May 2021 - "Senior Spotlight" - A Conversation with Kitty Ryan ’79
Kitty Ryan ’79
Kitty Ryan, a 1979 architecture major, is a partner with two Domers at The Narrow Gate in Boston where creating low-income housing is a higher calling. She took some time this month to speak with John Hickey ’69 about her time at Notre Dame and her life since then.
John: Tell me something about growing up in the Chicago area.
Kitty: I grew up in Elmhurst, a suburb of Chicago with seven siblings in a big happy Catholic family. My parents, Ralph and Kay Ryan, were my examples of faith in action as they engaged with many other couples in the Christian Family Movement (CFM) in the ’60s and taught us about social justice as a natural outgrowth of faith. I remember our family bringing gifts to low-income families at Christmas time and our family hosting seminarians for many holiday meals. We observed the liturgical seasons with family rituals for Advent and Lent, which formed me deeply for my parenting. My parents were avid supporters of the changes in liturgy and theology during the Vatican Council and encouraged my siblings and me as regular guitar mass accompanists.
We were also a team sports family, participating in competitive swim teams, baseball, and hockey leagues. Winning was celebrated with root beer floats (black cows)! Playing games with competitive intensity and wrapping all things in word-play and humor were hallmarks of my family interactions. Music was ever-present as my mom was an opera singer as a young woman.
My family was and is my original community of support and love. The seeds of developing a career and a life of meaning were sown here.
I attended Trinity High School, an all-girls Catholic School in River Forest, Ill., and especially enjoyed the retreats and conversations with classmates and teachers in the religious resource center—the “Rel-Rees.”
Why did you choose to come to Notre Dame?
My parents encouraged me to consider applying to Notre Dame, and I was the first girl in my family to attend. My brothers Joe ’82 and Paul ’86 followed, with my sisters Mary ’81 and Liz ’90 attending St. Mary’s College. My parents believed in Catholic education and knew that ND was a great school (and just 2 hours from home). I think the fact that ND offered an architecture degree may have been part of their thinking—if not yet mine at the time!
Where did you live on campus?
I lived in Badin Hall for my frosh, senior and fifth years. We were all moved to Lewis Hall for sophomore year since Badin was a graduate-student hall that year. My fellow “Arkies” (architecture majors) and I spent junior year in Rome.
I loved my time in Badin and the deep friendships made in this small community. Byrne Murphy ’78, Jean Sculati ’78, Mary Curtin ’77, and Robin Jenkins ’77 were among my Badin pals. We had a strong sense of identity and a fun, competitive spirit in flag football and bookstore basketball. We loved our South Quad and the beautiful South Dining Hall! Badin was also right next door to the Arkie Building, Bond Hall, which proved to be critical especially given the long hours and late nights I spent there.
Why you choose your major?
I credit my mother with suggesting I consider architecture as a major. I was good at math and art, and she helped me see that architecture could combine these skills in a career. My mother was also an artist, a master at organization, and had a strong interest in real estate. In another era, I think she would have been a formidable business person. I was at first intimidated by the idea of taking up architecture, not imagining that I was equal to it, especially considering a whole year spent in Rome. But I’m so grateful that she suggested it and I found a home there.
ND Arkies in Rome, 1976–77
Who were your most influential professors and mentors?
I remember Professor Robert Leader as a lover of art who opened my eyes to great art and architecture in his famous Art Traditions survey class. We memorized slides of wonders such as the “Venus of Willendorf” that Prof. Leader posted in O’Shaughnessy Hall (O’Shag). I remember Prof. Ken Lauer as a kind and compassionate person and structures professor. Don Sporleder was an enthusiastic promoter of the architecture profession, and Dean Bob Amico was an energetic modern architecture enthusiast who mentored us class officers.
I also remember Professor Bill Shults as an amazingly talented watercolor artist who encouraged us to add water (“More Water!”) to our paintings as our class attempted to paint “in situ” in the squares of Rome.
Most of all, though, my Arkie classmates, who were generous friends, mentored me by sharing their ideas and helping with our studio class projects. It was always a late-night group effort to complete our design projects, and I would not have gotten through the five years without them: Sandy Pruessner ’79, Dick Nugent ’79, Greg Weithman ’78, Rick Vitullo ’79, and all of my other comrades, more talented than me.
The most amazing experience in my time as an Arkie was junior year in Rome. Our entire class lived in the heart of Rome at the Paradiso or Lunetta rooming houses and attended classes on Via Monterone. This eight-month experience changed my life! Getting to know the streets of Rome and traveling all over Europe with my Arkie pals boosted my confidence and widened my world immeasurably. Italy remains a favorite travel destination with my family. My daughter Clare carried on the tradition by spending a college semester studying in Venice.
I was one of just six women in our architecture class of sixty students. Coming from a family with four brothers gave me a good head start with this great group of guys. It’s exciting now that the Arkie classes are more than half women.
What did you enjoy doing besides studying?
I thoroughly enjoyed dorm sports, campus concerts, ND football and basketball games, and vespers at Sacred Heart church on campus. I also joined the novice women’s crew team for a year or two and loved the camaraderie of my teammates and being out on the St. Joe River. One of my energetic and hilarious teammates was Jenny Durkan, now mayor of Seattle.
