PAYER, ERNST (1904-April 1981) was a prominent Cleveland modernist architect. He was born in Vienna, Austria, and received his doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1927 before going to study with Josef Hoffmann and Walter Gropius to receive his master’s degree in Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1938. Payer worked in New York until the end of World War II as an architect.

Payer was encouraged to come to Cleveland in 1944 by land developer John Gordon, after which Payer designed such buildings as the CRAWFORD  AUTO AVIATION MUSEUM of the WESTERN RESERVE HISTORICAL SOCIETY, the Habitat for Primates and Cats at the CLEVELAND ZOO,  the Medusa Portland Cement Company corporate headquarters in Cleveland Heights, public libraries in Cleveland, Cleveland, Heights and Orange, and private residences, such as his own. Payer was also known to have occasionally designed gardens and sculptures. He was one of six architects to receive two pages of coverage in Cleveland Goes Modern: Design for the Home 1930-1970 (2014). 

Robert A Little, another noted Cleveland architect, and Payer lead the vision for Cleveland’s modern domestic architecture due to their training at Harvard with Gropius and Marcel Breuer.  Payer also worked with CHARLES BACON ROWLEY, another influential architect, known for his work with Philip Small in the 1920s. He created the firm of Chas. Bacon Rowley & Assoc. in 1928. From 1957 to 1972, Payer was part of the firm, which became Rowley, Payer, Huffman & Leithold (1962-69), then Rowley, Payer, Huffman, & Caldwall (1969-72). During the 1940s, Cleveland-based developer James Rideout hired Payer to work for his firm. Payer received two gold medals in 1947 from the Ohio Society of Architects for the best housing work and the best commercial work since the beginning of the war. In the MAY SHOW of 1951 Payer won first prize for his high-low table, proving his skill as a furniture designer as well.

During his life Payer was a member of the American Institute of Architects, American Society of Landscape Architects, Illuminating Engineering Society, ROWFANT CLUB, and Rotary Club of Cleveland. He was also registered with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.
Payer’s architectural style was distinct, as demonstrated in his home in Moreland Hills, built in 1955; it was set low to the ground and focusing on achieving beauty without sacrificing ease of use and convenience. Payer favored an open style, with outside walls comprised fully of windows in several rooms, providing a clear view of the surrounding nature. Payer achieved a sense of “restfulness” by keeping surfaces and walls uncluttered.

In addition to his work as an architect, Payer worked as senior design critic for the school of architecture at WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY from 1949-1952. He lectured frequently at the University of Chicago, Rhode Island School of Design, the American Archaeological Society, and more.

Payer married his wife, DOROTHY G. SHEPERD Thursday, March 22, 1951. Payer had two sons, Mark and Piet, from a previous marriage. Payer and his wife, who worked as a curator of Near East Art and Textiles at the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART frequently worked together; she played a large role in their house’s interior design. 

Payer died at age 77 after collapsing in his home, and was survived by his wife.

Grace Howard and Morgan McCommon

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