of Merrimac. Chet is also survived by eight grandchildren, James, Anna, Nicholas, Max, Amelia, Katherine, Susan, and Sarah. Chet loved family and friends. He was often happiest when spending time with his siblings, his nieces and nephews, and his children and grandchildren, many of whom would come visit over his many summers on the Vineyard. Chet also developed a close group of true friends on the Island, and valued and thrived on those close relationships.
Chet was ageless in many ways, in that as he got older, his expectations of himself were completely divorced from his age. He refused to act old, and didn’t dwell on his ailments. He was always focused on the next passion or project. Even into his 90s he was climbing a ladder to work on the roof. A week before he died, he pulled the mooring permit for his sailboat, determined to get it into the water over the summer at the age of 93. He had a strong determination to live his life, often without the constraints of convention, and always kept focus on his next dream or endeavor.
Chet was passionate about travel, and traveled extensively throughout his life. In 1978, during a sabbatical as a professor, he took his wife and three boys, ages 14, 12, and 8 at the time, for a seven-month trip through 16 countries in Europe and Africa in a converted VW camper van. This trip helped pass his love of travel and worldly curiosity to his three sons. His passion for travel continued into his 90s, as he traveled yearly every spring to Paris for six weeks, taking classes and studying the French language.
Chet was funny, and had an irreverent sense of humor. He loved to joke around and make people laugh. From the guy at the post office to the woman at the deli counter, he loved to kid around with all the people he interacted with. His son Joe said, “I’d always walk into places on the Vineyard: ‘Oh, your dad is Chet? I love that guy, he’s so funny, what a character!’” He brought a smile to a lot of people’s faces.
Chet was a creative force and brilliant in many ways. That creative force expressed itself in his work as an architect, as a professor and teacher of architecture, and as an artist. He had a passion for creating, fixing, and building. He loved to paint. He loved woodworking and working with his hands. He was happiest when he had a project, and thrived in the creative problem-solving process. He was lucky enough to live most of his life doing things that allowed him to express that creative energy, and smart enough to follow his own muse, and live life on his own terms.
A tremendous life force, fiercely independent, individualistic, irreverent, and never usual, Chet will be missed deeply by those who knew him. We love you Pa.
Following his death, friends gathered on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City to remember Chet. His obituary, which did not appear earlier, marks the one-year anniversary of his death.