Before he drew his first sketch, designed his first building, won his first award and had his name splashed across the pages of newspapers and magazines around the world, Mark Cavagnero picked up a book.

And then he picked up another one. And another. Twenty books later, after poring through Torrington High School's collection of books on architecture, Cavagnero knew what he'd be doing for the rest of his life.

"I fell in love with it," Cavagnero said.

On Jan. 23 in San Francisco, prominent jazz musicians, politicians and celebrities gathered for the opening of Cavagnero's latest building, the SFJAZZ Center. The concert hall continues a string of highly acclaimed designs by Cavagnero, who has been the architect for several award-winning cultural and civic buildings.

"It's been getting a lot of attention," Cavagnero said of the jazz center. "The New York Times called it the 'future of jazz.' It's been published all over, and the musicians love it, most importantly."

Cavagnero started on the lengthy project in 2004, parterning with SFJAZZ founder Randall Klein, who loved a music school design by Cavagnero.

Bill Cosby hosted the opening, at which a crowd of about 700 listened to music performed by an assemblage of jazz musicians including Esperanza Spalding, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner.

Cavagnero, 55, who runs the San Francisco-based Mark Cavagnero Associates, has carved out a niche, designing museums and educational buildings, said David Meckel, a Norwalk native who's now an architect at the California College of Arts. Meckel said cultural and civic buildings are often the hardest to get built.


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"These are very difficult buildings to get done," Meckel said. "There is a lot of fundraising required, many hurdles to get over. They often come up short architecturally because there are so many challenges along the way."

But Meckel said Cavagnero finds a way to deliver architecturally every time.

"He's the sweetest guy on the planet and these jobs are just hell," Meckel said. "There are community meetings, design reviews; everybody hates what you are doing. But he just stays on course.

"It's like in the tortoise and the hare - he's the tortoise. He just pushes things along. He is the steward of the idea when nobody else will be that."

TWENTY BOOKS AND A DREAM

When Mark Cavagnero was in junior high school, his father, Erman, would come home from work frazzled by the corporate world but excited about a new building that was going up at the Torin Corporation's Torrington headquarters where Erman worked as a vice president.

"My father was going through the design process of the tech building with Marcel Breuer," said Cavagnero. "He would come home and talk about the genius of Breuer."

Cavagnero said the talks with his father "planted the seed" of architecture in his mind.

Breuer, a renowned Hungarian-born architect, designed several buildings around Litchfield County in the Modernist style. Cavagnero's father also took his son to some of the Litchfield homes designed by Breuer, including one built for Andrew Gagarin, another Torin executive.

"When I was in junior high school my father took me to see the house," Cavagnero wrote in a recent essay about the influence Litchfield architecture had on his own career. "Having never seen a modern house before, I was enthralled by Breuer's wood and stone design, which was so alien from the houses on my street, or such a departure from the Colonials throughout Litchfield."

With the dream of one day reaching Breuer's level in his mind, a 14-year-old Cavagnero walked into Torrington High School's library and read through every book on architecture, checking them out multiple times.

After graduating with the class of 1975, Cavagnero went on to study at Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley. While working in New York in 1988 as a fledgling architect, he came home to find a large box at his door step. Inside were the 20 books he had read in Torrington 16 years earlier.

"The high school was doing some renovation and the librarian looked at the sticker inside and said 'gee, only one person ever read these books,'" Cavagnero said. "She recognized my name and knew my mother, so she called her and asked if I would be interested in them. ... My mother gave her my address and they mailed the books to me."

Cavagnero now keeps those books in the living room of his San Francisco home.

He said he sometimes looks at the books and wonders if the high school ever replaced them.

The high school's library media specialist, Robin Magistrali, browsed through the books there Friday and confirmed there are some on architecture that "might inspire another young budding architect from THS."

Cavagnero said he thinks it's wonderful the school still provides a place for students to find their way.

"I hope some 14-year-old can stumble into the library today and find something magical for him," Cavagnero said. "In a small city like Torrington, there isn't the same opportunity to discover what a career is or what opportunities you have like in New York or San Francisco.

"Public school libraries can be the one place where a youth can dream and explore."

A PROUD HOMETOWN AND A BRIGHT FUTURE

The Cavagnero name is familiar in Torrington. Mark's brother, Paul, serves on the Board of Education, just like Erman, who died six years ago, previously did. But Mark has taken the family name worldwide.

"It's really incredible," said Steve Temkin, a classmate of Cavagnero at THS and a founder of the Torrington Downtown Partners LLC. "It shows that you can come from Torrington and make it big. And I think it does say something about education that the Torrington schools gave him. Look where he is."

Temkin said Cavagnero's story should be "an inspiration" to students at THS.

"Also, as a classmate, you can say 'look at what one of the graduates of my class is doing,'" Temkin said. "There is a sense of pride."

Meckel, who has watched Cavagnero's rise in the San Francisco area, said Cavagnero can do special things with ordinary civic buildings.

"He did a public pool in San Francisco that is so beautiful," Meckel said, referring to Sava Pool. "And that was for the Parks and Recreation department. He must have dealt with unending bureaucracy. But that's what's special about him; he is able to figure out which kind of projects are worth that kind of effort and he just gets it to the finish."

At 55, Cavagnero is still early in his career, Meckel said.

"He's going to have a pretty cool run here for the next 30 years, taking all that knowledge iterating through these projects," Meckel said. "He's only going to get better. It's going to be fun to watch."

Reach Tom Cleary at 860-489-3121, ext. 308.