A Well-Drawn Career

Greg Rabideau’s choice of architecture grew out of his early interest in art

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

greg_rabideau_0515Architect Gregory Rabideau, AIA, LEED AP, stands inside the new Hilton Homewood Suites on Williston Road, which he created in collaboration with Larkin Realty. His South Burlington firm, Rabideau Architects Inc., was launched in 1992.

Architect Gregory Rabideau can trace his genealogy back 10 generations. “Everybody in North America with our last name descends from the same couple up in Montreal in 1653 or something like that,” he says. His branch of the family migrated west, dropped down into Michigan, and ended up in Toledo, Ohio.

He and his five siblings grew up working in their father’s restaurant. “We started out mopping floors, cleaning toilets. I worked my way up to dishwasher and trained as a cook.”

He speaks with pride of his parents. His mother was a speech writer for the president of the University of Toledo, and a writer for the Toledo Blade. She quit working to have a family. “She raised six kids, so you can’t blame her for wanting to get out of the house when she went back to work. She was teaching journalism at the high school and ultimately became a school administrator. She’s a ticket — she’s 83 now, very well traveled, still teaches occasionally at Lourdes University in Ohio.

“My dad was a character, too,” he continues. “One of his claims to fame was that he was a part of a research team that worked on the development of the microwave oven in the 1950s.”

Rabideau knew from an early age that he wanted to be an architect. His first inklings grew out of Saturday morning art classes at the Toledo Museum of Art. “It has fragments of various buildings inside it,” he says, “so I got exposed to art and architecture.” By the time he started high school, he was sure.

He took drafting classes in high school — “I was pretty good at it” — and was accepted at the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati. “Cincinnati is one of the schools in the country that have what they call a co-op program. It took six years to get an architecture degree, but when you came out, you had a couple years of work experience.” He graduated in 1984.

One of his co-ops had taken him to Utah, as an intern for a firm in Park City working on hotel and ski resort design. After graduation he took a job with that firm and headed west. But his heart remained in Ohio with Robin Spade, a Dayton native and registered nurse he had met in college. That summer, on a bicycle tour around Europe, they became engaged in Paris. They married the next year and Robin moved to Utah.

“When we got engaged, she decided she didn’t want to be out west forever, so in 1986, we put our stuff in a car, drove all over the country, and got up here to Vermont. We were living in the Malletts Bay Campground,” he says, “and decided we’d better get work before winter came.”

Rabideau found work with J. Graham Goldsmith Architects, and after a couple of years he had an opportunity to work with the late John Larkin of Larkin Realty. Over the next four years, he says, he learned a lot about real estate development and “made a friendship that would last a long time.”

Eventually, his desire to have his own shop took precedence. He left Larkin in 1992 to go out on his own. He and Robin had an agreement: He helped her get through graduate school (she’s now a nurse anesthetist) and she agreed to help him follow his dream of starting his own firm.

He worked solo for a while. That first year on his own, he brought in only $12,000. “Starting a business is a scary thing,” he says.

The Larkin family continued to give him work, and he garnered other good clients — developers like Gerry Milot of Milot Real Estate and Paul Sprayregen of ICV Construction. “There was a sort of golden era of real estate development in this area — a sense of fun and excitement about it. We still do projects to this day with Gerry’s son-in-law, Greg Grabowski, who has taken over at Milot.”

“He’s really one of a kind,” says Grabowski. “A lot of other developers will testify to this: Everybody wants to design a unique building, but a lot of architects lose sight of the fact that they’ve got to keep costs in mind. Greg and the people who work for him have a great sense of cost and how to make a good-looking building affordable to build. He has huge creativity, but his biggest strength is being able to design creative projects and have them be affordable to build at the same time.”

One of the biggest mistakes he made early on, Rabideau says, was his reluctance to hire anyone. “I learned the lesson: Focus on what you’re good at and hire people to fill in the missing pieces. I’ve had some terrific people working with me through the years.”

His first several years practicing in Vermont, he did everything by hand. “But this was the dawn of the Computer Age,” he says. “By ’94, we had committed to tackling computers. We have remained invested in current technology.”

One of his early projects was River Watch condominiums on Riverside Avenue in Burlington. “It involved all kinds of complexity,” says Rabideau. “It was a Super Fund cleanup site, a big project, and it was the first time anybody around had done a project with parking underneath the building.”

The firm continues to be known largely for its skill with real estate development, especially housing development, he says, but there have been occasional jobs for public agencies. “We did a lot of work for the Town of Richmond, which was transforming from a sleepy bedroom community. We were the architects on the Town Center project, the Richmond Congregational Church, and the Richmond Free Library. I donated a lot of time to those projects. Richmond is that kind of place — a lot of people willing to donate a lot to the community. That’s why I live there.”

He’s done other government projects, such as the Lafayette Regional Training Institute for the Vermont Army National Guard, and the border station in Richford, but the firm is mostly known for multi-family apartments — what Rabideau calls “real estate in service of the professional building community.”

Recent work includes a Marriott project going up in Waterbury near Ben & Jerry’s, a mixed-use commercial building at Five Corners in Essex Junction where People’s United Bank was, and the Hilton Homewood Suites at the corner of Williston Road and Dorset Street, of which he’s particularly proud. The developer is Larkin Realty.

“I’ve known Greg since I was 8 or 10 years old when he was in our office,” says Joe Larkin, a principal in Larkin Realty, who has stepped into certain roles his late father performed. “We’ve been working with him for so long, and the transition, with my father’s passing, was kind of business as usual. A big part of our culture and leadership was and still is my mom, and my dad made sure we had a good team in place. Greg’s been a big part of that team.”

Rabideau describes his role in the office as “kind of multifaceted. Mostly I solve the problems. Our business is kind of complicated in how things are put together, and interaction with the community and regulatory bodies, so my day will involve some design, construction oversight, regulatory interactions, and of course, every problem to be solved is unique.”

All his employees are native Vermonters: Allen Spencer, a Vermont Technical College grad and a 20-year veteran of the firm who recently earned his architectural license; Tyler Cote, a licensed architect who graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School and studied architecture in Philadelphia; and Emily Mack, a Norwich University graduate who’s an architect in training.

One other employee who recently retired, Dick Becker, was instrumental in helping build the firm. “He had his own firm in Washington, D.C.,” says Rabideau, “and had been summering in Vermont. He came to me and said, ‘I don’t want to go back to D.C.’ Hiring somebody in his late 50s who ended up staying with me over a decade — that was a great hire. He brought in experiences and perspectives you can’t get any other way.”

Over the years the office location has changed, from an independent office on College Street to several Burlington locations, before landing in South Burlington on Hinesburg Road. “After the economy went south, we took the opportunity to move into less expensive space out here.”

He and Robin have three children: Clayton, 21, who’s studying genetic engineering at the Queen Mary University of London in the UK; Isabelle, 17, a junior at Mount Mansfield Union High School; and an adopted daughter, Bezuayehu (pronounced boo-zai-you), 13. “It’s Amharic for ‘seen much,’” says Rabideau, “and she has. She was born in Ethiopia and came to us when she was 4 years old.”

Asked what he does in his spare time, Rabideau exclaims, “I have kids, right?!” He coached soccer in Richmond for about 10 years when they were growing up. He enjoys skiing and sailing. “I love the outdoors. I paint a little bit, love to play music (guitar and bass guitar), and I like to see live music. We get great people here performing.”

Again and again, he returns to his appreciation for Vermont. “One of the things that are great about living here is your entertainment is outside. And what a tremendous opportunity that I could come to Vermont and build the type of business I have. I walk out of here at 5 at night, and it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”