November 16, 2007
  Harold L. Adams, FAIA, RIBA, JIA

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

Summary: Harold Adams came to Washington, D.C., to work with John Carl Warnecke after graduating from Texas A&M in 1962. While employed in Warnecke’s office, Adams worked on several projects for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, including serving as project manager for the president’s grave site in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1967, he joined RTKL, and became the firm’s president two years later. In 1971, he was named CEO, and in 1987 he became chairman. When Adams retired from practice in 2003, RTKL had 1,200 employees in 14 offices. Adams remains RTKL’s chairman emeritus, and he also is very active on local and national boards of directors. Last month, Adams became the first architect named to the board of Fairfax, Va.-based architecture and engineering firm Dewberry. He also serves on the boards of Legg Mason Inc., Lincoln Electric Holdings Inc., and Commercial Metals Company.

Becoming an architect: I had wanted to be an architect since I was 9 or 10 years old. It’s all I ever talked about. I had never met an architect, but I loved to build things and draw. Reader’s Digest had a series on careers, and I read an article written by Pietro Belluschi about having a career in architecture. I thought: “That’s exactly what I want to do.”

Early professional career: I worked in New York City the summer before I graduated. It was pretty unusual for a Texas kid to get out of Texas, but I had a professor who had left A&M and gone up to Columbia University to be the assistant dean. He encouraged me to get out of Texas and get some other experiences. Over Easter holiday, I went to New York and walked the streets until I got a job offer for the summer.

When I graduated, I wanted to go back to New York, so I went up and interviewed several offices. I had a job offer from I.M. Pei, one from Ed Stone, and one to go back to where I had worked the summer before, which was [with] Bill Tabler, who was lead architect of many Hilton hotels. I really wanted to work for Pei, but Pei kept putting me off. They didn’t have any work at the time, and they couldn’t tell me when I might start, so I started back at Tabler for a holding period until Pei got some more work. About two weeks into that, I received a call from one of the people at Pei’s office who had interviewed me. He told me that he had changed jobs and was going to work in Washington for a California architect, John Carl Warnecke, and asked if I would consider coming and working with him in Washington. I took the train down, met with him, and went to work for Warnecke in the summer of 1962, which was when President and Mrs. Kennedy were very active in making change in Washington.

Working with the Kennedys: The project that I worked on was the Lafayette Square project, which encompassed the blocks on the east and west sides of Lafayette Square. When President Kennedy came into office, there was a proposal to tear down all the historic buildings around the square and build a big white marble building on each side of the square. Mrs. Kennedy was very concerned about the historic buildings, as were a group of architects and other people in Washington. They got Mrs. Kennedy’s attention, and she talked to the president, who decided that it shouldn’t happen and hired Warnecke, who had a reputation for building contextual buildings. Warnecke got the job, and they needed to staff up quickly—that’s why I ended up in Washington, having never met Warnecke beforehand, based on an interview I had at Pei’s office.

I came down from New York to Washington and started working on the east side of the square, which is a courts building. About the middle of the summer, Warnecke came into town—we had maybe 8–10 people working on the project. Warnecke met with President and Mrs. Kennedy and came back and said they really wanted to move much faster. He decided that he didn’t have enough people in Washington to do the project, so he moved the bulk of the team to San Francisco, where he had a 200-person office. I was left in Washington as the only person in the office to help coordinate a survey of the historic buildings around the square and coordinate with GSA, our official client, when they had questions. I did that for the rest of the summer, started hiring an office staff, and got things going in Washington for Warnecke. In September, the models and drawings were shipped out from San Francisco. I met the plane; got the models and drawings set up over at GSA; and got Bob Lautman, the famous architectural photographer here in Washington, to photograph the models. Warnecke came in and said “Let’s go to this meeting at GSA.” I went with him and that’s when I met the first lady for the first time.

We presented the plan to the president and first lady, and they loved it. They wanted it presented to the users of all of the buildings, so we had to present it to the Executive Office of the President and to the two courts that were going to use the courthouse on the east side. When we presented it to the judges, they did not like the plan and objected. They said, “This will not work for us.” We had a press conference already planned for the next week, with Jackie presenting the new plan to the public, so I worked all weekend and redesigned the courts building because I was the only person in Washington. I went in on Monday morning and presented the revised plans to the federal judges, and they approved everything. They told Jack Warnecke how much I had remembered all of their requirements and how much they appreciated it. I was his favorite employee from then on and had this unique experience of growing an office of 40 people in Washington and had a lot of very exciting work when I was just out of school.

Moving to RTKL: I finished the president’s grave, and by that time Warnecke had discovered that I was not a licensed architect. He also decided that I was the ideal person to be his future managing partner and wanted to put me through a training program. He sent me out to his San Francisco office where his father, who was still active, was my mentor. This allowed me to catch up professionally: writing specs, being a project manager on a small project, and doing all the things I needed to take my exam. At the same time, I was advising Warnecke on a variety of things, but I decided that I really missed the excitement of Washington.

There also was a lot of turmoil in Warnecke’s office that summer. Several of the partners had left, and I decided to look for new opportunities. A friend of mine had gone to work for what was then known as Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky, and Lamb in Baltimore—a hot firm in the late ‘60s. They were doing all these downtown plans and getting a lot of publicity for their ability to go in and build consensus among the communities for revitalizing downtowns. They started approaching me to manage their practice. They had about 45 people, and all of the four partners were working on projects, but no one was really running the office. Arch Rogers, former AIA president, came out to see me and then George Kostritsky did. I flew back and then met with the other two partners. In late ’66, we reached a deal where I would come to work for them with the title of managing architect. I joined them in January of 1967 in that capacity. We incorporated about a year and a half later, and I was named the president at the very old age of 29, and went from there to build a firm. I like to say that I was the architect of an architecture firm rather than an architect of buildings.

Activities during retirement: I’m doing some consulting with several firms advising them how to organize their businesses for growth, helping them with strategic planning. I’ve also recently gone on the board of Dewberry. Dewberry is a very large successful engineering firm that has an architectural component of about 250 people and six offices. The architects felt that there was no one on the board who understood architecture. I have known Sid Dewberry for a long time, and he approached me back in the summer to join his board. I’ve done that and have gotten involved in getting to know the architects and mentor and advise them, as well as being on the board of directors and working with them on strategic decisions.

What he misses about practice: The excitement of very large projects and building a global practice. I’d been very active in opening our practice in Japan and China and developed some very close friends in those countries. I miss that aspect of it. I haven’t missed the travel.

Most important opportunity for the profession: The growing sensitivity to the environment is an opportunity for the profession to be a real leader. A lot more needs to be done. I fear that we’re going to sit back and observe and see others take charge.

An architect on publicly held boards: I’m active in all three of my public company boards, and they all require travel. There may be one or two other architects out there on public company boards, but there are not many—so it’s unusual. Everyone is always amazed that an architect is on a public company board, probably because architects don’t speak a business language. I had been building RTKL and really worked hard to build respect for RTKL and the profession in the business community.

Hobbies: Work. I have a 265-acre farm in Pennsylvania that’s always been a hobby, and I raise beef cattle there. We also have a beach house in North Carolina, so I tell people that I mow grass and maintain property.

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