“It takes a village to raise a child,” the African proverb goes.
In Monika Kuhnau’s case, it takes the Harbor to raise a young architect.
At a time when many college graduates are struggling to move beyond barista, Kuhnau, 28, is in a good spot in her chosen field thanks to family, friends and a cadre of local mentors who have helped her establish a life here.
Kuhnau (rhymes with “you know”) spent nine years studying the twin aspects of her profession. She studied at Grays Harbor College, then earned a Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design in 2009 and a Master of Architecture in 2012 from the University of Idaho in Moscow. She minored in technical theater and set design.
“I had every intention of moving to Portland after graduation,” she says. She scoped neighborhoods and arranged to work at a Ross Dress for Less downtown while she updated her portfolio and began her job search.
“The city had a lot of draw to me, it was close enough to home to not feel hopeless if I needed to go home for a while,” she says. “I tend to think bigger city means more things to do, but that isn’t always the case, I guess.”
The lure of the villagers helped.
There are her parents, Bruce and Theresa, who raised Kuhnau, older sister Ruth and younger brother William in Central Park where tall trees still grace the home where she lives while she looks for permanent digs. It was her mother who suggested she parlay her math skills into architecture; her father’s woodworking skill inspires her to design furniture.
There are the congregants — “12 on a good day” — of Central Park United Methodist Church where she went to pre-school and made friends with the pastor’s daughter.
At Aberdeen High School, there was the choirmaster, Pat Wilhelms, who now guides her as second alto in the Grays Harbor Civic Choir. A graduate in 2003, she vividly remembers the fire that demolished the school and the camaraderie of the students and people who helped regroup and rebuild.
At Grays Harbor College she had mentors who nurtured her scientific side while art instructor Erik Sandgren nurtured her artistic side. “She indicated an early interest in interior design and architecture — and she convinced me by carrying around a fully functioning 3D purse she had made out of duct tape,” Sandgren said.
There is Brian Little, who chairs the Aberdeen Planning Commission and saw her thesis, “From Lumber Yard to Living Center,” online. It’s about developing the Chehalis Riverbank of South Aberdeen for mixed use. He urged her to return.
“Admittedly, it took some effort to convince her that there might be a future in Aberdeen, but she willingly listened, looked around and decided that perhaps there is something to it. I like her grit,” Little said. She is also now a member of the Planning Commission.
Little also suggested she work for his former mentor, Alan Gozart, of Harbor Architects.
Gozart agreed. Kuhnau worked part time and started as an intern architect full time in January of last year. Fittingly, Harbor Architects landed the lead position to create a master plan for Seaport Landing of Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in South Aberdeen, the very area Kuhnau dreams of rebuilding.
“Not only does she have a bright future as a young architectural professional, but she is also a wonderful person – witty, great sense of humor, very easy going and generally fun to be around.” Gozart said.
Central Park Heart
On request, Kuhnau takes a tour of the loop she walks when there is time. Along the streets is Central Park Elementary School where she was a student, her church and the duck pond where her father took them on adventures. He is also responsible for her love of building furniture. He always has a project going and when his children were little and gave them a small chunk of a 2-by-4, a tub of nails and a small ball peen hammer so they could pretend they were building, too.
Kuhnau punctuates her day with cats. Work mornings, she leaves Polly, the Kuhnau family mouser, to head down Karjala Lane in her 1994 bronze Volvo sedan.
The view of the Chehalis River from the Highway 12 never gets old. She arrives at the firm on F Street under the very low beam of the railroad bridge. The bridge opens for boat traffic and swings just shy of the back windows of the firm, built in 1909. “It’s like whoa, hi!” she says.
During work breaks, she plays with O.C. or Office Cat, the black feline with mahogany stripes the firm adopted when the stray was 10-months-old. She has a few scars from his swipes and nips.
Her own college cat, Jasper got lost when he escaped his harness when spooked by barking dogs. She found the leash in a yard nearby. She put up fliers. It still hurts.
Work Astride the Chehalis
Though Central Park “still has my heart” Kuhnau loves being in the thick of downtown Aberdeen where she can walk to Jay’s Market for produce and exercise at lunch with colleague Carrie Hubbard, monitoring their Fitbits, which track their steps.
As an intern architect, she is picking up skills in design and building in a practical way. Currently, she is learning project management skills on the remodel of a 1920s commercial building into the Evergreen Treatment Center in Hoquiam.
Residential architecture drew her to the field and she loves the prairie homes of Frank Lloyd Wright and the work of James Cutler. “His combinations of wood and glass in natural settings are just breathaking,” she said of the latter.
Her love of interior design comes from the television show “Trading Spaces” on TLC. She also has vivid memories of exploring new houses on her street, imagining what they would look like when finished.
Her reddish hair sports a purple streak that reflects her taste in the color of her clothes. Her designs also reflect “deep jewel tones, that’s where I am happy.” She plans to paint antique frames in the vivid colors and hang them as art.
Her biggest dream for Aberdeen is to see the city come alive again. Her thesis, “From Lumber Yard to Living Center” http://issuu.com/mkuhnau/docs/from_lumber_yard_to_living_center, envisions a South Aberdeen filled with a hotel, housing and pathways.
Kuhnau spends a lot of time going back and forth on Highway 12. On a recent weekend, she also devoted a 13-hour day to helping assemble the barricades for the production of Les Miserables at Bishop Center.
To relax, she chooses fantasy in books, television and film. “Give me dragons, any day,” she said. “Give me super heroes and I am happy.”She can devour a book in seven hours.She binge-watches shows on Netflix and cable on demand. She loves the television and film work of Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams and adores Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. She is addicted to Buzz Feed online. She likes all kinds of music, but sticks to movie soundtrack composers at work because she has a tendency to belt out lyrics aloud while listening to Pandora. She dreams of building her own home, maybe a small starter home, then a larger one, perhaps on acreage in Central Park. “I still feel like it would have been a fantastic experience for me to live in the city for a while, but I’m finding ways to get those experiences here,” she says. “Getting involved with Civic Choir, working on Les Mis, being a part of the Planning Commission, finding a job that I love with amazing people to work with and finding myself a great group of friends have all been great experiences and are helping me define who I am.”
Erin Hart, 360-537-3932, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DW_Erin