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Recalling a world-class World's Fair architect

The project that changed Malcolm Wells' career

On the 50th anniversary of the 1964-1965 World's Fair, let's remember a Cherry Hill architect whose professional impact has endured far longer than the RCA pavilion he designed for the exposition -- even as his mark has faded locally.

Malcolm 'Mac' Wells, who designed the Cherry Hill Public Library (since demolished), the Moorestown Public Library (future uncertain) and other public and private buildings in South Jersey, was incensed by RCA's intention to raze the pavilion after the fair closed.

So incensed, he devoted the rest of his long career to the then-pioneering notion of sustainable architecture. As my colleague Inga Saffron wrote following the architect's death in 2009, Wells "was considered a crackpot in 1964 when he gave up lucrative commissions for the RCA Corp., and began advocating underground buildings with earth-friendly sod roofs. But he lived long enough to see some of his most radical ideas become standard practice."

A prolific writer and colorful figure, Wells was congenial and helpful when I interviewed him a decade ago about the library demolition.  But for all their organic shapes, natural materials, earthy textures and embrace of the landscape, some of his buildings have proven to be less than user-friendly over time.

I don't remember seeing the RCA Pavilion during my family's 1965 sojurn at the fair, a place my 11-year-old self found enthralling beyond words. People who ventured inside likely were enthralled, or at least entertained (see video below) as well -- by an exhibit that  gave them a chance to see themselves on RCA's next big thing: Color TV.