Harvey B. Gantt, FAIA

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Harvey B. Gantt, FAIA | Whitney M. Young Jr. Award Recipient

By Kim A. O'Connell, AIArchitect

During the AIA Board meeting leading up to the 2013 AIA Grassroots Leadership and Legislative Conference, the AIA Board of Directors selected Harvey B. Gantt, FAIA, for the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. Harvey Gantt is a noted civil rights pioneer, public servant, and award-winning architect. Established in 1972, the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award honors architects and organizations that champion a range of social issues, including affordable housing, minority inclusion, and access for persons with disabilities. The award is named after the former leader of the Urban League who challenged the AIA’s absence of socially progressive advocacy at the 1968 AIA National Convention. At this year’s AIA National Convention in Denver, Gantt will be honored with the award at the Friday, June 21 general session.

Gantt's public career began in 1963, when he became the first African-American student admitted to Clemson University. As he rose in the fields of architecture and politics, Gantt used his platform to educate the public about architecture and urban issues, and paved the way for minority architects. He served as the first African-American mayor of Charlotte, N.C., founded the successful architecture firm Gantt Huberman Architects, and was president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, among many other accomplishments. In his home, he has a signed photograph from President Obama showing the 29-year-old Obama wearing a white “Gantt for U.S. Senate” T-shirt that reads, “To Harvey—an early inspiration!“

“We believe there has been no other AIA member who has contributed more to the social fabric of our society throughout his lifetime than Harvey Gantt,” wrote William J. Carpenter, FAIA, and Jane Frederick, FAIA, directors of the AIA South Atlantic Region, in their joint nomination letter. “He has literally opened doors, provided opportunity, and personally mentored generations of design professionals and civic leaders through his life’s work.”

Creating a new South

Harvey Gantt was born in January 1943 in Charleston, S.C. This port city had witnessed the beginning of the Civil War at Fort Sumter and was still entrenched in antebellum racial and political divisions 80 years later, governed by segregationist Jim Crow laws prevalent throughout the South. It was fertile ground for Gantt's activist mind. As a teenager, Gantt participated in sit-ins at Charleston lunch counters. After graduating with a nearly perfect grade point average from an all-African-American high school, Gantt sought to escape the segregationist South and began studying architecture at Iowa State University.

After two years in Iowa he wanted to come home, fully aware that doing so would test the South’s uncomfortably expanding frontier of racial equality. In 1963, after a protracted court case, Gantt entered Clemson University as its first African-American student. After the university president issued orders that he would not tolerate misconduct on Gantt's first day, he entered the college without incident. He earned his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Clemson in 1965, graduating third in his class.

In a speech at Clemson's convocation in 2012, Gantt said that even on that nerve-wracking first day he was confident that the university would allow him to fulfill his “hopes and aspirations to [become] a good architect, building not only buildings, but working with others to build better communities.”

After college, he relocated to Charlotte, where he began his career at Odell Associates. In 1970, he earned a master's degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The next few years brought varied opportunities to Gantt, who served as a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as a visiting critic at Clemson. He worked with civil rights activist Floyd B. McKissick as a planner for Soul City, N.C., an experimental community in a rural site north of Durham, N.C. After that, he returned to Charlotte to found Gantt Huberman Architects with Jeffrey Huberman, FAIA, which has worked on numerous projects in and around Charlotte, including the Charlotte Transportation Center, the ImaginOn children's museum, and university buildings such as UNC Charlotte's Center City Building, a glass-wrapped high-rise designed to look like a stack of books.

Freelon Group founder Philip Freelon, FAIA, met Gantt when the young architects both attended Black Architects Day at the Mississippi State University School of Architecture. “Harvey's commitment to broadening the profession beyond its traditional bounds was evident to me prior to that encounter, and continued in force in the ensuing decades,” wrote Freelon in his recommendation letter. “His firm has been a beacon signaling the path toward professional development for countless aspiring architects—minority and otherwise.”

“Harvey's exploits are the stuff of legend,” wrote William Stanley, FAIA, in his recommendation letter. “Harvey is a cultural icon, a civil rights hero, and an absolute credit to the profession of architecture.”

Planning and politics

Gantt's political career began not long after his academic one ended. In 1974, he was appointed to fill a seat on the Charlotte City Council vacated by Fred Alexander, then the council's only African-American member. Gantt went on to be elected to one of the council's citywide seats. In 1983, Gantt was elected Charlotte's mayor, the first African-American to hold that position. Both Gantt and his white Republican opponent, Edwin B. Peacock Jr., avoided a racially-charged campaign, and Gantt later said that he believed he was elected based on “my character, my competence, and my understanding of the critical issues and nothing more.” During his two terms as mayor, he focused on programs to preserve old neighborhoods and the city center, and was instrumental in bringing the city a new basketball franchise, the Charlotte Hornets.

Gantt was also active in statewide Democratic Party politics, becoming the party's candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and 1996 against the outspoken conservative Sen. Jesse Helms. Although he lost both races, he remained committed to public service. In 1995, he accepted an appointment by President Clinton to serve as chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission.

“Harvey's run for statewide office helped set the course for young African-American leaders who wanted to become more engaged in the political process,” President Obama told the Charlotte Observer in 2012. “His decision to enter the race showed great courage and a strong commitment.”

“Architects are well aware of the importance of informed and effective leadership in government, but few of us are willing or able to take on this significant role,” Freelon wrote. “Harvey not only embraced this challenge but demonstrated remarkable courage and leadership. His service to this emerging city during a time of critical growth put Charlotte on a positive economic and social trajectory that continues today and into the future.”

At Clemson in 2012, Gantt said that as an elected official, “I saw firsthand the importance of solving problems and building a stronger community by engaging as much diversity as possible, by blending neighborhood leaders with business leaders, or academicians with politicians, or Democrats with Republicans, or conservatives with liberals, to find that elusive common ground needed to move the needle and to bring about progress.”

He added, “It's the story of my life.”

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Photo Credit

© Lassiter Photography
© Clemson University Press
© Charlotte Observer

Harvey B. Gantt, FAIA

(Photo credits at bottom of page)

The Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, established in 1972, is named after the civil rights-era head of the Urban League who confronted head-on the AIA’s absence of socially progressive advocacy at the 1968 national convention.

Members of the AIA Board of Directors, a component, or a knowledge community may nominate architects or architecturally oriented organizations for this award.

More about Harvey B. Gantt, FAIA

2013 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award Jury

  • Steven Spurlock, FAIA, Chair
  • Wnuk Spurlock Architecture
  • Washington, DC
  • James Binkley, FAIA
  • Reston, Virginia
  • Brian F. Cavanaugh, AIA
  • Architecture Building Culture LLC
  • Portland, Oregon 
  • Aisha Densmore-Bey, Assoc. AIA
  • Aisha Densmore-Bey, Designer
  • Boston
  • Lonnie Hoogeboom, AIA
  • Houston Downtown Management District
  • Houston

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