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Oliver Gillham, urban planner; at 59

An early influence for Mr. Gillham's career choice was his great-uncle, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he saw regularly while growing up in New York's Greenwich Village. An early influence for Mr. Gillham's career choice was his great-uncle, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he saw regularly while growing up in New York's Greenwich Village.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 1, 2008

To help explain urban sprawl and smart growth - two terms he thought needed to be more sharply defined - Oliver Gillham took a soothing, long view and a bracing close-up look.

"From the air, the distinctions between residential, commercial, and industrial areas are easily understood while town, county, and state boundaries go unseen," he wrote in the introduction to his book "The Limitless City," published in 2002. "Once on the ground, things can look very different. Here, one can become lost in a world of seeming sameness, where streets, stores, and houses make up places that could be anywhere in the United States - in Houston, Atlanta, San Jose, or somewhere outside of Boston or Washington. Each place can seem a limitless city - a suburban continent stretching beyond the horizon."

Nearly as limitless was Mr. Gillham's range as an architect and urban planner. From the Harvard Square MBTA Station to new towns in India, from the Big Dig to Birmingham, Ala., he had a hand in projects that were as varied aesthetically as they were distant geographically.

Mr. Gillham, whose wife died eight months ago, took his life in Newton on May 12. He was 59 and had moved to Newtonville about two years ago so his wife could be closer to medical care. The Gillhams previously lived in Richmond and Cambridge.

"He would go into a city like Norwalk, Conn., or New Bedford that was kind of not in great shape," said Candy Gander, a friend who ran the firm Gillham & Gander with Mr. Gillham for 10 years.

"One of the first things he did was to obtain aerial photos of the city, so he'd sort of hover over it on a grand scale. Then he'd make these slides and project them on the wall, put tracing paper on top, and draw his vision of what the city could look like. He would figure out how to enliven the space, and you'd see the city come alive through that. Eventually, those pictures became reality very slowly."

Turning his creativity and ideas into something anyone could understand came easily to Mr. Gillham, who by adolescence knew he was heading toward architecture and planning.

"He had a very good eye for detail and an awfully good way of translating that from his mind to paper," Robert Gillham of Glen Rock, N.J., said of his younger brother.

"His drawing, even his writing, was so meticulous, so careful."

An early influence for Mr. Gillham's career choice was his great-uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he saw regularly while growing up in New York's Greenwich Village, though he rarely mentioned his famous relative by the time he was a graduate student at Harvard.

Mr. Gillham graduated from Woodstock Day School in Vermont, and then from Boston University in 1970. He took time off to write and spent a year at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture and Planning before transferring to Harvard's Graduate School of Design, from which he graduated in 1975 with a master's in architecture.

He became a senior designer and director of urban design for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Boston, and then spent a few years at the Massachusetts Port Authority, where he worked on the initial urban design and planning for the Central Artery Project.

In 1988, he and Gander founded Gillham & Gander Associates, a firm that later had other names. There, he worked on projects including Terminal A at Logan Airport, land use around Bangor International Airport in Maine, the redevelopment of Australian docklands in Melbourne, and the planning of new towns between Bangalore and Mysore, India.

"And there was another side of him," Gander said. "He had a very intriguing sense of humor, and he was interested in nature, in insects, in gardening and flowers. One of his projects when he was living out in the Berkshires was to rebuild a dam that was on his property. That was like an aside; he didn't have to do it, but he liked restoring things like that."

Mr. Gillham also preferred cooking and gatherings at his homes and those of friends to going out, except when diving and snorkeling were involved.

"He had a real passion for the ocean," said Robert Brandon, a friend and architect. "He found places in the Caribbean nobody knew existed."

A favorite spot was Salt Cay, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Mr. Gillham helped organize a trip for several friends there in December 1999.

Tall and bearded, professorial and taciturn, Mr. Gillham was well read and widely traveled, "an intellectual, but not a stuffy intellectual," Brandon said.

After marrying Janis Mones in 1981, Mr. Gillham and his wife frequently visited Italy on their journeys, where she loved Tuscany, the architecture, and the people, he told the Globe after she died. Janis Gillham had been diagnosed with cancer in 2004.

"One of the reasons I married her was that she was full of energy and fire, a very sparkling person, very charming and witty," Mr. Gillham said in September. "I loved her very much."

"They completed each other," Robert Gillham said.

Mr. Gillham, he said, "would never be the one who dominated any room, but he was a very alive, interesting person. His comments would never be fortissimo, they would be piano, but very thoughtful and very funny. He wasn't overly economical with words, but he chose what he said. And people listened to him, and they really liked him."

In addition to his brother Robert, Mr. Gillham leaves another brother, Nicholas of Pittsboro, N.C.

Services are private.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the high school attended by Oliver Gillham, an architect and urban planner, was incorrect in an obituary last Sunday. Mr. Gillham, who died May 12, attended Woodstock Country School in Vermont.

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