Michael Steen

Oral History Interview with Michael Steen, conducted by James Carder in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives office area on September 11, 2015. At Dumbarton Oaks, Mike Steen was project manager of the construction and renovation capital project (2001–2007) as a consultant from Jacobs Engineering Group. He was Director of Facilities (2008–2013).

JN: I’m James Carder, and it’s September 11, 2015. I’m in the Archives office space with Michael Steen who has consented to give an oral history interview about his time as the former Director of Facilities at Dumbarton Oaks. Mike, thank you very much for doing this. Let me start out by asking you when and why you came to Dumbarton Oaks.

MS: Okay. Thank you, James. I came to Dumbarton Oaks as a project manager for the construction of all the new facilities at Dumbarton Oaks. When Ned Keenan became director of Dumbarton Oaks, he was charged with building a new library and other facilities that would accommodate the educational programs that were here at Dumbarton Oaks. And looking back, I was very fortunate to have been chosen for the position here at Dumbarton Oaks because I was one of two candidates that had been narrowed down with Jacobs Engineering Group out of the Arlington, Virginia office. So, it just so happens that today being 9/11, fourteen years after I came for my interview on September 12th of 2001, the day after the 9/11 incident, and started work here as project manager for all the construction that was coming forth – the new library and all the renovations and a new gardeners’ building as well and all the renovation of all the existing buildings that had – all the maintenance had been deferred for so long that a lot of work needed to be done. And I was glad to have been selected from that interview – to be involved in the project.

JN: And how long did you remain a consultant to Dumbarton Oaks? When did you transition to being Director of Facilities?

MS: I was a consultant, as I said, with Jacobs Engineering Group through the construction and, essentially, to the end of Ned Keenan’s term as Director of Dumbarton Oaks and the beginning of Jan Ziolkowski’s term in July 1 of 2007. I became an employee of Dumbarton Oaks to begin, I believe it was, April 18th in 2008. I left Jacobs Engineering Group to become Director of Facilities. Marlene Chazan was very instrumental in helping to convince me to stay on at Dumbarton Oaks, since I was familiar with the construction of everything. We’d created a new central plant with all the utilities and all the equipment and all the renovations of the buildings and the two new facilities that we were able to put in place. And Marlene thought it was the ideal thing for me to stay on. And after consideration and talking with Jan, I agreed to transition here. I was with Jacobs for about six years and with Harvard for six years. And I’ve been gone for about a year and a half now.

JN: So, back in the construction period, I remember that there were a lot of pre-construction meetings that involved representatives from Dumbarton Oaks, you, and representatives from the construction firm, Whiting and Turner, and the architectural firm, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. Was that an unusual practice? Or was that typical of getting a major building designed and built?

MS: That is pretty typical for the program that was at hand. Several – I’m not at liberty and never was very comfortable in discussing the price because Ned was so adamant about not discussing the cost of the project, which we were actually able to pay for out of the funds that Dumbarton Oaks had reserved and also from the endowment left by the Blisses. And especially with the construction management method of delivery for the construction, you definitely have pre-construction services that include, of course, the construction manager, owners’ representatives, and architecture representatives. So, we act as a team and handle not only the design but the methods of construction and how the sequencing will work and how it best suits Dumbarton Oaks’s schedule, and how we had to consider the terms and keep this facility – the campus – active and all the aspects of the educational programs at Dumbarton Oaks at the time. It was a very instrumental way to implement the program.

JN: In your memory, do you think the process went smoothly? Were there successes that were unusual or problems that were unusual in the construction process?

