Jay Susanin '87 Honors F&M's LegacyInside his design studio off the cobblestone main drag in Chestnut Hill, Pa., Jay Davidson Susanin '87 takes a break.
But as the entrepreneur reflects on how it all began, fatigue takes a back seat to enthusiasm and passion. He speaks with excitement about his days at Franklin & Marshall, especially his semester in a research seminar taught by Louise Stevenson, professor of history and American studies.
"It was a one-time course on the history of F&M for the bicentennial year," Susanin says. "The students were challenged to unearth a series of artifacts from their specific period to help tell the school's 200-year-old history. The scavenger hunt and time spent in archives created an unusual interest in research and documentation."
More than two decades later, Susanin continues to honor his alma mater's history. With support from the College and a grant from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, he recently completed phase one of the "Trail of History" project, which aims to showcase F&M's history and artifacts in well-traveled areas on campus.
Like everything else, Susanin has done it with a personal touch of imagination and style.
Susanin was interested in personal histories long before taking Stevenson's bicentennial research seminar at F&M. He began exploring his own family's history as a teenager to learn more about the generations of Philadelphians that came before him and to build on the family stories that defined them. "I sort of inherited the title of family genealogist from a special aunt, and it was very exciting to come to F&M and be a member of the bicentennial class."
Susanin's experience at F&M kindled a desire to pursue a career in historic preservation and design. He soon landed at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Design, where he majored in archival research and documentation. The program allowed him to work with historic houses, interiors and landscapes, of which Philadelphia has plenty. "The city was our lab, and I was like a kid in a candy store."
After earning his graduate degree, Susanin worked in architecture and then started his own design business in Chestnut Hill. "It was a tough time to be in historic preservation because related tax incentives in the private sector were eliminated, and I needed to find a better field."
Soon Susanin was off to Carlisle, Pa., to enroll in The Dickinson School of Law. He was familiar with Carlisle, having transferred to F&M from Dickinson College as an undergraduate. He thought that a career in real estate law would be a great way to build on his degree from Penn and create an ideal future. "My little brother, Chris '91, wasn't psyched about my going to law school, knowing, even then, that I wasn't making the most of my creativity."
After Susanin finished law school, Chris, a portfolio manager in New York, challenged his brother to create a business that would make the most of his creative talents and imaginationand to set it all out in a business plan. "Chris said it will probably take 18 months if it works," Susanin recalls. "But because I was excited, I finished the plan in four weeks and Palladio opened within six monthson Black Friday of 2001."
Palladio opened in an old bank building in Ambler and was named for the building's large Palladian windows. With Chris' regular input, Susanin created an unusual house and garden store that offered custom framing, photo restoration and landscape design. "Palladio grew 20 to 30 percent each year until last year," Susanin says. "Having Chris on my side allowed me to see which parts of the business worked. Within the first 16 months, it was obvious that framing would be the anchor of the business."
During Palladio's second year, one project redirected the business. A customer asked Susanin what she could do with several giant, blank walls. The result included an upstairs gallery of about 75 family photographs that he restored, framed and hung with several meaningful family artifacts. "We also did a really fun back-stair gallery with children's artwork and memorabilia. The total job included 261 pieces, and it allowed us to tell the customer's family story in a very subtle, interesting way and gave rise to our main business today."
Palladio enjoyed early success thanks to a healthy dose of word-of-mouth advertising. Susanin also hosted a wine-and-cheese event for F&M's Philadelphia Regional Chapter in 2007. He pulled together several F&M artifactsincluding his framed crew jacket, which currently hangs on the wall in his studiofor the event, revitalizing his interest in the College's history.
Around that time, Susanin also returned to campus for a 40th birthday bash with his college roommate. "Someone asked me if I had heard about all the things President John Fry was doing on campus," he says. "I thought, if the College is growing in size and reputation, why not tell the story of F&M?"
At his 20th College reunion, Susanin sought out Professor Stevenson. She told him to contact Fry with the idea of communicating the College's history through wall displays, a remarkably similar undertaking to their bicentennial class project more than 20 years earlier. He received a response from Fry almost immediately, asking for a proposal.
Susanin wanted to create a series of galleries with artifacts and images that defined F&M's past. "The idea was to improve the walls at F&M, and to educate the public and the F&M community about their own past," Susanin says. "It gives F&M a vehicle to tell its story in a historically accurate and carefully designed series of exhibits."