Badin Hall Flag Football
What did you do after graduation?
After graduation and a summer job saving money, I backpacked for three months in Europe with my pal and fellow Arkie Sandy Pruessner. It was a fabulous adventure crisscrossing Europe with our Eurail passes!
In January of 1980, I moved to Boston to try out a new part of the country and begin my architecture career. I worked for a couple of small firms, and at the same time, I connected with fellow Notre Dame Arkie alums and with them became involved with social justice groups such as the Paulist Center’s Hunger Housing Action Group and the Haley House Catholic Worker community. I was lucky to have found community to explore faith and action together.
During this wonderful time of discovery, I was part of a discussion group (The Wednesday Night group) led by Brayton and Suzanne Shanley of Agape, a community dedicated to Christian non-violence and community life. We were introduced to writings of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Tolstoy, and other social justice icons. Our group of mostly twenty-somethings had lively conversations about our own lives and career choices, and many of us made job changes to find deeper meaning. Inspired by these conversations, I decided to apply for a job at a small architecture firm that designed affordable housing.
I found out soon afterward that both of my ND Arkie friends Bob Wegener ‘80 and Neal Mongold ’80 had also applied for this position! Bob and I ended up there together and often talked about finding a way to align our social justice passion with our careers as architects. We moved from this firm to a non-profit community development organization called Urban Edge, joining Neal as their in-house architects. We were now a part of a group of diehard housing activists working on community organization, job training, and construction of affordable housing in a low-income neighborhood. It was a great year, and from this experience, Bob and I launched our firm, The Narrow Gate Architecture, in 1987.
The Narrow Gate Partners
What is the focus of your architecture firm?
Our mission is to provide design services to non-profits and community-based organizations that serve the marginalized. We have focused on affordable housing, supportive housing ( for people impacted by domestic violence, homelessness, mental illness, and poverty), and community-based projects (non-profit retail and offices). My particular expertise is in supportive housing, which has often meant designing for women and children. I love working with inspirational women leaders of the shelters and advocacy groups in these projects.
Bob and I founded The Narrow Gate, and Neal joined us in 1997. This work has brought us meaning, purpose, and great friendships over these thirty-four years. We’ve relied on each other in major ways as we’ve worked to build our practice and manage stressful deadlines and limited funding. We are a thirteen-person firm, and our staff is wonderful and committed to our mission. We are excited to be mentoring the next generation of Narrow Gate leaders.
We also have had the great fortune to collaborate with Professor Kim Rollings of the ND Architecture school on her supportive housing studios. Professor Rollings is a talented researcher and has married the fields of psychology and architecture by studying how building design affects the mental and physical health of its residents. We have hosted several classes of her students in Boston, and they have toured and evaluated our firm’s supportive housing projects. Their conversations with residents and keen observations of building spaces have equipped us with design tools that have benefitted our subsequent projects. I have really enjoyed traveling to campus to be a visiting critic for the students’ final projects. They actually let me stay at the Morris Inn too.
What you do for fun now?
Hanging out with my husband and kids, travel, gardening, dabbling in watercolor painting, and enjoying the outdoors is my kind of fun. I also try to incorporate yoga and centering prayer into my morning practice as a reminder to rely on my faith as a daily support. Richard Rohr and the Faith ND daily readings are my go-to, and it’s a delight to sometimes see the prayer by my friend Fr. Bob Loughery ’79 wrap up the ND reflection.
I am also very interested in community-supported agriculture (CSA). We have a membership with a local farm and enjoy weekly boxes of just-picked local produce. I love music and have sung in a large gospel choir for several years. And I’m currently working with my husband on the renovation of a mid-century modern cottage on Cape Cod.
Tell us something about your family.
I was lucky enough to meet my husband Joe Vallely in the late ’80s through our Haley House Catholic Worker connection. Joe had lived at Haley House (http://haleyhouse.org/) for several years and worked in the soup kitchen. I had lived at another Haley House building called John Leary House. I am forever grateful that we were brought together here. Joe works at the Department of Mental Health for the Commonwealth of Mass. and is an advocate for housing for people with mental illness. He is a person of great integrity and faith, as well as humor and fun. And it’s still all true even though he is a Boston College graduate.
We married in 1989 and raised our children, John and Clare, in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. John and Clare are awesome young adults. John works in finance and lives with his wife Allie in Dorchester, and Clare, a nurse, moved to Chicago to be with great friends from her JVC volunteer year.
We are lucky to be part of a progressive and inclusive parish faith community in St. Mary’s of the Angels in Roxbury.
The Ryan-Vallely Family
What did your Notre Dame experience mean to you?
My Notre Dame experience helped set the path of my career and life. It brought me great friendships, a special bond with fellow architecture students and my business partners Bob and Neal. Notre Dame reinforced the importance of faith, community, and a desire to be of service. I love coming back to campus, either with my family or by myself, for reunions or to meet with ND architecture students, especially the women! I would love to hear from my classmates and fellow Arkies at this email address: email@example.com.
Kathleen M. Ryan ’79