Studio Hillier Shares the Passing of Co-Founder Barbara A. Hillier, AIA
Architect Barbara A. Hillier died peacefully on November 21, 2022 from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 71 years old and in residence at Brookdale in Dublin, Pa.
Barbara was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on June 20, 1951, the first of two children for Colman and Shirley Feinberg. Her parents had a thriving men’s clothing store where Barbara, as a young woman, helped out as a salesperson.
From an early age, she demonstrated a knack for drawing and an innate artistic talent. Despite her natural skill and drive to succeed, academic advisors continuously pushed Barbara towards cosmetology-related roles. However, her aspirations were higher. Barbara enrolled at Temple University, where she received a BA in Psychology. Wanting to nurture her artistic talent, she decided shortly after graduation to enroll at Beaver College, now Arcadia University, where she studied Art and Interior Design, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
In 1978, with the country in recession, Barbara reputedly sent 138 letters to architectural firms in the Philadelphia Region. One of those letters landed on the desk of a young architect in Princeton, J. Robert Hillier. So impressed with the letter, he called Barbara in for an interview. She claimed that Hillier was the only respondent to her letters.
Barbara’s senior thesis at Beaver was a proposed casino for Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park. The design did not appeal to Hillier, but he could not get over Barbara’s passion for design and her communication of it. Hillier asked General Manager Joe Bavaro to also interview her, and his determination was they should hire Barbara, “not because of her pretty face” and not until there was a project for an interior designer. That project soon came along with a call from the Los Angeles Dodgers to transform their Vero Beach training camp into a conference center when the team was not there. Barbara was hired. From that point on Barbara began winning interior design commissions and the firm expanded its services to include interior design.
In 1984, Barbara asked if she could open the firm’s first branch office in Philadelphia. The answer was “yes,” but only if she had a large enough project to warrant it. Barbara learned of a large company that was relocating from New York to Philadelphia. While the Facilities Manager, a Princeton resident, originally refused to meet with Barbara, she finally persuaded him by offering to connect with him on the train for his commute home. Barbara won the project and was able to open the Philadelphia office.
The new office took on the creation of corporate headquarters for Vanguard, Motorola, Bell Atlantic, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Merck. It also took on educational work for Temple University, the Wharton School, and several private secondary schools including the unique Solebury School near New Hope, Pa. For Solebury, Barbara created the stunning Abbe Science Center which won design awards from the National Cedar Council, the New Jersey and Pennsylvania AIA, and the extremely prestigious Pennsylvania AIA Silver Medal which is awarded by discretion only to a project far above all the entries in a particular year.
Bob Hillier and Barbara were married in 1986, as a working relationship turned into a love story. Together, they built their magnificent Autretemps on the banks of the Delaware River. Barbara became a dedicated homemaker with her home cooking, her vegetable gardening, and entertaining. She had the amazing ability to turn away from the practice on Friday afternoon and enjoy her own time over the weekend, including reading the New York Times cover to cover.
Barbara loved to travel, so before she and Bob started a family, they traveled the world, visiting Egypt, Kenya, Turkey, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Israel, the UK, France, Switzerland, Italy, their beloved Venice three times, China, and Japan. They always took a winter week to visit the enchanted island of Anguilla where they had spent their honeymoon.
Their life was full of travel, entertaining, Broadway shows, movies, and dances where Barbara starred with her beautiful, spins, dips, and curls. Her all-time favorite movie was the 1984 film Flashdance, with its musical scores, photography, and storyline that so closely paralleled her own life story of unconventional routes to success.
Back at the office, it became quite clear that Barbara was more interested in architecture than interior design. Pennsylvania had a historic “craft” law that said after working for an architect for 10 years, you could undertake a three-year internship and then take the architectural licensing exams without the usual required architectural degree. Barbara took on that challenge and started taking the exams, but she kept failing the site planning exam. Bob helped her through her third and “must pass” site planning exam by forcing her to build a topographic site model out of sheets of cardboard to better understand site grading. In 1992, Barbara became a licensed Architect!