Samuel Houser '89, secretary of the College and executive assistant to the president, shepherded the project and wrote the grant to obtain funding from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation for the first phase. Tom Cook, chairman of the von Hess Foundation, loved the idea.
"Jay is an enthusiastic man, and has tremendous taste and sensitivity," says Cook, a former creative director for Armstrong World Industries. "He's an artist who sees possibilities. His enthusiasm is contagious."
Old Main was the cornerstone of Susanin's work at the start of the project. Portraits and photographs of some of the most significant men and women of F&M lore now line the main stairwells in the administrative building, each one in a unique frame. "The impact of the past can be extraordinary," Cook says. "The salon hang in Old Main is so terrific. It covers the diversity and richness of people in all time periods."
Houser says it was important to pay close attention to the signature buildings on campus, starting with Old Main. "We're reminded of key leaders, men and women, whom we let slip out of our memory," he says. "Jay has reminded us that alumni feel a connection between the past and the present."
Campus Is His Canvas
In addition to the "Who's Who" portrait gallery in Old Main, Susanin has worked on three other spaces around campus: Shadek-Fackenthal Library, Distler House and the Wohlsen Admission House. He has worked closely with the keepers of the College archives: Christopher Raab, archivist and special collections librarian, and Michael Lear, archives and special collections assistant.
"Twenty-two years after being introduced to archives in Louise Stevenson's class, I returned and spent part of the summer with Christopher and Michael coming up with a library of images," Susanin says. "We went through thousands of images and found photos that many people had never seen. It is very exciting to bring things to the F&M community that haven't been seen before."
Raab and Lear helped to secure rare books for Susanin to use in the display on the front-facing wall on the mezzanine level of the library. The display includes framed images of 17 rare book covers, each one carefully chosen to represent a spectrum of binding styles and time periods. "Jay uses a lot of tricks to make things look old, including the use of canvas, fabric and metal," says Raab, who notes that Lear worked on fact-checking information for the displays. "This is a teaching opportunity through the use of rare books."
Among the book covers is a personal signature from Susanin's past, the History of Franklin & Marshall College, by J.H. Dubbs (1903). Susanin placed the striking blue cover on the wall directly in front of the stairwell on the mezzanine level, so as to be seen first. He says the book was one of his "Bibles" during his senior thesis at F&M.
Susanin also replaced most of the artwork in the newly redesigned "living room" of the Admission House. Two of the signature pieces that greet visitors are the document with Ben Franklin's signature and 200 gift to help start the College and a large framed canvas of the world titled "Spanning the Globe Across Time." The latter is a piece created by Palladio that uses little pins to mark every country represented by F&M alumni.
"Because the Admission House is often the first look that people take on campus, it was important that it be somewhat inclusive of F&M's many personalities today while presenting its history," Susanin said.
Distler House, which once served as the College's gymnasium, was one of Susanin's favorite places to work. He covered the brick walls of the original entrance, now leading to the College bookstore, with a collection of images of historic sports teams, including the 1923 basketball team and the captain of the 1891 football team. Two of the period frames have antique cleats and an old tennis racket attached to them to play up the authenticity of the display.
"If something needs to look like it was from the 1850s, we need to make it look like the 1850s," he says. "We wanted that collegiate, old-world, old-fashioned look."
Susanin strives to attain that look with original pieces of campus history. During the summer of 2008, as crews gutted the Fackenthal Laboratories in preparation for the construction of the Patricia E. Harris Center for Business, Government & Public Policy, he entered the building with members of Facilities & Operations.
"At the 11th hour, we saved a storeroom of science relics, unhinged old doors and removed dozens of oak cabinet doors that I will be using in the future. We also picked and pressed leaves from the 30 most significant trees on campus and will be framing them in the old cabinet doors. If there is an opportunity to use a College artifact, I will. That's what we do at Palladio. We tie together history and framing." Susanin already looks forward to the next stop on the Trail of History, Diagnothian Hall, where he will create a display of the history of the literary society.
"It's such a fun business. I've gotten a real kick out of doing this for F&M. I love the school, and it's paved the path for my career. To be able to go back and do something of this magnitude for the school is so rewarding."