150 Years of Architectural Inspiration

One of the most enduring symbols of Howard’s influence is Founder’s Library, which sits prominently on a hilltop overlooking the campus. Inspired by Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Founder’s Library not only embodies the ideals of freedom, liberty and high achievement, but it is a testament to the architectural excellence cultivated at Howard that continues to inspire to this day.

Albert I. Cassell was an architectural giant, who served at Howard as a profes- sor, architect and planner. In addition to creating Founder’s Library, Cassell designed some of Howard’s most beloved structures, including Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall and the Chemistry Building. Through his role as an educator, Cassell shared architectural insights with his students that have been passed down from class to class.

Thanks to that enduring knowledge, Howard alumni are making their marks as architectural leaders and bringing their expertise and skills to the design and construction of new buildings around the world. Howard graduates of the College of Engineering & Architecture also have put their stamp on another structural symbol that has the power to inspire a nation: The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Making of a Museum

Since Dec. 16, 2003, when then-President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the NMAAHC, anticipation has built around the idea of having a national treasure to commemorate the African-American experience. For such a historic project, the design of the building was no small matter, and an international design competition was held to determine who should spearhead the effort.

The winner was Freelon Adjaye Bond/ SmithGroup, an architectural team made up of four firms— The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and the SmithGroupJJR.

“I was at Davis Brody Bond at the time and naturally showed some interest and desire in working on the project, so I was able to be part of that competition team,” said Marc Massay (B.Arch. ’93), a project architect. Massay, a second-generation architecture student whose father, Leo D. Massay (B.A. ’64) also graduated from Howard, continued to work on the project through its many phases. His firm, at the time, Davis Brody Bond, was responsible for what’s known as the ‘below-grade spaces,’ parts of the museum that were underground.

“Everything that you see from the ground level to the five levels below, that was our responsibility,” explained Julian Barnes (B.Arch. ’14), who started working for Davis Brody Bond shortly after he graduated. “All the history galleries starting at the 1400s and working our way back up to the theater in addition to the cafeteria and the Contemplative Court— those were our babies.”

Barnes served as a junior architect on the team that helped lead the project through what is called construction administration.

“That phase of the project is when the architect and a lot of the other consultants are collaborating in order to push the building through construction,” Barnes said. “Often during that phase, a lot of problems arise, and the architect provides our most intelligent solution based on the design intent, and our professional experience.”

Design and architecture firms weren’t the only ones involved in the project. Jonathan Harden (B.Arch. ’08) is a project manager for McKissack & McKissack, the company tasked with providing construction management services for the project. Harden’s job was making sure that parts of the kitchen and shop areas were constructed correctly.

“I’d have a list of items,” Harden said, “where the contractors said, ‘We’ve completed this room, and we want you to check it out and make sure we did it according to the way it was designed.’”

Tiara Cypress (B.Arch. ’15), a project engineer with Clark Construction, one of the firms awarded the construction contract for the museum, was in charge of a lot of the document organization. “The architect would send us documents. We’d have to review them, make sure they were actually constructible, and then from there, take them to the subcontractor so they can actually build it,” Cypress said.

Thabo D’Anjou (B.S.M.E. ’14), also a project engineer with Clark Construction, was tasked with making sure details and specifications were met during the construction process on such portions of the museum as the Oprah Winfrey Theater and the museum’s lobbies.

“Even though we had world-class architects, there’s no way that you could catch all the flaws that get meshed between drawing it on paper and actually putting it together,” D’Anjou said. “Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the architect’s intent and what actually goes on in the field.”

A Once-in-a-Lifetime-Project

For those who worked on the project, it soon became evident that this was no ordinary assignment.

“The significance of the project really started to seep in as certain artifacts were procured and then became part of the museum,” Massay said. “To see the segregation-era rail car actually come in and to see the Tuskegee Airmen training plane put into position—once all of those things started to happen, then it really sunk in how significant the building is.”

From an architectural standpoint, the 400,000-square-foot museum was a complex project because 60 percent of the building is underground.

“It’s not a museum where you go to individual galleries on your own, it’s one that you actually experience when you walk through it,” Harden said. “You experience it in a linear way. It wants to tell you a story.”

And what a tale it is.

“When you arrive at the museum, the moment that you step on site, you’re participating in that narrative,” Barnes said. “You go into the main lobby and take the history gallery elevator below- grade. It starts you off at the 1400s and you work your way up in time chronologically. A lot of times, when I’m giving tours to friends or colleagues, I like seeing the facial expressions, or how they’re receiving the information because it’s a progressive story about light, or about a people. As you move up in time, it also becomes more liberating and exciting as you arrive at some of the upper levels. Think about it as a story through time.”

Situated on a five-acre plot of land next to the Washington Monument, its location is a powerful statement, Harden added. The three-tiered shape of the museum is inspired by the Yoruban Carytid, which is a traditional wooden column with a crown at the top. The museum’s exterior panels were inspired by 19th-century ironwork of enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans, and they allow daylight to pass through into the museum. The themes of light and darkness play a role throughout the museum. For example, the Contemplative Court is a memorial area that features both light and water and gives visitors a place to quietly reflect on the African-American journey.

The emotional reactions of family, friends and classmates when the museum finally opened its doors last September were particularly heartfelt by those involved with the project.

“I never thought that something that I worked on could be felt all over the world,” D’Anjou said. “It hit me that this is probably the most monumental project I will ever work on.”

For Massay, one of the best parts of working on the project was working side by side with other Howard alumni.

“When you’re in school, I think every architect dreams of being part of some- thing great,” Massay said. “In this case, I was lucky enough to be part of that team.”

Barnes agreed that Howard’s legacy of excellence in both architecture and African-American achievement has helped him to excel in his career. He sees the museum as a symbol of light and inspiration, much as Cassell likely envisioned Founder’s Library to be.

“The museum is a sacred space for knowledge and information,” Barnes said. “The more that we can get people to align with that understanding, I think the better this nation will be.”

 

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