As part of our Black History Month celebration, we are honoring Black professionals who have shaped the diverse fields of our industry. Black architects, designers and engineers are part of a vital, important legacy that has positively impacted the built environment. These pioneers, trailblazers and innovators have not only impacted design, but have also inspired an awareness of the need to build an equitable future. We asked our employees to tell us about their favorite Black architect or engineer.
I learned of Paul R. Williams by accident when studying another California-based pioneer, Julia Morgan. Paul R. Williams is a huge voice of design and professionalism that should be celebrated!
Paul R. Williams overcame what he called “a blank wall of discouragement” to became Hollywood’s “Starchitect” in the Golden Age. He designed homes for Lucille Ball, Desi Arnez, Frank Sinatra and others. Since he was not permitted to sit next to his white clientele, he learned to draw upside down so that he could sit across the table from them and design their homes. He studied at the University of Southern California and then worked in a landscape architect’s office. He went on to become a certified building contractor and was trained in Beaux-Arts architecture. He designed more than 3,000 residential and commercial buildings, including the Beverly Hills Hotel and La Concha Motel, until his death in 1980. The La Concha Motel’s lobby was one of the first concrete parabolic structures in Southern California and epitomized what is now known as “Googie Architecture.” He worked with Golden State Mutual Life Insurance to design and build their headquarters in L.A., one of the first black-owned companies to offer life insurance to Black people who were denied coverage by white-owned companies. He also helped modernize Howard University in the 1930s, adding many international style structures to the campus. A pioneer on many levels, Paul R. Williams was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 2017. Although our profession is late in recognizing such a dedicated, prolific and inventive architect, we should all be inspired by his imagination.
Laura Guinan, RA, AIA
My favorite Black architect is Oscar Harris. He has made many contribution through his architectural work in Atlanta. Some of his most notable work includes the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Atlanta Botanical Garden parking garage, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Landside Modernization project, and the Mercedes Benz Stadium. Although Mr. Harris is an older architect who has been around for many years, each one of his designs offers a fresh and unique approach on architecture.
Assistant Project Manager
Midtown Atlanta, GA
My favorite Black engineer was my friend, the late Professor Y. Y. Clark, P.E. She died in February 2019, and her detailed obit is here: Black History Month Mrs. Yvonne Y. Clark, P.E., a ‘woman of firsts,’ leaves behind rich legacy – Nashville PRIDE, Inc. (pridepublishinggroup.com)
For years, I knew Y.Y. as a no-nonsense lady who loved engineering and a professor who demanded much of her students. Not only was she an academic, but she also contributed to many groundbreaking projects for NASA, Ford and RCA. Only later did I come to appreciate that she was a “woman of firsts”. Breaking barriers both as a woman and as a Black person, she made history. She faced rejection repeatedly, but never gave up. She was a determined individual!
Y.Y. was the only female mechanical engineering graduate in her class at Howard University, an HBCU. However, as a woman, she was not allowed to march with her male classmates and had to receive her diploma in the office of the university president. She was the first woman to receive an Masters of Engineering Management degree from Vanderbilt University. She also integrated the Society of Women Engineers, which now boasts more than 37,000 members throughout the United States.
In addition, she taught at Nashville’s Tennessee State University, an HBCU, for 55 years after becoming the first female teacher in the School of Engineering. Current Dean of the Engineering School, Dr. S. Keith Hargrove, was one of Professor Clark’s former students. TSU subsequently granted her “Professor Emeritus” status and the Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers gave her the Distinguished Service Award. There were many other honors to come her way.
She was also a wife of 39 years and a mother to a son and daughter. We talk about those upon whose shoulders we stand. There are literally thousands of Black engineers across the country who have stood on the slight but strong shoulders of this Black woman.
Mickey Sullivan, P.E.
Executive Vice President
As a structural engineer, and a fan (although not a designer) of bridges, what I know of Archie Alexander suggests that he would have been an impressive man to work with. An Iowa native, Alexander attended the State University of Iowa, where he was the first Black football player in the school’s history. Alexander was also the first African American to graduate from the university, earning his Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree in 1912.
After spending some post-graduate years working for the venerable old bridge-builder Marsh Engineering Company, Alexander founded his own company at the ripe old age of 26. His company executed the design of many prolific bridge projects far beyond the boundaries of Alexander’s provincial Iowa beginnings.
Aside from founding a successful engineering concern, which garnered some of the most regionally exceptional projects in both complexity and fee for his day, Alexander was active in advancing the interests of people of color. He was a charter member and president of the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP.
Alexander also had an impact on the workforce. For example, during his firm’s design and construction of the Washington D.C. Tidal Basin in 1948, he quietly implemented integrated work crews, which was a bold initiative for its day.
Paul Wallis, P.E., S.E.
Senior Structural Engineer