Architect pleased, proud of his creation

As a youngster Steve Gaffney loved hanging around building sites so much, he would break in. Maybe not break in, exactly. The security around most construction areas was impossibly lax and made being near what he loved very easy.

By the seventh grade, Gaffney was excelling at drafting, and in high school he was working for an architectural firm.

Gaffney is the creative force and executive architect behind the design of the Gallo Center for the Arts. It is his third Modesto project, after Tenth Street Place for the city and county and the district attorney's new building on 12th Street across from the courthouse and jail.

"I have always wanted to build a 60-story project," Gaffney said. "I still haven't, but I'm proud of the Gallo center. It represents quality and value."

While he was working with the county on Tenth Street Place, then-county administrator Reagan Wilson stuck his head in on a meeting and asked Gaffney to see if he could fit an arts center into downtown.

Gaffney's involvement with Modesto has stretched into 12 years. For that long, he has spent one or two days a week here supervising projects.

Make that days but not nights. He professes a love for the area and the people but, as Gaffney puts it, "You don't have to spend many summer nights here before you want to be back home."

Home for him is Newport Beach. But even Gaffney's weekends are not exactly strolls on the beach. They can be as intense as his workdays.

"When I was meeting every Monday with the county and city about Tenth Street, they used to look at me and the bruises I had," he said. "I finally had to tell them I was playing rugby every weekend."

Gaffney, a 1981 graduate of the University of California at San Diego, said if he hadn't been an architect in charge of large projects, he probably would have been a lawyer.

"It would have to be something aggressive like that," he said.

The designer sees the flaws

As he looked around the center just hours before its dedication earlier this month, Gaffney was supersensitive to flaws. There was a piece of tape on a hinge, some paint that was missed and an out-of-place electric outlet.

The list would not end. As he sat in the Mary Stuart Rogers Theater, he grimaced. In the silence of the theater, he could hear the low drone of a fan motor from the catwalk. A lighting fixture had been added late, its cooling fan was exposed, and the acoustics of the room magnified the problem.

"We're calling the manufacturer to see what we can do," he said.

He glanced at the house seating and pointed out another flaw.

"See the dark band ... there are some things you don't know until you open," he said.

The dark band was a dimly lighted section of seats at the back of the house. Gaffney said the only cure would be to reposition lights.

Because he can be obsessive in his verdict of his own work, Gaffney often brings in someone new from his company, Nestor + Gaffney Architecture LLP of Santa Ana.

"I want someone who hasn't been here all along," he said. "I want fresh eyes to evaluate what's been done and what is wrong."

In building the center, there have been good, if not great, moments to go with the angst.

"Just the other night, I was looking at a photo of the stage taken from just the right vantage point," Gaffney said. "I got out the artist's renderings (almost 10 years old) and they looked surprisingly close. That was gratifying."

Whether imagination meets reality is a judgment Gaffney knows will belong to others. And he knows it will be a snap judgment.

"First impressions are everything," he said. "And public buildings are like going to new restaurants. You only get one shot to impress people. This is a public building, and the people who use it will be the judge of whether we succeeded."

Gaffney said he will be nervous, like a Broadway producer, come opening night because that's when his brainchild comes of age.

He lives with one regret he can't fix.

"Ernest Gallo was one of the toughest critics and very demanding (to work with)," he said. "I wish he could have seen the finished project. I think he would have been pleased."

Ernest Gallo, who with his brother Julio built their Modesto winery into an international powerhouse, died in March at age 97.

Gaffney hopes the public verdict will echo the expected approval from Gallo. Perhaps the goodwill can shake the money tree for a few more dollars.

"We designed the center so there could be room for expansion, an art gallery and administration offices," Gaffney said. "There are none now; it was a matter of money."

Besides, Gaffney has gotten used to spending some of his days in Modesto. He wouldn't mind spending a few more.

"It's a very gratifying place to work," he said. "I've never met a more humble, helpful and generous people."

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Staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.