After living in coastal Massachusetts for over 50 years, Swiss architect Thomas Amsler says he loves New England, but misses Swiss sausages.
However, the 81-year-old says he has never felt homesick since arriving in the United States in 1964.
“We missed certain things, but there were so many new things to explore. And I’m a forward-looking guy who doesn’t spend much time dwelling on whether I should be home again,” says Amsler, born in the north-eastern Swiss canton of Schaffhausen in 1936. On a recent visit to Switzerland, he dropped by swissinfo.ch to talk about his study of a Ticino village with remarkable architecture.
Without knowing that he’s an octogenarian, you wouldn’t think to offer the elevator, and Amsler takes the stairs in stride, asking, “Is this a new building?” and looking around with curiosity.
Having been offered a travel fellowship to see American architecture first-hand, Amsler and his wife and two young children embarked on the five-day cruise from Rotterdam in the Netherlands to New York City. From there they headed up the coast to Duxbury, Massachusetts, where Amsler had a contact.
“The idea was to have an experience and then to go back to Switzerland,” laughs Amsler. But it didn’t work out that way – “primarily because I immediately got immersed in very interesting and relatively independent work – even as an employee”.
One of his most prominent projects was the control tower at Logan International Airport in Boston. Amsler’s employer, architecture firm Desmond and Lord, assigned him the role of project manager.
“At the time it was the highest control tower in the world. It’s unusual because it has two legs and is connected at the top, and that was because Massachusetts required two exits, so there are stairs in each leg,” explains Amsler. Also at Logan Airport, he designed a hangar and worked on the central power plant and international terminal, which was expanding at the time.
Amsler also worked on the Brutalist-style buildings of the Southeastern Massachusetts University campus, which is now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The campus planner and principal designer was star architect Paul Rudolph, who was the dean of architecture at Yale University at the time.
Later, Amsler and two friends started their own firm, and he acted as an independent contractor as well.
At home in Marblehead
While working in Boston, Amsler found a dream house north of the city: a small “summer” home across the street from the ocean in Marblehead.
“It’s not unlike a small town in Switzerland. We were lucky to end up in a town that is much more European-feeling than American-feeling. All the houses are wooden and the streets are crooked. So we felt very much at home there,” Amsler says.
But it was about five years before he and his family could afford a visit to Switzerland.
Amsler says he was never homesick, but of course he missed friends – and certain foods.
“At the beginning, you only got spongy bread in America, but we don’t have that problem anymore. Same thing with cheeses. You had maybe two or three in the supermarket then, but that’s changed so we can get everything now. We can even buy Swiss chocolate.”
What Amsler still misses is the traditional Swiss-style sausage, called “Bratwurst” in German. He sometimes places an order with a special sausage company in Colorado.
“When we have a big party, I’ll order 50 bratwursts to grill, and people love ’em,” Amsler says with relish.
Meanwhile, he’s come to appreciate the local cuisine; particularly sweet corn sold at local farm stands and seafood from the local waters.
“We have great fish restaurants in Marblehead. Great lobster, fish, seafood in general,” Amsler notes.
Something special about New England
Except for visits, Amsler can’t imagine returning to Switzerland at this point.
“For one thing, I can’t afford it – to live in a place as nice as I live now. That’s the main reason. And the other reason is that all my direct family is now American,” says Amsler, now a dual citizen, divorced, and with a new partner.
And besides, he’s in love with New England, too.
“When you’re in another country for that long, it’s not only new friends that you make, but it’s just the place itself. I love New England; there’s something very special about it,” Amsler says. He especially likes the rugged countryside and the ocean, and he also loves Cape Cod for its history, beauty, and the beaches where he goes windsurfing.
In winter, he’s drawn to the mountains of New England.
“I still go snowboarding once a week if you can believe it – at my age! My kids say to me, ‘You’re crazy – you should stop’,” chuckles Amsler. You can tell he has no intention of doing so.