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Local firm has key role in Ave Maria project Cannon Design is the master planner

A local architectural firm is playing a key role in creation of the controversial Ave Maria development in southwestern Florida, a planned community where the developer has said Roman Catholic values are expected to govern daily life.

Grand Island's Cannon Design is the architect behind Ave Maria University, the new school which will serve as anchor for the planned city, near Naples, Fla. Cannon is also the master planner for the community, with a projected population of 40,000, which will have strong spiritual and physical ties to the university.

Harry Warren, design principal on the project, said while the religious and moral implications of life in a community governed by orthodox Catholic doctrine have made headlines, for Cannon, it's all about the physical design.

"We're just the architect and engineer," Warren said. "Our task is to embody the client's spiritual visions in a physical form. Hopefully, our designs will be considered beautiful and memorable, not controversial."

Cannon's involvement in the $400 million Ave Maria effort dates back to September 2002, when the Grand Island-based architectural firm met with Domino's Pizza founder Thomas S. Monaghan, the project's visionary and benefactor. Monaghan was acquainted with the firm's design work on Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey, a $200 million "from scratch" educational institution for which Cannon has won numerous design accolades.

Two months later, Cannon learned it had been tapped to take Monaghan's dream and turn it into his legacy endeavor.

"In this project, much more so than in other projects, we needed to physically express what is in Tom's heart and soul. Ave Maria is so important to him and we worked very hard to embody his emotion and faith in our designs," Warren said.

Monaghan confirmed that since selling Domino's Pizza Inc. in 1998, he has focused on his dream of founding and building Ave Maria University, the first new Catholic university to be built in the U.S. in over 40 years. He said the selection of Cannon to bring that dream to life has proved a good decision.

"With their expertise, a scheme evolved that maintains the identity of the university, yet integrates it into the surroundings," Monaghan said. "The design skillfully incorporated a dense university plan that allows for a walkable campus, a key program requirement."

A Frank Lloyd Wright fan, who earlier had Domino's Michigan headquarters
designed with a strong Wright aesthetic, Monaghan asked Cannon to come with a Prairie-style motif for the campus. Cannon complied with a Wright-influenced collection of 11 academic and recreational buildings, as well as student dorms and apartments, to accommodate a future population of some 5,000 to 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Now under construction, Phase One of the $250 million campus will welcome its first 500 students this fall.

No element required more attention to Monaghan's vision of faith than the Ave Maria Oratory, the church that will serve as the spiritual glue cementing the Catholic school and town in the ultimate town and gown relationship. Situated at the end of a cen tral green, the 65,000-square-foot church, which will seat 1,100, is also seen as a destination for Catholic pilgrims from around the world.

"We spent hundreds of hours with Tom going over every detail. He spent a day here about every three weeks for over two years. This was a labor of love for him and he wanted to do it right," Warren said.

In the end, the oratory design is very contemporary with traditional overtones. Glass, metal cladding and structural steel will be main facade elements of the oval building. A giant skylight will let in a display of natural light.

Cannon staffers helped Monaghan track down everything from a collection of liturgical artwork, to a company in Italy to manufacture a custom-designed organ to complement the design and make the building a spiritual home.

At the height of design and engineering work, Cannon had more than 100 of its staff assigned to the Ave Maria project. Warren said the combination of breadth and complexity of project, and its fast-track time frame, presented the firm with one of its most challenging assignments ever.

And unlike many design jobs where the architect's work is confined to building design alone, Cannon provided one-stop shopping for Ave Maria, not only designing structures for the university, but also acting as master planner for the Town of Ave Maria, helping write building codes for the new municipality, providing interior design services for all the campus structures, and even assisting with design of signs and tableware.

"It's been thrilling and exhausting," he said. "Our level of involvement has been quite unusual. We're probably the only firm in the U.S., maybe the world, that is set up to be a single source, from beginning to end."

At this point in the project, as cranes and backhoes turn a 4,000-acre vegetable farm into a brand new university and city, Cannon has a handful of employees on site and a few more handling the project from Grand Island. Another firm is handling design of the town's housing and municipal buildings.

But Cannon expects it will ramp up its involvement as Ave Maria grows into its next phases.

Meanwhile, Cannon is in talks with developers in Dubai and India that could lead to designing two more brand new college campuses.

"We'd go from the Roman Catholic Ave Maria to Muslim and Hindu-influenced universities. I guess we're an ecumenical architecture firm," Warren said.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com