At the noisy construction site of the new 77th Street Regional Police Facility in South-Central Los Angeles, Gail Kennard Madyun is surrounded by welders fusing the beams and columns of a steel skeleton. Her slight figure, capped by a yellow hard hat, is dwarfed by the scale of the $37-million project. Once again, she recalls how she came to be part of this scene.
Her thoughts drift back to the day, 10 years earlier, when her father, architect Robert Kennard, called her in Atlanta. " 'Come home,' he urged. 'We need help at the firm.' I complied immediately," Madyun recalls. "I adored my dad, and I knew the firm was vitally important to him, and to Los Angeles."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 24, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Sunday profile--United Press International news service remains in operation. An article in the Jan. 21 edition of Life & Style misstated its status.
So she left her job as a reporter for the now-defunct United Press International news service to help him survive the deep recession then developing in the local construction industry.
The firm was, and is, atypical. Located in a mid-Wilshire high-rise, the Kennard Design Group is the oldest continuously operating African American architectural practice in the western United States. Started in 1957, it has survived almost four decades in choppy social and economic waters that have tested the mettle of bigger firms. It has also survived the death last year of Robert Kennard. In a field where having five or more professionals on staff is equated with success, KDG employs 20.
Robert Kennard was widely respected. His courteous manner belied a deep determination to transcend racial barriers. And he was known as a friend to other minority firms; in its 38-year history KDG has spun off seven designers who have started their own offices.
"When my father called me back from Atlanta, the firm was really having a hard time," Madyun says, picking her way through the debris of the construction site. "The recession had begun to hit us badly, as it had all architects. But what concerned my father most was the problem of succession. . . . Considering the struggle black architects have in getting established in the first place, very few manage to survive into the next generation."
None of Kennard's three children had grown up to become architects. Lydia Kennard, the younger daughter, is an attorney specializing in real estate development law; she runs KDG Development, which sponsors projects in minority communities. William Kennard is general counsel to the Federal Communications Commission in Washington. But her father thought that Gail, a Stanford and UC Berkeley grad who once taught journalism at UCLA, had the marketing and communications skills to see the firm through a sharp drop in commissions caused by the recession.
Now 44, Madyun favors long skirts, elegantly tailored jackets and colorful head scarves. She can be serious when discussing architects' social responsibility to the community and wryly amused when she considers her unique position as the only African American woman in the state to head an architects office. And when talking about her father, Madyun's expressive face is suffused with fondness. "Despite his long struggle against a hostile, frankly racist, environment, my dad was completely without rancor," she says. "He had an extraordinary, quiet dignity which disarmed everyone, even the prejudiced."
In a 1987 interview with The Times, Robert Kennard recalled living in segregated Monrovia as a child. "Each day my mother would pack my lunch box and send me off to Wildrose School. Each day the school would turn me away, and next day my mother would send me back. 'Hang in there,' she told me, and I did." Eventually, school officials relented, allowing Robert in.
As a USC architecture student, Kennard was inspired by the example of Paul Williams, a black architect who designed fashionable houses in Brentwood, Beverly Hills and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, plus Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire Boulevard and the Los Angles County Courthouse downtown. Another influence was Modernist master Richard Neutra. Kennard would go on to work with Neutra's sometime partner, Robert Alexander, after graduating in the mid-1940s.
A decade later, Kennard boldly decided to set out on his own. Encouraged and supported by his wife, Helen, a high school teacher, he began to garner commissions for the public buildings that make up most of KDG's distinguished portfolio. These include Carson City Hall and Civic Center, the trauma center at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Watts, several schools and three parking structures at Los Angeles International Airport. More recently, KDG collaborated on the five-year renovation of the Los Angeles Central Library.
When Kennard died of cancer at age 75 last March, the encomiums from colleagues and former associates were lavish.