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UC alumna, Laura Thul Penza BARC ’82, reflects on time at DAAP

UC legacy, Laura Thul Penza establishes architecture class gift, explaining how her time at DAAP helped shape her life.

Laura (Thul) Penza, BARC ’82, remembers many things about her childhood home: The astounding views overlooking the Ohio River; the creek that ran along Asbury Road; the woodshop where her father, Andrew Thul, BARC ’56, would spend endless hours working, which was occasionally used by classmates when the University of Cincinnati woodshop was too busy or not in service.

While Penza, the oldest of seven siblings, jokes that her home always felt way out in the backcountry when she was young, it was also a design and wilderness enthusiast’s paradise. Designed and built by her architect father in the late '50s, it was the “cool house” that all her friends liked coming to. With extended overhangs, huge glass windows and a large deck with a spiral staircase to the roof, it created in Penza an obsession for good design (and mid-century modern furniture).

"It is a really interesting house structurally and artistically, and I learned a lot just by being there,” Penza recalls. That home, and being a part of a College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning legacy family, ultimately led her to DAA (which become DAAP —and then the pastel palace — the year she graduated) and a career in architecture. Penza’s mother, Mary Louise (LaBar) Thul, BFA '55, as well as her father, helped fuel her early appetite for the arts by religiously taking her to weekly art classes, the Cincinnati Art Museum and building jobsites. It was where she was most comfortable.

Being passionate about art, math and science, Penza says a 10th-grade aptitude test reaffirmed her suspicions. “It essentially came back with, ‘You would make a great architect,’ which just confirmed what I already knew,” she says, laughing. “I remember my dad cautioned, ‘Architecture might sound glamorous, but it’s a lot of hard work, and earning a good salary is not always easy.’ But I knew it’s what I was destined to do.”

Although the DAAP gene was already deeply embedded, UC was a “not-so-obvious obvious choice.” Before deciding on DAAP, Penza remembers daydreaming about the fall trees shown on dozens of college brochures promoting various programs in quaint small towns. She imagined herself studying on one of those benches. But when she actually looked at architecture schools, the DAAP choice was a no-brainer.

“At the time, the architecture program was one of the top two in the country, and the co-op program made the difference,” Penza says. “I’d say the real excitement set in when I first got to campus, with DAAP right on the edge of campus across from Burnet Woods and the fall trees. The perfect ‘little-big school’ right in my backyard.”

The Pieces Fall Into Place

From joining Kappa Alpha Theta to living in a small, dingy apartment right across the street from DAAP (which she’d work on repairing in the evenings in exchange for rent), there were many reasons why UC was "just right."

“Most of my memories include the camaraderie of working with my classmates in the studio," she says. "Those were the most special things. We’d take breaks to play T-ball in the hallways or spend hours in the studio or in the architecture library," where she also worked part-time. And following in the footsteps of her parents’ DAAP love story, Penza met her future husband, Jeffrey Penza, BARC ’82, the first day of spring quarter in a fourth-year studio.

Graduation led to job finding, which led to Baltimore — which felt like home. “We were still in co-op mode!” she remembers. “Pick a city, find a job, make it work. A lot of my classmates had been to Baltimore and said it’s a ‘big town, little town’ with lots of historical fabric.” By 1991, Penza and her husband “accidentally” joined forces, forming Penza Associates Architects — and it’s been history ever since.

“I never imagined myself as a business owner, but after very temporarily joining Jeff, who had just taken over his firm, we discovered we worked together very nicely. I’m more behind-the-scenes and attention-to-detail, he’s big-picture and thrives on the front line. It worked.”

And it worked beyond just practicing the art she loved. She was also able to adopt some of her father’s philosophies of community service, and she cherishes being able to use the expertise she gained from DAAP and her professional career to give back, calling it “necessity” and “the bread and butter.” After a career highlight involving work with a group of middle school students to develop Baltimore’s first youth-run youth center, she realized, “I’m really making an impact here.” And it hasn’t stopped there.

In 2008, they merged with Dan Bailey, forming Penza Bailey Architects (PBA), building project diversity and a shared philosophy of service. In 2016, daughter Leah Penza joined PBA, after receiving her Masters of Architecture at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. (The couple repeated her grandfather’s word of caution, but she responded much like her mother.)

Last year, the firm was excited to announce that another UC architecture ’82 classmate, Kelsey Kruse, had joined PBA. “It is great to have Kelsey on our team," Penza says. "Our three wood block projects from freshman year are displayed in the office, and offer a fun throwback to our UC days and those long hours in studio.”

Once a DAAPer…

Even living and working in Baltimore, their college has always held a special place in the Penzas’ hearts. After their 10-year reunion, the class of 1982 began going on “Adventure Outings” every two years as a group —kayaking, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, hiking. It quickly became a biennial tradition Penza can’t imagine living without, and she is so appreciative of Jim Hamrick for leading the efforts for those trips. “We have quite a special bond,” she says.

While keeping that strong bond with their classmates, Penza and her husband fell into the routine of life — kids, projects, new homes, their thriving business. Then about 10 years ago, in combination with thinking about her prioritization of pro bono work as a part of her practice and a handful of strong stepping stones in her life, Penza began thinking she wanted to feel more connected to her days at DAAP outside of the biannual class of ’82 trip. She had the idea that by their 30th reunion she would like to help establish a class gift.

“I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to give back to the school that has made such an impact on our lives … Here is that way to stay connected full circle.’ ” Since their 30th reunion, the resulting fund has slowly been fed, and she looks forward to seeing it continue to grow, as the UC Architecture ’82 Class Fund joins forces with other class gift funds.

“The UC Fund for the Study of Architecture has the ability to create a ripple effect of connecting more alumni together, across graduating years, and opening the door for storytelling,” Penza says. “We can combine our efforts to impact future generations.”

As the college gears up for class reunions in the spring, excitement starts to build. "Visiting those studios where you pulled all-nighters … Getting (re)lost in the labyrinth of DAAP halls and saying aloud, 'Wow, nothing has changed.' " Coming in thinking about the organizations that have helped her become who she is, Penza considers DAAP a pillar that she hopes will continue to be life-changing for students for many years to come. 

“I have wonderful memories of reading in the hallways, when the sun was streaming in. Finding that patch of sun and doing my homework.”

The UC Fund for the Study of Architecture is that patch of sun. And Laura Penza hopes future classes will join in to help it to continue to shine bright.

DAAP Reunion Weekend will take place May 2-4, 2019 in conjunction with DAAPworks. Were you a part of the class of 1969, 1979, 1994 or 2009? Come celebrate with your classmates! Full details can be found here.


We hope you’ll consider joining fellow DAAP Alumni by making an impact through supporting the UC Fund for the Study of Architecture or the Alumni Scholarship Fund.