In 1993, after a wonderful trouble-free pregnancy, Barbara delivered a beautiful daughter, Jordan Rebecca, and took a full year off to properly begin her daughter’s life. Soon after, she retired from the Philadelphia office, and joined Bob in Princeton, balancing her new career as a wonderful Mom — helping out in classes at Buckingham Friends school and taking Jordan to riding lessons when she turned 5, and training her two beloved Vizslas Zoe and Chance (and later, Suri and Bowie, who filled Barbara’s final years with endless joy). Barbara’s dedication to Jordan’s equestrian activities went above the call of duty, with early morning drives to horse shows, the assurance that Jordan had the right outfit, and the constant search for the perfect horse for Jordan to own. Barbara continued to attend horse shows with Jordan through 2021. There was always one guaranteed way to make Barbara smile — and that was to talk about Jordan. As Jordan grew, Barbara stayed deeply engaged in her life, and was Jordan’s best cheerleader, confidant, and role model, teaching her the importance of having a career, but that being a mom was above all else.
After her extended maternity leave, upon returning to the Princeton office, Barbara organized a very talented and design-dedicated studio for special projects with both great design challenges and opportunities. Barbara’s attitude about design was to challenge the conventional through the creation of totally new forms that better met the client’s needs and aspirations while still respecting concepts of Place, Community, History, and Culture.
In 2003 Barbara won an interesting project for Becton Dickinson. The corporation was housed in two buildings, separated by a beautiful and treasured lawn at its entry drive. Management felt that the groups in the two separated buildings should be talking more and working together. They proposed an employee services center between the two buildings to bring people together with its central dining function plus other services. Rather than building it upon the great lawn, Barbara proposed a building under the lawn that would break out of the ground in the rear with views to the woods beyond. The building was honored by design awards from the New Jersey and Pennsylvania, AIA Chapters, and, unexpectedly, it received the prestigious Chicago Athenaeum National Award for architectural excellence.
In 2007, Barbara and Bob were working on the Master Plan for the Las Colinas development in Irving, Texas, of which one element was a Convention Center being designed by a New York firm. One day Barbara got a call from the director of conventions asking if Barbara would design the Convention Center instead. In her usual way Barbara explored alternatives to the large flat boring boxes that defined most convention centers. She created a vertical convention center that soared 170 feet into the Texas sky with convention rooms at different levels, all connected by amazing escalators and with expansive terraces protected from the hot Texas sun. The design minimized its land consumption, and the center had a huge visual presence from the highways to the Dallas airport. The building has won every imaginable award including several for its sustainability and structural finesse. It is also fully booked far into the future.
With the completion of this and other major projects, Barbara resigned from the firm and spent two years at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, achieving her lifelong cherished goal: a Master’s Degree in Architecture. Her happiness on the day they draped the hood over her shoulders was second only to the day Jordan was born.
Barbara then set her sights on the “Renaissance” of Witherspoon Street with an updating of its historic structures and the provision of housing for those who help the town of Princeton function and thrive, but cannot afford to live there. That “Renaissance” is to begin construction in 2023.
Thus, was completed an amazing career of motherhood, service, leadership, sophistication, artistic creativity, and passion.
Barbara is survived by her husband, J. Robert Hillier and their daughter Jordan Hillier Adams, husband Dr. Alex Adams, and granddaughter Sela Jane. She is also survived by her stepson, James Baldwin Hillier, wife Shari, and three step-grandchildren. She is also survived by her brother, Dr. Bruce Feinberg, his wife Iris, and their four children.
The family wants to thank the remarkable staff at Brookdale Dublin for their gentleness and thoughtful care of Barbara during her stay in their facility. Special thanks to Natalie, Dana, Jessica, Jesse, and Chefs June and Teresa.
Burial in Princeton Cemetery will be private for the family. There will be a memorial service and celebration of Barbara’s life at the Princeton University Chapel on January 6, 2023 at 11 a.m. Funeral arrangements are by Mather-Hodge Funeral Home of Princeton, N.J.
Barbara was very passionate about finding a cure to Alzheimer’s disease, from her Dad’s diagnosis through to her own struggles with the disease. In lieu of flowers, and in Barbara’s honor, contributions may be made to Alzheimer’s Association, Delaware Valley Chapter, which can be accessed through alz.org/delval.