MS: The only thing that really sticks in my mind and maybe it wasn’t as severe as we thought of it at the time, but it was the protection of the historic fabric of this building and the landscape fabric – the historic fabric being much more important than the landscaping, because landscaping does rework itself and come back to health. So, we had to be very sensitive to what we did to the historic buildings and to all of the five or six boards that we had to satisfy in the process of the construction. I think we had very good representation from Dumbarton Oaks, and you were part of that and very helpful. I think that Dumbarton Oaks knew, for the most part, not only what they wanted but what they needed to make the educational goals at Dumbarton Oaks to be realized. And it actually was a pleasure to have gone through the process. And it really was a pleasure to see that it worked. And it doesn’t always work. But I think we were very successful with Dumbarton Oaks and the process that we used.

JN: Did you work at all with Robert Venturi and his team? And, if so, what were they like to work with?

MS: I did have the pleasure to meet with such a notable architect personally – Bob Venturi and his staff, Jim Wallace and others. Bob was a delight and still is. He has since sold his company, his firm, to one of the principals who was there before, Dan McCoubrey. And, yes, we could see that Venturi’s work, in his customary way, fit into the Dumbarton Oaks landscape and the educational schemes that we had here. Bob was a wonderful person. He sent me a personal note when my mother-in-law died. And I’ve cherished that – I still have it. Not only was he a great architect, he was a good man. I really did enjoy him.

JN: One of the principal buildings and a rather large building in the capital project scheme was the Library. And the librarian, Sheila Klos, was instrumentally involved in the design and what could or could not be part of the program. How did you find having a librarian involved in the project?

MS: Sheila had so much knowledge of not only how how libraries work and everything related to libraries, but also the technologies needed. She worked so hard and she wanted it to be so right that she almost sacrificed herself for the project because she lost weight. She lost sleep, and she wanted to make everything right. She put her whole self into it. And I think she’s also a great person, and it was a good call for her to be brought into the fold, to participate in the library design as she did. It would not be the library it is today if it were not for Sheila Klos.

JN: When you started out, you said that Ned Keenan was charged or he charged himself to make a stand-alone library, a centralized library happen. What was it like working with Ned on the construction project? I know that there was some contention with the various area regulatory boards.

MS: Here, again, at Dumbarton Oaks, all the personnel were fantastic, Ned being the leader. He was a leader that you liked to work with and work for. He was a decision maker. He didn’t let things drag along. He let you have a lot of autonomy. And he didn’t call the shots on every single detail. If he agreed with you, there was no problem. If he disagreed, he would mildly say he wondered if it could be done another way, or something like that. He was not forceful, but yet a man who knew what he had to have done for Dumbarton Oaks’s sake. The primary reason that Ned Keenan came to Dumbarton Oaks was to build that library. And he was very successful in his approach to the way it unfolded and the way it turned out.

JN: And, finally, tell me what you interaction with Gail Griffin was. You were in change of building the Gardeners Lodge, I think it’s called, that really centralized that part of our institution.

MS: Gail Griffin – wonderful woman, wonderful lady, and a good friend. And I ended up, thankfully, with a lot of good friends from Dumbarton Oaks. From Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s from the South and I’m from the South, and we really had a lot in common from that aspect. Gail pays a lot of attention to detail. And I dealt with her during the construction with no problem. We had landscape issues we needed to discuss. She was very helpful from that standpoint. When I came on as Director of Facilities and she was Grounds and Gardens, we had a lot of interaction, and I had a lot on my plate to deal with, I dealt primarily with the buildings and much more so than the landscape and the hardscape in the gardens and all, but we had a good working relationship. And I would have to say that I did not do as much in the gardens as I probably could have. But Gail understood workloads and the different things we had going on, and so she was very patient about how we handled things in the department of Facilities.

JN: So, once the library and the gardeners lodge were completed and came on-line, and the central plant was operational, the Main House and Museum Wing were shut down, and everyone and everything were evacuated from those structures. Talk about what then ensued and how you protected the historical fabric of the house while at the same time bringing it up to code by putting in new mechanicals and that sort of thing.

