Chicago architect dies in climbing accident in Canadian Rockies

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Architect Erol Altay died in a climbing accident Tuesday in the Canadian Rockies. | Family photo

Erol Altay, a Chicago architect known for his climbing prowess, died Tuesday after an accident in the Canadian Rockies.

A graduate of the University of Illinois, Mr. Altay worked on major commercial and industrial projects and created rock-climbing facilities at Lane Tech, Lake Forest High School and the Hidden Peak gym at Lakeshore Academy, 937 W. Chestnut, which specializes in “bouldering” — unroped climbing.

After injuring an ankle in recent years, he focused on rock-climbing rather than mountaineering. Still, “he was in fabulous condition,” said his wife of 20 years, artist Terri Zupanc. He fell from British Columbia’s Mount Assiniboine in Kootenay National Park, a world-renowned climbing destination.

“He just loved life. Whatever he did, he did to the max,” his wife said. “He was so talented, so intelligent, so funny. If he climbed, he climbed like a Spiderman . . . he did beautiful buildings and homes.”

Erol Altay climbing at Devil’s Lake State Park. | Provided photo

Erol Altay climbing at Devil’s Lake State Park. | Provided photo

“We met at a climbers’ party,” she said. “I took it up, after meeting him. . . . He was the smartest man I’d ever met; therefore, the most interesting.”

Mr. Altay, 65, was involved in climbing throughout his 40-year architectural career. He made ascents in Canada, Turkey, Pakistan, the United States and the United Kingdom.

“It was just a really unfortunate freak accident,” said Cpl. Grant Simpson of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police district in Invermere, B.C. “He was having a good day, felt really confident. A rock he was hanging onto broke free.”

Though he wore a harness and was with a friend, Mr. Altay was “free climbing” without being tethered to a rope, Simpson said.

He grew up in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Willits House in Highland Park, where he attended Highland Park High School. “That definitely informed his architecture, and his father was an architect,” his wife said. “He liked new, modern, clean spaces.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s in architecture from the University of Illinois at Chicago, his wife said.

Mr. Altay’s Chicago projects have included an arts center at the Duncan YMCA; the 12-story CTA headquarters in the West Loop; a hotel on Mies Van der Rohe Way; and assisted and senior housing in the city and suburbs.

A few years ago, he and his wife moved to Baraboo near Devil’s Lake State Park, known for its rock-climbing opportunities. “We are climbing here all the time,” she said. He kept a Chicago office for his architectural work.

Mr. Altay enjoyed a good Manhattan cocktail at the end of the day, and playing Chopin and Beethoven on piano.

“He was a great architect, he was a classical pianist and he was an extremely [skilled] alpinist and rock climber. . . . He just loved the outdoors and he just loved rock,” his wife said. “He could stare at rock.”

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Altay climbed the side of Ebenezer Lutheran Church at 1650 W. Foster. “The pastor didn’t like that,” said David Roth, who said Mr. Altay urged him to start a place where he could construct a climbing facility. After Roth founded Lakeshore Academy, Mr. Altay built its Hidden Peak gym, named for a mountain he ascended in Pakistan. It’s the second-oldest climbing gym in the city, Roth said.

Mr. Altay’s future schedule included plans to lecture on Wright’s architecture at Monona Terrace in Madison.

Chicago architect Erol Altay climbed for 40 years. | Provided photo

Chicago architect Erol Altay climbed for 40 years. | Provided photo

The Chicago Sun-Times interviewed him in 1993 after the release of the Sylvester Stallone movie “Cliffhanger,” which included nail-biting mountaineering scenes.

“The movie perpetuates the notion that technical climbing is dangerous and foolhardy and that you have to be a bit crazy to pursue the sport,” he said. “Climbing at all different levels is practiced differently than it’s portrayed in the movie. Most of the climbing appears to be done solo without ropes and safety lines. They were used in the movie but you can’t really see them on film.”

Mr. Altay was from an arts-loving family. His daughter, Camille, is studying fine arts at Yale. His siblings include Dr. Karen Altay, Denise Altay, Kenan Altay, Camille Carr, Rengin Altay and Derin Altay-Gemignani. Actress Rengin Altay has been in productions at the Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and Derin Altay-Gemignani appeared in the 1996 movie “Bastard Out of Carolina” and succeeded Patti Lupone as Evita on Broadway. Her husband is Tony award-winning musical director Paul Gemignani, who conducted “Sweeney Todd” at the Lyric Opera and worked recently on Broadway’s 2016 production of “She Loves Me.”

A memorial service is being planned.

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