Catherine Armsden was born in Boston in 1955 and raised with her two older sisters in a small town on the Maine coast. The family house was unremarkable but was sited atop a hill overlooking an exquisite landscape. Catherine’s parents, a homemaker and a self-employed commercial photographer, did not attend college, but invested their modest resources in a broad education for their daughters that included violin, piano, flute, art and ballet lessons, as well as regular car trips to Boston museums and concerts. These serious pursuits did not in any way diminish the joyful hours Catherine and her sisters spent frolicking in the outdoors—a wonderland of water, woods and fields.
When not outside messing around in boats or building forts, Catherine communed with the family’s animal menagerie of dogs, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, frogs, turtles and an occasional praying mantis, and experimented with as many art materials as her mother was willing to supply. In high school, she continued to explore visual art and was introduced to expository and creative writing. Writing was a revelation and a retreat; although often daunted by a blank canvas, she discovered she was never at a loss when putting words on a page.
As a freshman at Brown University, from which she graduated in 1977, Catherine enrolled in a fiction-writing course and was so intimidated she never took another creative writing class. Instead, she concentrated in art while indulging her love of words through too-lengthy term papers on art history and religion, subjects that allowed a satisfying degree of creative subjectivity.
In summers during college, Catherine worked for the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, photographing and researching historic houses in Rhode Island’s small towns. After graduating, she worked for a year in Seattle’s Office of Urban Conservation creating a series of self-guiding walking tours that focused on historic buildings in the city’s neighborhoods. This intimate examination of significant structures nurtured her growing interest in architecture. After two years working at Ann Beha Architects in Boston, she enrolled at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where she received her Master in Architecture in 1984.
Catherine and her husband, Lewis Butler, whom she met at Harvard, founded Butler Armsden Architects in San Francisco in 1985. After their daughter and son were born, Catherine began working part-time. Into the hours when babies napped crept her long-suppressed craving to write; gradually, she gave in to it. By 2007, when she began having symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease, it became clearer that writing would become her focus, since on many days, writing requires only that she show up at her computer with something to say.
Catherine and Lewis live in San Francisco and spend time in New England every summer in order to soak up all the things they miss about it.