Architect Paul Williams once asked a disheartened Robert Kennard, whose career as a black architect seemed at a standstill, whether he was still making the payroll.
Kennard nodded in the affirmative. "Then, consider yourself successful," Williams, a pioneer black architect, told his fledgling colleague.
It has been a slow and hard struggle for black architects in a predominantly white architectural community, said the 67-year-old founder of the now-oldest continuously operated black-owned architectural firm in the Los Angeles area.
KDG (Kennard Design Group), currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, is an expanding group of affiliated companies interacting in the fields of architecture, urban and regional planning, environmental studies, interiors and development. KDG has also completed commercial projects valued at more than $20 million.
Honored last year with an FAIA designation by the American Institute of Architects "for notable contribution to the architectural profession," Kennard is recognized by his peers as a role model for young people of minority groups aspiring to become architects and urban planners and as a pioneer among minority-owned architectural firms.
"Kids need role models and Paul Williams became mine," Kennard said. "I was mesmerized when I first saw a brochure illustrating his work and read about his influential clientele. It was an inspiration to know that such reality and prominence were not beyond the reach of people of color.
"I can remember when I was 7 years old and living in Monrovia (which had a segregated school district), that each day my mother would pack my lunch box and send me off to Wildrose School close to where we lived. And, each day the school, which was segregated, would turn me away.
"Years later, I asked my mother why she subjected me to such a painful ritual. She told me I might as well learn early how the world really was and how important it was to hang in there," Kennard said.
"I had a very supportive family that believed in the value of education. Eventually, my parents took on the entire school district with the support of many of its teachers, and I was allowed to attend classes at a regular non-minority school."
No, there is no bitterness, said Kennard, who believes that there have been many positive changes since he got started, "more than it ever seemed possible for those of us who experienced a greater measure of racism.
"I have a special warm spot for Curtis Chambers, an independent Pasadena architect who reminded me a great deal of Gary Cooper. He hired me right out of junior college when job opportunities for blacks were scarce in a community that was markedly racist. He also encouraged me to study architecture," Kennard said.
Today, Kennard tries to do the same for other young people. "Life is a two-way street, and it is rewarding to be able to give back a little of what one was fortunate enough to receive," the architect said.
He has worked as a board member of the Central City Federation, the Fraternity of Friends and Los Angeles Music Center. He has also served on the boards of the Los Angeles chapter and California Council of the American Institute of Architects.
Kennard's professional association with the firms of Neutra & Alexander; Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, and Victor Gruen Associates were valuable stepping stones in building a varied architectural repertoire.
"All of these firms were most helpful in providing me with a broad range of opportunities in design, planning and management," he said.
On graduating from USC's School of Architecture, Kennard prepared a list of 10 architects he would like to work for. Richard Neutra was on that list.
"Neutra's firm was run in the style of the European atelier. He took in apprentices for no pay, to whom the experience of working alongside the master was considered to be sufficient reward," Kennard said.
"But in a gracious moment, knowing that I was planning to get married, Neutra did offer to pay me $50 a month. Unfortunately, that sum could not be considered a livable wage even in the late '40s, and I regretfully declined that wonderful opportunity."
Kennard was hired instead by architect Robert E. Alexander, who later teamed up with Neutra. "So I ended up working with Neutra after all and became the firm's project designer for a $35-million redevelopment project for Elysian Park that took in the entire Chavez Ravine area. The plan, however, did not materialize."
Kennard started his own firm, Robert Kennard Associates in 1957. It evolved into KDG (Kennard Delahousie Gault), and is now known as Kennard Design Group Architecture and uses the same corporate KDG logo for itself and its affiliates--KDG Development and KDG Realty.
Both are headed by daughter Lydia Kennard, an attorney specializing in real estate law and development. Kennard's older daughter, Gail Madyun, is KDG's manager for business development. Kennard's son, William, is an attorney in Washington, D. C.