Biography | Scope | Donor Information | Box List
James Walter Fitzgibbon was born August 6, 1915, in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents, Frank Phelan and Agnes (Clifford) Fitzgibbon, briefly lived in Nebraska while Frank worked on a large construction job as a subcontractor. Fitzgibbon’s family returned to upstate New York, where siblings George Clifford (1917–1981), Francis Joseph (1919–1991), John David (1922–1996), and Marifrancis (1927–) were born and raised. James Fitzgibbon graduated from Onondaga Valley Academy in Syracuse, New York, in 1932. The following year he graduated from Syracuse Central High School. In 1933, he entered Syracuse University’s School of Architecture as a Gifford Scholarship student. Fitzgibbon was elected vice president of Syracuse’s student government in 1937. He won the Gifford Design Prize and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1938. Fitzgibbon earned a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1939, where he won the Warren Prize design competition and was a finalist in the Rome Prize competition. In November 1940, Fitzgibbon married fellow Syracuse student Margaret Inez Crosby of Falconer, New York.
Fitzgibbon began his academic career as an assistant instructor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, where he worked with professor Otto Phealton. Concurrently, he began his professional career, serving as an architectural designer with United Engineers and Constructors of Philadelphia from 1939 to 1943. In 1944, he was appointed associate architect for campus planning at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The following year he resumed teaching as an assistant professor of architecture in the University of Oklahoma’s School of Architecture program. In 1948, Fitzgibbon and a group of fellow faculty and students left Oklahoma to establish the School of Design at the University of North Carolina at Raleigh (later changed to North Carolina State College but known today as North Carolina State University). Fitzgibbon served as the associate architect for campus planning and initially as an assistant professor of architecture before becoming a full professor in 1953. In Raleigh, Fitzgibbon began his long partnership with R. Buckminster Fuller, as head of the Fuller Research Foundation in 1949. Fitzgibbon temporarily set aside his academic career and became Fuller’s business partner in three companies, Skybreak Carolina Corp. (1952), Geodesics, Inc. (1954), and Synergetics, Inc. (1957).
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Fitzgibbon’s work focused on industrial architecture and geodesic dome applications for military, governmental, and commercial clients, including the United States Navy, the United States Information Agency, the United States Department of Commerce, the Union Tank Company, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Canadian government, Ford Motor Company, the 1961 Seattle and 1964 New York World’s Fairs, and the Kuwaiti government. These projects resulted in Synergetics’s dome structures being built around the globe from Antarctica to Mali. Fitzgibbon’s work with Synergetics received much publicity and recognition, most notably with exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Throughout his academic and professional life, which focused on more industrial applications of architecture, Fitzgibbon created numerous residential structures. In 1947, he designed his first residence, a unique concrete “desert house” for his brother, Francis Joseph, in Pojoaque, New Mexico. Residential projects that followed included the Cleveland House and Kirby-Smith House in Sewanee, Tennessee (1948); the Daniel House in Knoxville, Tennessee (1948); the Paschal House, the Fadum House, and his own residence (617 Kirby) in Raleigh (1950); the Garth Newell House in Hot Springs, Virginia (1954); a dome home built in Raleigh and transported to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (1965); and the Gottlieb Residence in Raleigh (1968). Fitzgibbon and his wife were also artists who had their paintings, drawings, and prints exhibited at several galleries and museums.
In 1968, Fitzgibbon took a leave of absence from Synergetics to teach as a visiting professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. He continued his academic pursuits for the rest of his life, not only as a professor at Washington University but also with visiting professorships at several institutions, including the University of California-Berkeley and Harvard. Numerous consulting projects provided opportunities for Fitzgibbon and Fuller to work together on ventures in the early 1970s, such as the Old Man River Project, an $800 million urban renewal conceptual city designed to house 30,000-50,000 people under a massive dome in East St. Louis, Illinois, that was never built.
Fitzgibbon’s major research interest was ephemeral architecture. He amassed numerous articles and illustrations of temporary structures from the nomadic cultures of the past to the cultural architecture of today’s fairs and entertainment venues. He self-published two books on the ephemeral architecture of England’s royalty in the 1500s and also designed a paper punch-out model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s gift catalog.On April 7, 1985, Fitzgibbon died of a heart attack while sleeping. Surviving family members included his wife; his sister, Marifrancis Hardison; and two brothers, John David and Francis Joseph. After his cremation, Fitzgibbon was honored at a memorial service in Washington University’s Graham Chapel on April 16, 1985.