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February 3, 2023

New MOHAI exhibit celebrates Black architects and designers in Seattle and beyond

A/E Editor

Photo courtesy of MOHAI from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection [enlarge]
This image of Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr. greets visitors at the entrance of the exhibit. McAdoo was the first Black architect registered in Washington state and the founder of the first African American-owned architecture practice in Seattle.

From the Ground Up: Black Architects and Designers opens at MOHAI this Saturday Feb. 4.

The exhibit, which was originally created by the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, explores and celebrates the impact of Black architects and designers in the US and beyond.

Visitors will learn how Black men and women have shaped and transformed our world and communities from the time of the ancient pyramids until today.

MOHAI was selected as the first venue outside of Chicago to host this national traveling exhibit. For its run in Seattle MOHAI has worked with the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and curatorial consultant Hasaan Kirkland of Kairos Industry LLC on local additions that spotlight 10 Seattle-based Black architects, their work, and impact.

“Getting to tell the local story of how Black architects have shaped Seattle through this important exhibit was really important to us,” Stephanie Johnson Toliver, president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, shared at a recent press event for the exhibit.

“The main question was how to make our block and story significant in the context of the existing show,” Kirkland added. “This was really important as the contributions of Black architects are often hidden in plain sight,” he continued. “It's essential that the Black community knows and realizes that our footprints are all over this city, it's also important to think about and challenge why this knowledge has not been mainstream.”

Photo from BlackPast [enlarge]
The Meredith Matthews East Madison YMCA, designed by Seattle-based Black architect Leon Bridges, is one of the featured buildings.

The local story begins as soon as you enter the exhibit and are greeted with a large image of Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr. (1947-1961), busy at work. McAdoo Jr. was the first Black architect registered in Washington State and the founder of the first African American-owned architecture practice in Seattle. Many of his buildings still stand today including the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center at the University of Washington's Seattle campus. McAdoo Jr. designed the center in 1970. It was originally called the Ethnic Cultural Center/Theater and housed the then recently created Office of Minority Affairs and its Special Education Program for Black and minority students.

When the center opened in 1972, it was one of the first buildings in the nation built to support a Black and minority educational program and its students. The building was renovated (and given its current name) in 2013. Rolluda Architects led the renovation. The project team included Samuel Cameron, another local Black architect featured in the exhibit.

“We wanted to open the exhibit with an image of Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr. because he was the one who started the legacy of Black architecture in Seattle,” Kirkland explained. “As people explore the exhibit, they will get to see the individuals that inspired McAdoo Jr. and the next generation of Black architects in Seattle and beyond that he himself inspired.” The McAdoo family has loaned several items to the exhibit. These include McAdoo Jr's drafting tools and the sign for his original office.

Other spotlighted Seattle architects include Leon Bridges, Denice Johnson Hunt and Donald King . Large photographs of their work are dispersed throughout the space ensuring that the story of Seattle is always tied to the larger narrative.

The exhibit is a powerful celebration of the work of Black architects which also explores the visions behind their work and its impact. In addition to text, images and architectural models, visitors can listen to video interviews where featured architects dive further into the inspiration, impact, and experience of being a Black person in the architecture field, specifically noting the structural, overt, and covert racism faced. Inspirational quotes from featured architects are placed on walls throughout the exhibit.

This all ages exhibit also includes elements that will no doubt inspire the next generation of Black architects. These include interactive play-stations where you can construct a model of a building using wooden blocks and a space to create an architectural floorplan.

Kirkland shared that for him the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center is probably the most important building highlighted in the exhibit. Kirkland is currently pursuing a PhD at the UW and explained how learning about the history of the building has been an empowering experience and how interacting with the space has been a way for him to connect with former, current, and present Black students at the UW. “History and community are created in and around buildings,” he reflected.

“We really think this exhibit will open eyes to the reality of Black architects and their impact on the city,” Leonard Garfield, executive director at MOHAI, said at the press event. “This is an opportunity to discover a story seldom told but one that has profoundly shaped who we are and how we have lived.”

From the Ground Up: Black Architects and Designers will be on display through April 30. More information and tickets are at: https://mohai.org/exhibits/from-the-ground-up-black-architects-and-designers.

MOHAI is also running an events program in support of the exhibit that will add color and more detail to its themes. More information on those events is at https://mohai.org/calendar/


Emma Hinchliffe can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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