MS: James, as you know, I think that was a monumental task. Not only protecting the historical aspect of the building – interiors and exteriors – we also had to meet a lot of conditions with the outside boards that we worked with, the historic boards. We had to have people who knew about preservation and construction involving historic fabric. We had good plans to move people around, which we were able to do. We did have to rent a facility, which was just up the street on R Street, to relocate some people into while the house was reconstructed and modernized and brought up to code – life safety codes and ADA codes (Americans with disabilities). We did everything we knew how to do for that time for the construction and the protection of the facilities. We had to do a lot of alterations to the inside to accommodate new mechanical systems – electrical and plumbing as well – and all the new equipment. So, it was quite a task, but we had some very understanding people like you James and others – Gudrun for the Museum – who understood that we had to remove certain things. And we replaced them with like materials and all to make everything look like it did before the restoration took place. We were able to preserve and actually restore three historic rooms that we are real proud of – the Founders Room, the Music Room, where we actually were able to restore the decorated ceiling, which was really a nice feature. And we were able to keep it within our budget for the Main House, and the Study.

JN: And the Oval Room.

MS: Oh, yes, and the Oval Room. They have a common corridor between them. We brought the Oval Room back to its former glory, I guess. And I think, all in all, we did a good job with it, and we had wonderful cooperation and coordination with all the users that were in the building. Here again, it was something that, I think, we all learned a lot from it. And I’ve been able to apply what we did in my career since we lived here.

JN: So, in 2008, you became an employee rather than a consultant. What were the challenges or the problems or daily incidents that you remember from the period after the completion of the renovation?

MS: Well, I was able to be here to see how Dumbarton Oaks ran, how it was managed, how all the programs were implemented while we were planning and actually doing some of the construction. If I’d thought a little bit closer about it, I wonder if I would have taken on such a task. It’s kind of not knowing, but if you think about it when we built a new library and a new gardeners building and a central plant, we more than doubled our requirements for a lot of personnel, like security and the engineers that had to take care of all the equipment and the systems. So, the people that I was in charge of was actually almost double the number before the campus was enlarged – before it was almost doubled. So, I had a lot of people to manage, a lot on my plate, a lot of things that we were still going to do to the buildings for improvements – the reroofing projects, foundation fixes for leaks, and things we couldn’t do in the capital program that we had just completed. So, I had quite a bit of work to do, and I had – all of us did – a real good friend in Marlene Chazan. When we lost her, things became a little bit more difficult to deal with. I think we had more direct influence from Harvard then probably we had which changed some of the complexion of how Dumbarton Oaks operated, including Facilities. So, I am glad that I stayed here, having second and third and fourth thoughts [laughter] – maybe more – but I learned a lot. I learned a lot about people. I learned how to blank out people and how to get along with people more than I ever have had to in the past. Things evolved. We were able to bring in a security manager, and then he became the Director of Security – Chris Franklin, wonderful person. He took a lot away from me, and that was a big godsend. So, having gone through those, I think it was six or seven years, like I said, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve had James as a confidant [laughter] and bounced a lot of historic and practical questions and decisions from him, and he never let me down. He always got me the right answers, so –

JN: Thanks. You mentioned Marlene, and as you know, we weren’t, unfortunately, able to interview her.

MS: Yeah.

JN: So, I wonder if you could talk a bit about her as a personality, as a contributor to Dumbarton Oaks. She was here longer than almost anyone I know on the staff.

MS: She was here maybe thirty-three years, I don’t know exactly. But she’d been here a long time, and she knew how to handle all the financing and she was good at it. She was very frugal. She wasn’t too inclined to spend money unless there were real good reasons – more than just one reason [laughter], and cooperation from others that a certain something was needed. She was able to manage all the financial activities at Dumbarton Oaks without much – I don’t want to say that Harvard interfered with us – but without much input from Harvard, since we had – we took care of our own funds through the Bliss contributions that were left with the turning over of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard. We ran autonomously for quite a while. And Marlene – she was instrumental, she was the moral compass, I think, of Dumbarton Oaks. She was a great confidante. She knew a lot of the answers to the questions about how to keep things going. She helped the directors direct. She helped in the architectural committees and in Dumbarton Oaks’s input to the projects. And she just had so much presence her, and everybody respected her and loved her. And we really were sorry to see her go. And, quite frankly, things weren’t quite the same when she left, and a lot of us were in mourning and a lot of us struggled for quite awhile. She was, here again, a wonderful person.

