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Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr.

The first Black architect in Washington changed Seattle’s cityscape, pairing sleek modern buildings with a civic-minded approach.

by Jasmine Mahmoud / June 1, 2022

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Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr. (Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Architectural Licensing)

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Enid McAdoo has vivid memories of growing up in the modern Bothell house her father designed. “I just loved it,” she says of the 3,700-square-foot home built in 1958. “My dad had a lot of shoji screens. My mom … put on concerts — a high school choir would come and sing. They could stand in the hallway, and we’d close the shoji screens and everybody was sitting in the living room, and then we’d open the screens and have this concert,” she recalls.

Another memory: “One of my big memories: being able to sleep on the deck in the summer. There was a courtyard off the front entrance and big timber bamboo planted alongside the house.”

Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr. — the first registered Black architect in Washington and the first African American to maintain a practice in the state — helped establish Northwest modernism. While lesser known than white practitioners of the era, such as Paul Hayden Kirk, Paul Thiry and Roland Terry, McAdoo built notable Seattle structures that often blended flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling windows with regional flavor, such as large wood beams and attention to the natural setting. But perhaps more important was McAdoo’s architectural philosophy: that smart, modern design should be accessible to everyone, not just a privileged few.

“At the time he graduated in architecture [from the University of Washington in 1946], architecture was seen as one of the disciplines that would help change the world,” Enid McAdoo explains. “That was some of … why he went into architecture…. He was very concerned about human rights…. Not only did he believe in fair housing, he felt that he should participate in fair housing.”

Ben McAdoo grew up in Pasadena, California, in a neighborhood largely populated (due to racial housing restrictions) by Chinese American and Mexican American residents. He began his architectural studies at Pasadena Junior College, then moved with his wife, Thelma, to Seattle, and transferred to UW. “They had always heard that the Northwest was more liberal and open to people of color,” Enid McAdoo says.

Soon after graduating, he started his firm — at first from the kitchen of a Capitol Hill apartment. He spent his early career designing homes and churches, including a 1955 remodel of the First African Methodist Church on Capitol Hill. Some of his single-family homes were well-known, including the Moorhouse residence (built 1948-49) in Magnolia, which received praise in The Seattle Times. His designs were often highlighted in the paper as part of an American Institute of Architects “Home of the Month” feature. 

This included the Kenneth and Kimi Ota House, built 1955-56. The midcentury modern structure featured Japanese architectural influences, cascade brick and cedar siding, and views of Lake Washington. Also notable: It was built for a Japanese American family — just a decade after the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II — and sited in Rainier Valley. The house reflected both the return of Japanese Americans to South Seattle and McAdoo’s belief in racial integration through architecture.

Tyler Sprague, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington, notes that in addition to single-family commissions, McAdoo also designed multifamily and modest single-family housing. “He’s connected to a much bigger community in Seattle,” Sprague explains. “Lower income, different locations and still bringing that high quality … modernist design.” This included the “House of Merit” prototype McAdoo designed in 1950, a 620-square-foot single-family home intended to be easily constructed and described by preservation advocate Kelsey Rose Williams as “a contemporary retreat to families with modest budgets.” By 1954, there were 80 McAdoo-designed Houses of Merit on Capitol Hill and in the north Central District.

driveway framed by bushes and trees in green, yellow and red. At the end a low-slung building painted partly black, some brick is exposed
The Ota Residence, from ca. 1955, in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle (Sierra Miles)

McAdoo was also a civic leader working amidst deeply racist housing practices. In 1954, he ran for a seat in the state Legislature. He won the primary but was disqualified by a residency charge from an opponent —which many attributed to “clearly racially motivated discriminations,” Sprague notes.

After this run, McAdoo led Seattle’s NAACP chapter, where he wrote letters on racial equality, and hosted a weekly radio show. In the late 1950s, McAdoo traveled to Ghana, which he thought might “be another place to set up his architectural business,” Enid McAdoo explains. Opening a practice in Ghana didn’t pan out. But after his visit — where he met Kwame Nkrumah, the first Ghanaian president — Enid McAdoo says, “we had several Ghanaian students stay at our house.”

In 1961, the family moved to Jamaica after Ben McAdoo was offered a position with the US Agency for International Development. There, “he designed smart modular homes,” Enid McAdoo remembers, “as a low-cost way to develop housing for poor people.” Built from concrete blocks, the structures were designed so that they could be assembled by untrained builders. “The Jamaican government was so impressed that they continued manufacturing even after he left,” Enid McAdoo notes, adding that these homes brought “water, electricity and an improved lifestyle” to areas previously without plumbing.

Enid McAdoo remembers being in Jamaica when the country became independent and her family participating in celebrations with Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. She also remembers living in a middle-class neighborhood, as opposed to where most Americans lived in Jamaica. “I think that was because my father felt like … we should get to know the people that we’re living with; we should get to know the country,” she says.

After 18 months in Jamaica, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where McAdoo did similar work with the State Department, and then with the General Services Administration, where, as Enid McAdoo remembers, “he got to work on the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.”

In 1964, the McAdoo family moved back to Seattle, where after first living in the Capitol Hill apartment above the office, they eventually moved to the Hilltop community in Bellevue, into a house designed by modernist architect Paul Hayden Kirk. But that housing search wasn’t without trials. “There [were] still a lot of restrictions, or redlining,” Enid McAdoo says. “My mom, who’s fair skinned … would go house hunting with her friend, who was Asian. Sometimes, the Realtors would be accommodating. Then when my dad showed up, all of a sudden the house was not available.”

Undaunted by these challenges, McAdoo went on to design several important public buildings in the 1970s, including the Southcenter branch of the King County Central Blood Bank in Tukwila (1970), the University of Washington Ethnic Cultural Center (1972, since remodeled, but replicating his skylight design), the Queen Anne swimming pool (1972) and Seattle Fire Station No. 29 (1972). He kept working up until his death in 1981.

As a profession, architecture remains predominantly white — Black architects make up 2% of the field — which may contribute to why McAdoo is less recognized. “He was a part of a modernist group that graduated [from the UW] right around that midcentury time,” Sprague says. “But he's not as celebrated as I think he should be.” Sprague is working to remedy that with the Benjamin McAdoo Research Collective at the UW, founded in 2021. “McAdoo has a significant special collections archive … that no one’s really looked at,” Sprague explains. “It seemed urgent to push McAdoo forward.”

McAdoo’s significance, Sprague says, is in what he aligned: “He continued to push a political and social agenda alongside his architectural one. That’s pretty unique. He was someone … clearly interested in the larger social civic conversation and put himself forward as a leader.”

Authors & Contributors

Jasmine Mahmoud

Jasmine Mahmoud

Black Arts Legacies Project Editor

ARTIST OVERVIEW

Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr.

Black and white photo of man with glasses in suit smiling

Architect

1920-1981

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