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Jan Jindrich Reiner

Jan Reiner: Ahead of his time, he envisioned 'ecocities'

ST. PETERSBURG — Jan Reiner was a quiet man full of ideals and contradictions. He spent years in the study of the house he designed, drawing detailed sketches of cities he never saw built.

He wrote at least 19 guest columns and many more letters to the St. Petersburg Times about ecologically minded "superblocks" and "ecocities," but never managed to interest the politicians and developers whose support he would have needed.

He organized meetings bringing together people of different political persuasions, then vigorously cross-examined anyone who disagreed with his own left-wing views.

Though he drew plans for downtown high-rise communities and mass transit 30 years ago, Mr. Reiner suspected he would never see them built in his lifetime.

But he never stopped trying to pound his message home. "Each house built in America — and each school, for that matter — is a measure of the relationship between race and power — and money and power," he wrote in his 90s in a self-published book.

He practiced what he preached, living frugally even though he didn't have to, buying his clothes in secondhand shops and giving generously to causes he supported.

Mr. Reiner, who outlived most of his contemporaries but remained ahead of his time, died Tuesday in his home. He was 100.

"He cared deeply about how ordinary people lived and the politics of the time," said Marcus Raskin, a co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and a professor at George Washington University. "He was concerned that the politics of the time reflected the best that was within people themselves."

Fled anti-Semitism

Those closest to Mr. Reiner say the brutality he saw at an early age left him searching for a more humane world, starting with the architecture of the buildings we inhabit.

He was born in Tabor, Czechoslovakia, in 1909, a city built on a hill once used as a Roman fortress. As a child, he saw amputees from World War I on the streets, some without prosthetics or crutches.

"It left a depressing mark on him," said his wife, Shirley.

After getting a master's degree from the University of Prague, Mr. Reiner studied for three years in Paris with Le Corbusier, one of the seminal figures in modern architecture.

In a visit to Germany in the late 1930s, Mr. Reiner, who was Jewish, realized that the anti-Semitism he had known in Czechoslovakia had reached a boiling point nearby. In downtown Berlin, he studied an image comparing Jewish people to rats.

"Hey, Jew, get away from that poster!" a uniformed teenager yelled.

He moved to the United States, earning another master's degree at Harvard. After the war, he learned that his sister and her two children had been killed. A brother narrowly escaped.

Proposals rejected

For the next several years, he taught at California schools and lectured widely. He and his wife, Beatrix, moved to St. Petersburg in 1959. He designed and built a house at 52nd Street and 10th Avenue N. He detoured to Ethiopia to start an architecture department at a school, then taught part time at the University of South Florida for several years.

In the 1980s, he began to talk publicly about rectangular clusters of high-rises of up to 16 stories above multilevel parking garages and topped with solar panels. Each "superblock" would contain a recycling depot and offer a range of services from mass transit to child care. An "urban forest," including fountains, would take up a large inner courtyard.

St. Petersburg officials quickly rejected his proposals for Central Plaza and Roser Park.

"Over my dead body," one bank executive told Mr. Reiner after hearing his vision for "Central Plaza 2020."

"I think that what he said is true," Rhonda Sonnenberg, a friend who works for a federal development agency, said of Mr. Reiner's urban visions. "It's going to have to happen. But whether it happens in five years or 25 years is the problem."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Jan Jindrich Reiner

Born: Dec. 18, 1909.

Died: May 11, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Shirley Parsons Reiner; one niece, and one nephew.

Service: 10:30 a.m. today; Religious Society of Friends, 130 19th Ave. SE, St. Petersburg.

Jan Reiner: Ahead of his time, he envisioned 'ecocities' 05/15/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 16, 2010 10:17am]
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