Hill architect, raised in Nazi Germany, dies at 98


Otto Reichert-Facilides, a celebrated architect, author and wounded World War II veteran whose work includes designing the Academy House in Center City, died peacefully in his sleep on Oct. 23, having said goodbye to family members just hours earlier. Reichert-Facilides, who had advanced kidney disease, was a resident of the Hill House in Chestnut Hill. He was 98.

His daughter, Chestnut Hill Community Association board member Christina Reichert, said her father, a kind man and a wonderful parent, will be “sorely missed.”

“Even when he was busy with his career as an architect, he took us to his job sites with him, and we’d play in the playground while he worked,” she said. “He designed an apartment building in Harrisburg, Lakewood Hills, and while he was working, I went around the complex selling Girl Scout cookies. I made a killing that year! 

“I will remember him for his deep humanity, his nightly talks with us kids one by one as we were tucked into bed ('Papa, come to me first!'), for our month-long RV trip around the U.S. the summer Elvis died, for his gigantic home library and his introduction to us, - and lately to his grandchildren - of Hieronymus Bosch and Breugel and Picasso and Mies van der Rohe,” his son Kent told us. “The example he set, and his sheer survival through some of the epic struggles of the 20th century, have inspired me all my life. He had the grace and the genes and the luck to leave us when leaving is more inevitable than sad. I look forward to missing him in unexpected places in the days ahead.”

Reichert-Facilides' book, “To Be an Architect in Germany and America,” published in 2021, was 77 years in the making. The architect told us in August of 2022 that he began taking notes in a foxhole in 1944 as an 18-year-old conscripted soldier in the German army fighting the Russian army on the eastern front.

“My high school (in Germany) was liberal,” he said. “All the teachers were liberal. The principal wrote a letter to the Danish king critical of the Nazis, and he was never seen again. All of my extended family members had no connection to the Nazis. There was no talk at the dinner table of the Nazis. I was drafted into the army, and there was no choice but to go. If you objected, you would either be sent to a concentration camp or shot.

“I had a very pleasant youth until the Nazis took over. A lot of my friends in the Army were killed. I had three machine gun bullets go through me. It was a miracle that I survived. Bombs were constantly raining down, like in Ukraine today.” 

Otto's book, which he wrote on and off for decades and finally decided to finish during the pandemic, begins with a spellbinding account of “living under Hitler.” Otto's father, Walter, was a World War 1 hero who was killed by Ukrainian partisans in 1941. Bombs destroyed Otto's home, and his mother was almost killed in an air raid. Gunther, a cousin, was killed. An uncle, Otto Ernst, was almost killed when his ship was bombed.

After the war, Otto earned a degree in architecture from a university in Germany and was then awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University, so he came to New York in 1950 to attend the city's Ivy League school. 

“When I came to New York in 1950, the freedom to talk freely without fear impressed me deeply,” Otto said. “My friends got into an argument, and I automatically looked over my shoulder to see if a CIA agent was listening. Growing up in Nazi Germany, you internalize the fear. You were afraid to express an opinion because (a Nazi sympathizer) might overhear it, and then you might disappear. Americans who always had that freedom can't appreciate how special it is.”

There were many German architects, scientists and intellectuals in New York at the time who had fled Naziism. Otto married his wife, Nury Vandellos Reichert-Facilides in 1955, and after Columbia University returned to Germany for six years and had a successful career there. "But I felt like a bird in a cage," he said. "My wife and I both loved America.”

So the couple returned to the U.S. (“not because of the money”), where Otto proceeded to earn a master's degree in architecture from Harvard University. Then famed Philadelphia architect Oscar Stonorov, another emigre from Germany, invited Otto to come to Philadelphia and join his prestigious firm, Stonorov & Haws. “He treated me like a son,” Otto said.

Otto worked with Stonorov from 1958 to 1962, then with the Walker & Murray architectural firm for four years, after which Otto opened his own one-man firm, which he ran until 1990. In 1968, Otto was the sole architect hired over many other applicants to develop Academy House, a majestic 576-unit condominium complex at 1420 Locust St. 

In addition to Nury, Kent and Christina, Otto is survived by sons Mark, of Roxborough, and Christopher, of Boston.

For more information about “To Be an Architect in Germany and America,” visit abebooks.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com