NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

ORF Project ‘Big Gun’ Kutlak Retires

Frank Kutlak (l) with Stokes beside official Stokes portrait
Frank Kutlak (l) with Rep. Louis Stokes at the dedication ceremony for the official Stokes portrait in March 2013

Photo:  Credit Ernie Branson

If the many major research buildings he honchoed to completion on the NIH campus and Ft. Detrick are as fun to work in as he had making them, then Frank Kutlak can consider his 25 years as an architect and project manager at the Office of Research Facilities a rousing success.

The string of big buildings came to an end recently when Kutlak retired. No more will he rise before dawn to oversee the pouring of concrete at 4 a.m., as he did when his favorite project, the Louis Stokes Laboratories, was under construction in the late 1990s. On that job, he gleefully inspected every detail from the sand at the bottom of the caissons dug to support the structure to the last beam topping the roof, where he was instrumental in having an extra story built atop what was originally a 5-story building.

At a sendoff Mar. 30 in the Cloister, ORF Director Dan Wheeland credited Kutlak with delivering “exceptional projects, nothing ever boring or routine…I can’t imagine NIH functioning without those facilities. The campus would look much different.”

Kutlak’s projects, in addition to the Stokes Labs, included the occupancy phase of the Silvio O. Conte Bldg.; the NIAID Integrated Research Facility at Ft. Detrick; the John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center II; the ARC, a study for a future animal center on the south side of campus; and the design phase of the renovation of Bldg. 10’s E-wing, which was Kutlak’s last official duty.

“Frank earned the status of being a big gun,” said Wheeland. “He never let us down. He is an authentic person who always lets you know what he thinks. We always counted on him to tell us what he thought and we appreciated his expert advice…Frank gave it all he had. He has been instrumental in making NIH such a great institution.”

“I have been very fortunate that I got to do all of these big projects,” said Kutlak. “It’s never one person [who should be credited]…I’ve just been driving the bus. There were hundreds of hardworking ORS/ORF service providers, consultants, IC staff and scientists on the bus.”

Kutlak, a native of Buffalo, arrived on campus in June 1991. He had begun his career in the desert of Saudi Arabia, where for 6 years he worked for ARAMCO. Returning to the United States in 1983, he took a job with HOK Architects in Manhattan, which is where he met his wife, Barbara Thompson, a Clinical Center nurse for the past 31 years.

Smiling, Kutlak holds up commemorative T-shirt.
Kutlak proudly displays commemorative T-shirt marking the “topping out” of Bldg. 50 (Stokes Laboratories) on May 13, 1999. “I’m having fun,” he said that day. “I feel sort of like the father of the bride.”

They spent two years in New York, then Kutlak took a job with Marriott Hotels in Bethesda that lasted 6 years. “I managed the design and construction of 75 of the 200 Marriott Courtyards,” he recalls. “I came to NIH 6 months after the bottom fell out of the hotel market.”

His first assignment at NIH was organizing occupancy of then-new Bldg. 49, the Conte Bldg. At one point, ORF had to inform two floors of IC scientists that they would not be moving into 49 as planned because then-NIH director Dr. Bernadine Healy had decided a highly regarded new recruit from the University of Michigan would get their space in the new building—it was Dr. Francis Collins.

Kutlak’s next job was the one that made him proudest.

“Lou Stokes was very nice to me,” said Kutlak, “very generous.” Kutlak took pleasure in touring Bldg. 50 as it was under construction with Stokes and his wife Jay. 

Their relationship did not end when the building was complete.

“We kept in touch,” said Kutlak. “He invited me to various luncheons and to the opening of the Howard University Health Sciences Library, which is also named in his honor.”

A resident of Laytonsville, Md., Kutlak says he won’t miss the early morning drives down 270. He and Barbara enjoy their three Dobermans and a 7-acre property on which Kutlak grew 95 tomato plants of various kinds last summer, in addition to lettuce, spinach and other vegetables. He has high hopes for this year’s crop, having built a seedling incubator, with special heating and lighting, over the winter to raise his own plants from seed.

“I’ve been getting into it,” he said. “It’s kind of fun.”

He had grown up in the city of Buffalo, but his family owned 13 acres outside of town, near the site of what is now the University of Buffalo. “I basically sat on my father’s lap” as he worked the property with an old Farmall tractor, Kutlak remembers.

Five years ago he found, on the Internet, a 1947 Farmall tractor on sale in Virginia. He bought it and now mows his own 4-acre field with the bush-hog attachment on the tractor’s rear. He belongs to and manages Facebook pages for two antique tractor clubs, which he joined in order to learn more about maintaining his rig.

“It’s a beast, it’s a bear,” he said of the 70-year-old tractor, “but it runs wonderfully.”

“Frank is leaving us because his exotic tomatoes await him,” concluded Wheeland. “How could that be more interesting than NIH projects?...We thank you for an amazing journey.”

A Kutlak anecdote about his experience in Saudi Arabia could serve as the defining metaphor for the projects that occupied him at NIH: “Every time they drilled for water, they hit oil.”

He hopes to keep in touch with people he worked with over the years and can be reached at

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