McAfees exemplify two generations of architectural excellence
Two daughters follow in their father's footsteps to secure the family's groundbreaking legacy.
In 1963, Arthur Ashe became the first Black tennis player selected for the United States Davis Cup team. That same year, a 32-year-old African American man raised in Wichita, Kansas, opened the eponymous firm Charles F. McAfee Architects and Planners.
Both Ashe and McAfee would go on to blaze trails in their respective careers, often crossing paths. Most notably in June 2012, McAfee’s firm, which was renamed McAfee3 in 2006, led the renovation of the Samuell-Grand Tennis Center in Dallas, Texas—the same place Ashe led his team to victory over Mexico in 1965.
“It was quite a significant facility,” says Charyl McAfee-Duncan, FAIA, the president of McAfee3, who oversaw the project that entailed constructing a 2,251 square foot pro shop and a gateway entry and courtyard area that complements the surrounding landscape. The undertaking, which McAfee-Duncan calls her “most fulfilling community project,” won a United States Tennis Association (USTA) Outstanding Facility Award in 2014.
The McAfee family of architects, including patriarch Charles McAfee, FAIA, and daughters McAfee-Duncan and Cheryl McAfee, FAIA, has made an indelible mark in the architecture industry. From residential properties and schools to airports and health facilities, their portfolio is wide-ranging. They are also the first—and only—family in AIA history in which a father and his two daughters are AIA Fellows.
Mr. McAfee became interested in architecture after learning to build model airplanes at 10 years old. Halfway through studying architecture in college, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Europe. “Paris was a place you could walk in and, just block by block, review the history that you'd studied,” says Mr. McAfee, who was drawn to sites such as Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde, and Notre Dame. “So when I came back, I was absolutely convinced—this is what I wanted to do.”
In his design process, Mr. McAfee borrows heavily from his life experiences, relationships, and intuition. His longtime friend, renowned photographer Gordon Parks, was an early inspiration. “We traveled all over the country—he would want me to meet him to play tennis in California, come to New York, fly down to Houston with him for a program,” he recalls. From this relationship, Mr. McAfee learned “how to tie art, architecture, music, dance, photography—all of those things became part of the motivating roadway to everything that I did after that.”
He began receiving accolades just a year after he established his firm. By the time his daughters hit double digits, they’d accompanied their father to several awards ceremonies. McAfee-Duncan recalls when her father spoke about his profession to her second-grade class. “I just thought that was the most inspirational thing. And everybody was like ‘Oh my God, your dad is so cool,’” she says. “I sat there and I was like, ‘I want to be like my dad,’ and I just had a passion for architecture ever since.”
While the family’s roads to success could appear seamless, their journey is one of fits and starts, progress stymied by injustice, and ultimately, perseverance through adversity. When Mr. McAfee first launched his firm, for instance, it was backed by several white investors. “Once it became successful, they tried to put me out of the company, but my agreement with my lawyer and my contract wouldn't let them do it,” says Mr. McAfee, reflecting on the racial discrimination he faced as a Black entrepreneur in the segregated Midwest.
Though decades of racial progress filled the gap between Mr. McAfee’s college years and those of his daughters, the younger McAfees still faced discrimination based on their race, as well as their gender.
When Cheryl McAfee entered Kansas State University, the head of the architecture department confronted the school’s handful of freshman women. “He basically told us that we didn't belong in architecture and there were other avenues that we could take,” she recalls. While the other women took his advice, Ms. McAfee stood her ground. “I wasn't going to let him tell me where I did or didn't belong. And so I went into that program with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and found a great love for the profession of architecture.”
Ms. McAfee became the first African American woman to receive a license in architecture in the state of Kansas. Years later, she oversaw McAfee3’s operations as the senior program manager of design and construction for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, which included 33 sports venues. One of her main goals was prioritizing diversity and inclusion. “I made certain that within the contract documents, we were a reflection of the city of Atlanta—that meant small firms, women-owned firms, and minority-owned firms,” she says, emphasizing their roles as prime contractors, not subcontractors.
When Mr. McAfee handed the reins of his company to his daughters in 2006, it was partly because he wanted them to be more respected in the industry. “I'm tired of people asking ‘is your father coming?’ when you go to a meeting. You don't need me on the stuff you're doing. You’ve got more education than I do. And you're prettier than I am. So you don't need me,” Mr. McAfee recalls telling his daughters.
One of the many takeaways that Ms. McAfee learned from her predecessor “is that we remain uncorrupt in our ethics and our behavior,” she says. “That has been something that you can hang your hat on…. that I will instill in anybody who works for me. We don't pay people under the table. We don't do dirty laundry.”
As CEO, Ms. McAfee is looking forward to “building a robust organization … and handing it off to the next generation.” Currently, her daughter, nieces, and nephews have chosen other career paths. “They may or may not be blood family, but they will be family and share the value of ethics,” she says of her future successors.