Featured Member - Harold Adams, FAIA

A decorated architect who designed numerous major projects for the United States government and military, Harold Adams spent years expertly navigating the tricky Washington, DC landscape. He even became "Ethel Kennedy's architect."

The first-ever recipient of the Society of Military Engineers' Urbahn Medal, Harold Adams, FAIA, is a decorated architect who spent years designing for the federal government. An early opportunity with John Carl Warnecke led to numerous projects involving the Kennedy family, including a lifelong friendship with Ethel Kennedy. He is now retired and serving as chairman emeritus at RTKL, a firm he helped build into a global leader in the profession, but he stays active in the architectural world and even visited Orlando for the AIA Conference on Architecture 2017.

I started my career in Washington, DC, right after graduation, working for John Carl Warnecke. He was the star architect working with the Kennedys, and they turned to him for everything. I was in a fortunate position as a young man coming to work as an architect and designer, because I got thrown into the middle of it all. Mr. Warnecke took me to every meeting he ever had with First Lady Jackie Kennedy, with President John. F. Kennedy, and with their aides as well. We did a variety of projects that aren't even listed anywhere on my resume, including an addition to Bobby and Ethel Kennedy's house in McLean, Virginia. I was out there every morning checking on the building and developed a relationship with both of them. Ethel still considers me her architect.

Warnecke always told me, "Get to know the secretaries, the assistants and the professionals they don't ever change. People come and go in Washington, but there's a stable group of people behind it all. Get to know them." I did, and it followed me throughout my career.

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Working with the federal government can be complicated sometimes. One of the most challenging projects at RTKL was one where I served as executive architect for 22 years, serving three different Architects of the Capitol and many Speakers of the House and Senate Majority Leaders: the US Capitol Visitor Center. The late George White, FAIA, then the Architect of the Capitol, was struggling with the balance of necessary security versus protecting the integrity of the building's architecture. We were brought in to give advice, which began a consulting relationship that went through several stops and starts, different presidents, and various security issues. It was a fascinating project, to go through all those changes of leadership and still come out with a great end product. Another project with many challenges was the rebuilding of the Pentagon after September 11. That was all about quickly organizing the team in order to rebuild in a record time of 10 months.

I was honored to receive the first Urbahn Medal from the Society of Military Engineers (SAME) back in 1997. It's named after Max Urbahn, FAIA, a New York architect and AIA President in the early 1970s who did a lot of work with the federal government and NASA. He designed the launch facility at the Kennedy Space Center, which ended up being imprinted on the medal that bears his name.

I became a member of SAME because many of our clients were the military. During my time at RTKL, we handled the renovation of Bancroft Hall at the US Naval Academy, the largest dormitory in the world. It houses the whole brigade of midshipmen; when they went coed, it was totally inadequate for the needs of today and for mixed sexes, so we had to redo it all. We were the architects for the Office of Naval Intelligence headquarters, the National Ground Intelligence Center headquarters, and many other projects. I'm so glad to see that the Urbahn Medal is still something worth celebrating, 21 years after I received mine.

Sometimes it's overwhelming how much the profession is changing, and how rapidly. It's still based on people, and the skills and talents of those people, but technology has changed so much. That said, I think it's great. It's giving architects the ability to take on projects they couldn't take on before, and do things with projects that couldn't be done otherwise. You look at the shapes and heights of the buildings, what they're doing with wood construction; it's just mind-boggling.

I've never been afraid of technology; at RTKL, I was the one who had to make the big investments, and we were forerunners who got into CAD very early. Back then, we had a massive room packed with servers; now my cell phone has more power than that whole room put together. —As told to Steve Cimino

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Image credits

Harold Adams, FAIA - cropped

Harold Adams, FAIA

Bancroft Hall Renovation

CallisonRTKL/D Whitcomb

United States Capitol Visitor Center


National Ground Intelligence Center Headquarters

CallisonRTKL/D Whitcomb