JN: So, what non-Dumbarton Oaks projects have you been involved in since you left? Is there anything comparable or anything that you could apply your past Dumbarton Oaks experience to?

MS: Yeah, that’s funny that you ask that question, because I was just telling Yota Batsaki yesterday how much I learned when I was at Dumbarton Oaks from the projects and also running the department of facilities. I am now doing pre-construction work on two projects at the University of Kentucky. One is a ninety-two million dollar academic science building and the other is a two hundred million dollar student center at the University of Kentucky. And we are using the same method of construction management. So, we have the architecture team, the owner team, and the construction management team working together as a mega-team, if you will. And this is the same process that we used here, so I know how that works and how to apply what I learned here to those two projects at the University of Kentucky. Not only on the projects I have been involved in, but I learned a lot when I was Director of Facilities and my exposure to all the other departments and how things ran at Dumbarton Oaks. I learned about – well, I’m on the Board of Directors of Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green, and we are in the process of trying to create a new museum space. So, I had a lot of good input on what we needed and wanted. And also I was able to use the same concept of the Museum’s docents and other volunteers. And the guys down there thought that was a really good idea. And I learned that all from Dumbarton Oaks, and there are a lot of other things that I learned that I apply to my daily life. And not only in the projects and the work that I do, but in the way I live and associate with people.

JN: One of the pleasurable memories I have of working with you was going to other sites to see what kind of construction had been finished, and what the pros and cons were, for example, Mount Vernon Plantation’s new exhibition space. Is that something you routinely do – look at other finished construction to see how things look and how they work?

MS: We do like to do that. When there’s something that’s similar or a product that we’re not familiar with, we do go to other projects. On the student center project at the University of Kentucky, we actually went to about seven or eight student centers across the country. And we went to ones where these architects that were hired – to see what they had done on other projects and see what we would like to continue with in their design on our project and to know what it would look like because we could see it firsthand. So, yes, we do that routinely, and we always have to budget for it, but it’s worth the cost in the end.

JN: So, have I left anything out that you would like to add? Are there any memories or thoughts that you’d like to make permanent in this interview?

MS: I’ll tell you, there are a lot of things. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve made a lot of life-long friends. I was real hesitant, I will admit, to come back. I wanted to do the oral history interview with you, James, because I promised you long ago that I would do that. I did not want to come back with a lot of fanfare, but I want to just kind of walk in and reunite with a lot of my friends and let them know that I’m still alive, I’m still out there [laughter] and that I plan to see them. I’m sure that if I thought about it long and hard, I would come up with some anecdotal information that you might find amusing. But I’m not prepared at this time to do that [laughter].

JN: That’s fine. Well, Dumbarton Oaks changed enormously under your guidance. And clearly a stand-alone library and a gardeners lodged significantly changed the fabric of the institute. On the other hand, they look as if they’ve always been there, which is the greatest testimony to good management and your making sure that the function is there but the esthetics are also given consideration. So, everyone is very pleased with the outcome.

MS: Well, I’m glad to hear that, James. I’m real proud of the way things turned out. And I can honestly say without bragging that I did make a lot of decisions during construction and also took issued to Ned and to you, James, regarding certain issues that came up. And I really think that all of us, as a team, really put the right answers out there and did the right thing.

JN: Well, thank you very much for taking time out to do this. It’s great to see you on your return to campus. I hope you do it more often.

MS: Well, I do plan on doing that, and Yota and I talked, and she’s going to send me the invitation, even if I can’t come to all of the events forthcoming.

JN: Thanks again, Mike.

MS: Thanks, James. I appreciate it.