Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr.
Contributor: Tyler Sprague
Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr (1920-1981) was the first Black architect registered in Washington State, and was a significant contributor to the region’s modernist design community for over 50 years. McAdoo’s work encompassed not only the independent design of buildings (residences, office buildings, community centers) but also social activism in the persistent struggle for civil rights in the Pacific Northwest.
McAdoo was born in Pasadena, California. His father worked in the building trades as a hardwood flooring installer, so young Benjamin was often around construction sites and would help out on small jobs. He grew up in a lower-income, ethnically-diverse area with many multi-generational households. In ninth grade, he took a mechanical drawing class and, showing great promise in his drawing ability, focused on becoming an architect from then on.
He was passionate about architecture, clipping articles from the newspapers about different architects and new projects, and was inspired by the work of Paul Revere Williams, who in 1921 became the first Black architect registered in the State of California.
He attended Pasadena Junior College and the University of Southern California, working as a draftsman in several architectural offices including Harold Bissner and Ted Criley, until World War II required a pause in his education. In July 1942, McAdoo entered the civil service as a draftsman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stationed at Camp Roberts, California. That same year he wed Alice Thelma Dent McAdoo (1916-2013), his lifelong partner. In October 1943, he moved to work for the Kaiser Company shipyard in Portland, Oregon where his skills were put to use as an engineering draftsman in the marine piping division.
In 1944, McAdoo resumed his architectural studies at the University of Washington. In addition to course work, McAdoo worked as a draftsman in the office of influential modernists James Chiarelli and Paul Kirk. He graduated from the UW in 1946, and gained licensure to practice architecture in Washington State shortly after. In 1947, McAdoo established his own practice and began designing residences and churches throughout the Northwest.
His first major house commission was the John P. Browning House (1947), for a Black dentist in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. McAdoo quickly gained praise for his design work in local publication, and accumulated many clients for small-scale renovation projects and single-family homes. In 1954, McAdoo was recognized for the design of the Donald Hochberg residence on Mercer Island, as a Seattle Times – Home of the Month.
At the same time, McAdoo began expanding his social activism, pursuing an unsuccessful bid for state political office in 1954 and then serving as president of the Seattle chapter of NAACP in 1956. He also began hosting visiting diplomats from other countries, like Ghana, and becoming interested in international politics. In the early 1960s, McAdoo traveled to Ghana and Jamaica, assisting in the re-building efforts in each location as part of the US Agency on International Development.
Upon return to Seattle in 1964, McAdoo re-established his architectural practice with a focus on larger institutional projects and assembling large, diverse teams of consultants and contractors. His projects included King County Blood Bank (1970), Samuel E. Kelly Cultural Center at the University of Washington (1971), and the Queen Anne Swimming Pool (1978).
McAdoo also hosted a weekly radio program with KUOW, served again as president of the Seattle chapter of NAACP, and wrote many letters-to-the-editor addressing social justice issues in the city of Seattle. McAdoo died suddenly in 1981, leaving a legacy of built work and activism that continues to inspire.
The Forging of a Black Community : Seattle’s Central District, from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era, Quintard Taylor, 1994, University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.
Michelson, Alan, “Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr.”, Pacific Coast Architecture Database, https://pcad.lib.washington.edu/person/2167/.
Esther Hall Mumford, “Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr.”, in ed. Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects, Second Edition, ed. Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, 2017, University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.
Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington. https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/index.htm.