Black-and-white vintage photo depicting Benjamin McAdoo Jr. seated in his office in the '80s.

MOHAI’s New Exhibit Celebrates PNW Black Architects

Meet the Black architects who designed our skylines.

by Amanda Ong

From Feb. 4 through April 30, 2023, the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) will exhibit “From the Ground Up: Black Architects and Designers,” highlighting the historical, as well as contemporary, talent of Black architects across the country, and particularly within the Pacific Northwest. The exhibit was created by the Museum of Science and Industry (MSCI) in Chicago and codeveloped with the Black Heritage Society of Washington State.

“‘From the Ground Up’ captures the aspect of recognizing African American architects,” Hasaan Kirkland said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. Kirkland served as the curatorial consultant in adapting the exhibit for MOHAI

“[It’s] a broad view of the innovation, and the design, and the development, as well as the contributions that we often don’t necessarily know were created by African American architects,” Kirkland said.

From historically Black colleges and universities to churches to architectural resources and techniques designed by African American architects, “From the Ground Up” asks visitors to recognize the under-celebrated work of African American architects. The exhibit does not just highlight the actual architects themselves, but also individuals who were integral to the design process or equity functions. 

“We can walk by buildings every day and never really know that a Black architect made it, because we often fall to a perspective of white supremacy,” Kirkland said. “So this particular exhibit is about highlighting the innovative, creative expertise in the design abilities, and the longevity of African American architects.”

Black-and-white vintage photo of a Black- and female-presenting individual wearing a '60s suit dress and glasses.
Norma Sklarek, one of the first Black women architects in the U.S., at Gruen Associates in Beverly Hills, around 1966. (Photo courtesy of MOHAI.)

Kirkland is a former curator of the Northwest African American Museum. As a Seattle local, he was able to bring a lens of the Pacific Northwest’s history to the exhibit. In concert with the MSCI exhibit, MOHAI differentiates the exhibit by recognizing the Pacific Northwest architects who have been contributing to the Seattle skyline for over 50 years.

“It is important to recognize that lineage goes far beyond the cathedrals and the large buildings and the known European structures that seemed to kind of capture the discussion of architecture,” Kirkland said. “But yet, one of the ninth wonders of the world was created by individuals whose lineage has been captured in this exhibit.”

The exhibit focuses on a select group of Black architects from the Pacific Northwest who have made history, including Ben McAdoo Jr., the first African American architect to create an established firm for African Americans. McAdoo’s firm not only contributed to the skyline, but McAdoo was also a voice for creating fair housing for Seattle residents. In addition, MOHAI highlights a few contemporary Black architects from the region.

Photo depicting two museum goers viewing an exhibit.
Visitors at MOHAI’s “From the Ground Up” exhibit. (Photo: Wendy Malloy)

For folks in South Seattle, and in most cities in the United States, Kirkland says that in understanding the history of Black architects, we also must understand how Black architects and their communities were managed through redlining. This exhibit, in part, notes how despite practices like redlining that have been meant to oppress Black communities, we can see how Black architects have risen above these practices through architectural innovation, even though they had been courted to certain areas, locations, and neighborhoods.

“We not only rise above in our spirit, but we’ve also been able to tap into the industry that creates the skyline and the city and the building structure that we live in, and within, and around,” Kirkland said. “[This is] for South Seattle residents who have a long-standing history [with redlining], and who may or may not know that the buildings that they adore have been created by or been engaged with African American architects.”

“From the Ground Up: Black Architects and Designers” will be at MOHAI from Feb. 4 to April 30. Visit MOHAI at 860 Terry Ave. N.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Benjamin McAdoo Jr. in his office in Seattle in the 1980s. MOHAI, Seattle Post Intelligencer Collection, 2000. (Photo: Tom Barlet)

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