BUFFALO, NY — Kelly Hayes McAlonie was always aware of the opportunities and challenges inherent in the world of architecture.
But the Brigus-born architect couldn't have imagined it would lead to collaboration with the makers of Barbie and the chance to lead the way on a $375-million medical school at an American college.
The inspiration for her eventual career was close at hand early on. Her dad, Ed Hayes, worked as a project manager for E.K. Jerrett & Associates in Bay Roberts and was involved in the rebuilding of Ascension Collegiate in the 1970s.
"I always wanted to be an architect — that's the only career I've ever wanted. And I'm sure a lot of that had to do with the fact that my dad was in the business."
She was always interested in educational architecture as a means to inform and promote learning.
"At its very fundamental level, it's architects who specialize in K-12 and higher educational architecture."
After completing her education at the Technical University of Nova Scotia (now part of Dalhousie University) in 1994, she decided to travel to Ithaca, New York for an interview with Bob Leathers, an architect internationally renowned for his work on playgrounds. That resulted in a job offer.
"I did that for five years," Hayes McAlonie said. "Got to travel all over. I did a number of playgrounds in Canada, in Australia, and all over the U.S."
Looking for a change, she decided to move to Buffalo, where her focus switched to the K-12 and post-secondary school systems. It was there that her career gained steady traction.
Hayes McAlonie was an associate vice president with Canon Design and got more involved with the American Institute of Architects (AIA). She has served as president of both AIA Buffalo and AIA New York State. Through the Buffalo Architecture Foundation, Hayes McAlonie created a program called Arch + Ed that brings architects into grade schools to cover curriculum material through design-related activities.
The job with Canon Design kept her in touch with University at Buffalo (UB), a part of the State University of New York system. In 2010, she accepted a position with the capital planning office at UB and immediately found herself tasked with building a master plan to identify a new home for the university's medical school.
"It was just crazy," she said, noting a comprehensive master plan for the school as a whole had just been published when she joined UB. "At the time, the idea of a new school of medicine, it was a lot of money — $400 million. It was on paper, but there was really no commitment from the state (or) the legislature … We just didn't know how feasible it was."
With help from a newly-elected state governor keen on utilizing education as a tool for economic growth, Hayes McAlonie and the rest of her team saw the new medical school through to completion. Students started taking classes there earlier this month.
"It's been a long process," said Hayes McAlonie, now director of the college's campus planning office. "It's a $375-million project and it was very complicated, just because of all the agencies that needed to be involved. But to see students walk in and take photos of their building and former med students who are now physicians just walk through and be so excited about the building, it makes it all worthwhile."
Early on in her career at UB, she also found herself working with the design team for Architect Barbie — part of Mattel's "I Can Be" series devoted to different professions. The opportunity to be a part of the project came about through an architecture professor at UB, Despina Stratigakos, who was already heavily involved in it. Falling in line with past work on the Arch + Ed program, Hayes McAlonie saw Architect Barbie as an opportunity to promote active learning.
"To me, it was personal, because of the fact I could have been that little girl who would have wanted that doll and would have cherished that doll had it been given to me," she said. "But I saw it at the time less as a feminist vehicle, but more as an opportunity to teach little girls and little boys about what architects do."
Within the profession, there were mixed opinions about the merits of making a doll for children to represent female architects. Some, Hayes McAlonie said, felt the doll reinforced stereotypes they'd fought against for decades, and she heard from both men and women in the profession with aesthetic concerns.
"Architects are very concerned about aesthetics for obvious reasons, and their identity, so they felt that this doll didn't represent them," she said. "And fair enough. But of course, our audience wasn't the architectural community, our audience was little girls."
In collaboration with AIA, the doll was launched at the organization's national convention in New Orleans. For the event, 400 young girls from local schools took part in workshops with volunteer architects, including Hayes McAlonie, who developed the workshop material.
"They got to learn about what architects do, they got to design their own Barbie's dream house, and they got a free gift — they got a doll to take home with them," she said.
"I still get the occasional email with photos of the doll with a little girl when she's just out at a baseball game or whatever," said Hayes McAlonie. "That just makes it all worthwhile. I'm looking forward to the day when a young woman comes up to me and says that she became an architect because of the doll."
Professional success hasn't come without its challenges. On. Dec. 30, 2011, Hayes McAlonie woke up in the morning and for whatever reason could not stand up. She was subsequently diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a neurological autoimmune syndrome that disconnects the brain, spine and muscles from one another. She spent almost three months in hospital and remained on the road to recovery for years.
"It brought a lot of perspective just to life in general," Hayes McAlonie said. "It took years to recover. Now I'm fully recovered, and I actually ran a half-marathon in October, so that was a real feat for me … I just feel very strongly that you should love what you do, and every moment counts."
Looking ahead, there remains plenty of work on the horizon in her day job. Outside of that, Hayes McAlonie is working on a book about Louise Behtune, a Buffalo native who was the first professional female architect in America. She previously co-curated an exhibit on Bethune at the Buffalo History Museum.
As far from home as she's been for so long, Hayes McAlonie remains thankful for her rural Newfoundland roots.
"I think the person who I am now, I think a lot of those traits were founded from my years at Bishop O'Neil," she said, referring to the former high school in Brigus. "It was a very small and close-knit community where academic excellence and service was really valued."
Hayes McAlonie also looks back fondly on growing up in Brigus, remembering it as a place where people truly cared for one another.
"That isn't widespread. So Conception Bay North (and) Newfoundland in general is very special. I'm very proud to have come from such a special place."