“If I were a rich man…”; but that’s not necessary for Modern style. It is easy to associate Modern style with expansive and expensive houses, or landmark municipal buildings; but at least one local Seattle architect broke that and several other invisible barriers. His name was Benjamin McAdoo.
Like most young professionals, McAdoo started with what he could. An office came later, but before that there was a time working from the kitchen table, the most affordable office space. After graduating from University of Washington in 1946, his early designs were for houses and churches, good places to begin.
A house can represent more than a family’s home. The Ota’s residence is modern with its flat roof extended to create a covered entryway and a carport. A concrete foundation, plus post and beam seem familiar, now. The material mix included vertical wood siding, exposed beams, and a wood privacy screen as well as brick veneer and a brick chimney – materials that are old and new.
Two aspects are notable and invisible. First, the house was designed for a buyer for Boeing who happened to be Japanese-American. That could have been considered sensitive considering how soon it was after World War II. Second, the house was built in Rainier Beach at a time when neighborhoods were beginning to diversify, a transition that frequently required extra effort.
McAdoo’s home was equally more than just a house. Many consider his home a prime example of a Pacific Northwest regionalism applied to Modernism. It had many of the same features as other Modern designs. A flat site encouraged a horizontal design. The interior was well lit thanks to a substantial use of glass. The use of Western Red Cedar emphasized the regional character of the design. Like the Ota’s residence, the choice of location was significant. McAdoo decided to move to Bothell, just north of Seattle, for affordability and the ability to be somewhat remote from Seattle and its issues.
Within a few years, McAdoo was recognized for his interest in affordable housing. As part of the US Agency on International Development, he helped design modular housing for Jamaica that could be low-cost and built by unskilled workers. From that experience as well as connections he made in Seattle and a stint in Washington D.C., he became involved with housing and public projects in other countries like Ghana.
Eventually, he returned to the Seattle area. With his reputation firmly established, so did his business. In the seventies he contributed to buildings like: the Southcenter Branch of the King County Central Blood Bank, University of Washington Ethnic Cultural Center, Seattle Fire Station No. 29 (1972), Queen Anne Swimming Pool (1978), and more.
Frequently McAdoo is rightly celebrated for being the first African-American to maintain an architectural practice in Washington State, an impressive accomplishment and major milestone in the region’s diversification. He furthered the effort with his architectural work, but also with advocacy. He was president of the NAACP, and produced a radio program about local social issues. Ben McAdoo passed away on June 18, 1981.
Architectural style and the Pacific Northwest’s culture continue to evolve. Much of the progress can be traced back to individuals who were willing to do something different, to make something better – even if it meant starting with not much more than a kitchen table and ideas.