Architect James Dayton could finesse a hockey arena, a house of worship and a condominium tower with equal enthusiasm and skill. When Dayton died unexpectedly Feb. 12 at age 53, he left behind a wealth of exceptional — and exceptionally approachable — architecture.

Before forming his own firm in 1997, Dayton spent five formative years in the Los Angeles office of starchitect Frank Gehry, the visionary behind the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum.

Gehry’s mentorship shows in much of the work that flows out of the James Dayton Design studio in northeast Minneapolis, especially Dayton’s embrace of the model-based approach to the design process.

The firm’s first major public commission, 2002’s Minnetonka Center for the Arts, was a three-dimensional announcement to the region that a major talent had landed in our midst.

Stretching a $6.3 million budget like so much architectural taffy, the building’s playful personality tends to hide — at least initially — just how well it works as a venue for creating and showcasing the visual arts across every medium, from painting to sculpture, photography to weaving. Despite heavy use, the building remains as vibrant — and durable — as the day the doors opened.

No wonder that the American Institute of Architects had the foresight to bestow its Young Architects Award on Dayton in 2006.

Even in his lower-profile projects, Dayton displayed an innate ability to reframe the ordinary by applying a sculptor’s sense of restraint to unassuming, timeless materials.

In Bloomington, he performed a schlumpectomy on a former Holiday Inn (it’s now the awkwardly titled Renaissance Minneapolis Bloomington Hotel), imparting a sly geometry on the building’s boxy, Anywhere USA profile and lending a much-needed sense of occasion to what had been a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it front entrance.

The Blake School’s hockey arena in Hopkins — a classic wood-frame barrel vault that dates to 1960 — recently received an obviously affectionate update from the architect and avid hockey player, one that will serve the school well for the next half-century. The details are purely Daytonian: Not only does plywood take on crisply contemporary attributes, but a quick scan of the surroundings is all that’s required to make sense of the addition’s various functions.

Another Blake project, this time at Highcroft, the school’s K-5 campus in Wayzata, added much-needed verticality to the original 1962 school, a soft-spoken, low-slung brick structure by Minneapolis architect James Stageberg. Copper-clad pavilions for art, music and drama are infused with natural light and playfully arranged to counter the original building’s rigid geometry. Once again, the layout is almost instantly intuitive.

Music in the Mill District

That user-friendly readability is a thread that’s woven through all of Dayton’s work, including what is arguably his masterpiece, the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. Clad in finishes that reflect the neighborhood’s industrial past, the Mill District landmark fits its tight urban site like a bespoke suit.

But Dayton proved that made-to-order good looks aren’t synonymous with expensive. By applying utilitarian, price-conscious materials (concrete, zinc, weathered steel) in unorthodox ways, the $16 million project is another object lesson in architectural economy.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to immediately discern the building’s various functions. Musicians of all ages flood in and out, day and night, making full use of the sunny public spaces that connect the center’s two primary components: a six-story tower stacked with more than 50 studios, and a stunner of a recital hall, trimmed in Douglas fir.

That innate ability to trade in both beauty and practicality is also evident in Dayton’s mammoth, just-dedicated addition to Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. The $73 million project elegantly incorporates a dizzying array of uses, including classrooms, offices, gathering spaces as well as a 300-vehicle parking garage.

From the interior, the outdoors never seems far away — it’s the physical embodiment of a spiritual community reaching out to the city around it. And the public spaces also serve as a gallery for the church’s remarkable art collection.

On the exterior, Dayton’s modernist sensibilities achieve a harmonious balance between the original Gothic Revival limestone church, which dates to 1897, especially the welcoming face it presents to the church’s all-important Nicollet Mall frontage. A sculptural carillon tower will appear later this year, once the French-made bells arrive in Minneapolis.

“MacPhail and the Westminster addition are both in my top five favorite buildings in Minneapolis,” said former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, now president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation. “Aside from the huge personal loss for so many people, we lost the potential for a major breakthrough international architect which Jim clearly was on his way to becoming.”

Remarkable remakes

Then there’s the category of Unbuilt Dayton. The firm currently has projects underway at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the White Bear Yacht Club and the International Institute of Minnesota, a St. Paul social services and vocational training agency for new immigrants.

Left on the drafting table is the firm’s dramatic and promising concepts for a revamped Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. (The commission ultimately landed with KPMB Architects of Toronto.)

There’s also the Portland, a five-story condominium in the Mill District in Minneapolis. The forward-thinking proposal set itself apart with window and balcony frames that jutted off the facade like so many rectangular gift boxes; a nod, perhaps, to Dayton’s famous family’s retailing legacy. (The project evaporated after the financial crisis, and a standard-issue apartment building eventually rose on the site.)

Fortunately, Dayton had a pair of side-by-side residential buildings go up in the North Loop in 2005, and they’re design models for new construction and the adaptive reuse of a historic property.

The former is the Bookmen Stacks. For motorists entering or exiting downtown via Interstate 94, this eight-story, blue-glass beauty serves as a contemporary signpost to the central city. The latter is the Bookmen Lofts, a sensitive remake of a five-story warehouse dating to 1916. Handsome and low-key, it’s entirely comfortable in its own redbrick skin, and that’s no accident.

“Our office was across the street,” said Dayton firm principal Patrick Regan. “We looked at the Bookmen every day for so long that we knew it should be a loft.”

In its Minneapolis restaurant portfolio, the Dayton firm has demonstrated a proclivity for rethinking historic structures into stylishly memorable eating-and-drinking spaces that earn high scores on the elusive hangout factor.

The firm transformed a forgettable 1925 garage into the Lynhall, where “I want to live here” is the look that first-time diners frequently have on their faces. At Alma, a century-old firehouse was seamlessly coaxed into a casual cafe and boutique hotel, and at the Bachelor Farmer, a forlorn brick-and-timber building (portions of which were built in 1881) was deftly reborn as a restaurant, cafe and basement speakeasy, each with its own distinctively seductive personality.

Turns out, there’s a reason the firm’s buildings are so user-friendly: Dayton was a consummate listener, a trait reflected in his work.

“It was always such a joy to see him, because he had that rare personality in that he was all in, all the time,” said Anne Spaeth, owner of the Lynhall. “With Jim, it wasn’t, ‘This is your project, and I’m the architect,’ it was, ‘It’s our project, and we’re going to work together to make your dreams come to life.’ ”