A TRIBUTE: Harold L. Adams

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It is nearly impossible to write the name Harold Adams without the four capital letters R, T, K and L showing up somewhere in the same sentence. That is how inextricable the man and the practice were. Harold of course was RTKL’s long-time CEO and President and Chairman and Managing Principal, but whatever title you give him, it somehow seems to fall short. He was the firm’s engine and soul and driving force; and it’s inconceivable to think of the place, or the profession, without him in it.

I first met Harold in the summer of 1986 when, through a series of bizarre events, I connected with Tom Page, who worked with Harold at Jack Warnecke’s office and was then serving as RTKL’s marketing maven and consigliere. I was being considered for a job in the marketing group and Harold was the final hurdle between me and a regular paycheck. It took three trips to Baltimore but I was finally granted an audience at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. As we walked into Harold’s office on the 11th floor of Pratt Street, overlooking the city’s new gleaming Inner Harbor, Tom turned to me and said, “Don’t say anything stupid.”

And so the three of us sat in an agonizing, awkward silence for 45 minutes. Maybe 12 words were exchanged. But I was told the next morning that Mr. Adams enjoyed the conversation.

I got the gig (and the paychecks) but, more importantly, learned my first lesson in Harold: He said more with his silences than he did with his words.

(L to R): Frank Taliaferro, Tom Wheatley, Charlie Lamb, Harold Adams and George Pillorgé

And so the three of us sat in an agonizing, awkward silence for 45 minutes. Maybe 12 words were exchanged. But I was told the next morning that Mr. Adams enjoyed the conversation.

Where it Started

Harold joined RTKL in 1967, when the firm still went by Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky and Lamb and worked on small, local projects that seemed more like academic exercises than paying architectural commissions. He was so young at the time that when the partners found out exactly how old he was they were reluctant to take him on. “Don’t worry,” said George (the “K” in RTKL), “he acts like he’s 45.” A few weeks later, he took away their credit cards, developed a staffing plan and started sending out regular invoices. He may have been a kid, and valued silence over static, but the message was clear: There’s a new sheriff in town.

Harold understood intuitively that the firm needed to be run like a real business, and he was just the man to do it. Sure, the core of what we did was creative and the nature of that beast is to resist all forms of order and discipline, but that’s exactly what Harold brought to the table. Instead of imploding, which some thought would happen, the company thrived because Harold had the preternatural ability to allow the creative to flourish within the armature of a righteous organization. And you don’t find that too often in this business.

One could argue that these early days were among the most successful in the firm’s history—not only were we taking down national-level urban design projects but the work was winning awards and getting noticed, attracting some of the best young talent in the country. A connection with Pietro Belluschi, who Charlie (the “L”) and Frank (the “T”) worked with on the Church of the Redeemer, gave them a path into MIT and other schools that brought an influx of talent that would be unmatched for quite some time.

And each recruit would be dutifully marched into Harold’s office, which had the eerie feel of being ushered into the principal’s office, and would get either a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

Harold not only knew how to identify good people but he knew what it took to keep them engaged, happy, loyal. Later on, as the firm’s global bulwark was just getting stoked, Harold saw they needed the right infrastructure not only to grow but to expand geographically. Finance, legal, IT, HR and, yes, even marketing, needed leaders who knew how to play his style of chess in multiple languages, multiple currencies and multiple cultures.

Under his steady hand—Harold had a disarming, Zen-like inscrutability to him—the firm grew with a purpose, oddly mirroring the trajectory of the City of Baltimore. They abandoned the residential townhouse they were in on Cathedral Street and moved into real office space in The Village of Cross Keys, a suburban new community development. In the early 1980’s, as the Inner Harbor emerged as a prototype of urban regeneration, they moved to Pratt Street, then followed the city’s renaissance eastward to One Commerce Place and, eventually, Fells Point. Each move was calculated and deliberate and reinforced RTKL’s role in the community as urbanists and agents of change.

In the meantime, the firm was also opening offices around the country. Dallas, Washington, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago all followed suit, led by a team of some of the best in the business. Dave Hudson, Paul Jacob, Lance Josal and Kim Heartwell are all among the three-decade-plus members of RTKL alumni who would take on future positions of firm leadership and had a small snip of Adams DNA somewhere in their systems.

But it was not domestic expansion that would define Harold’s legacy—it was his driving, impatient curiosity for whatever was over the far horizon. The quiet guy from Palmer, Texas, always knew there was something bigger beyond the outskirts of town and he never hesitated to go and find it.

It was his driving, impatient curiosity for whatever was over the far horizon. The quiet guy from Palmer, Texas, always knew there was something bigger beyond the outskirts of town and he never hesitated to go and find it.

At this point in the firm’s growth (the late 1980’s and early 1990’s), RTKL had perfected a type of commercially driven expertise that was hard to find outside the United States. The work blended solid chops in urbanism and design with an economic viability that eluded many of our competitors, and the world was ready for it.

Harold oversaw the opening of offices in Tokyo, London and Hong Kong, where the projects were massive and complex and squarely in our wheelhouse. China would come later, of course, but those early days of international expansion had a palpable energy to them and a sense anything could, and usually did, happen. Harold thrived, reveling in the ambassadorial role and the challenge of having another, larger chess board to play.

Nothing on the scale of RTKL’s success can be attributed to a single person, and I don’t want to give the impression that it was all Harold all the time. The firm was always a family of extraordinary professionals who unhesitatingly hopped on planes, missed innumerable piano recitals and birthdays and anniversaries to go and make a presentation or pitch in some far-off corner of Eastern Zembla; and every one of those individuals deserve credit. But, make no mistake, it was Harold behind the curtain, tapping the gauges, moving the levers and making the connections.

He always made a point of checking in on every office. The travel must have been brutal. Occasionally, Janice, his wife of 59 years, would join him and that made a difference. Watching the two of them together, outside the chaos of the office and wrestling with a menu in an unfamiliar language, always brought me great joy because it was clear his energy came from her. The man positively glowed in her presence, even after nearly six decades of marriage, and that is nothing short of wonderful.

Every year Harold sends out a Christmas card with a picture of him and Janice and the kids, usually up at the farm. The younger, more cynical me always poked a little fun at the card (along with the old school convention of sending out pieces of paper at all), but it’s hard to explain how much I looked forward to it. Over the years the group shot has come to include nearly 20 Adams adults, dogs and other animals, tractors and other miscellanea. I joked with him once that if any more grandchildren arrive the card format would need to change to a billboard poster. He beamed.

One last bit on Harold’s legacy at RTKL: From the start Harold advocated for a strong presence in the public and civic arena, especially work for the Federal government. Perhaps this came from his time with Warnecke and Lafayette Square, maybe his sense of duty and public service sparked by his relationship with the Kennedy family, but he knew it was the right business move for the company. The challenge, though, was that it was a hard market to break into. His strategy was simple: team with others who did it better than we did. It seemed self-evident, but the trick meant putting egos in check and working alongside competitors, an approach that a lot of architects would never even entertain. This was not a problem for Harold, who managed to parlay the strategy into a solid roster of projects for, among others, GSA, the Department of Defense, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of State and the U.S. Architect of the Capitol, all work in which Harold played some type of role.

The final chapter of Harold’s career unfolded at his alma mater, Texas A&M, which fittingly brought him home to where it began. In 2019, A&M named him an Outstanding Alumnus of the College of Architecture and granted him an honorary doctor of letters degree. He taught a class on professional practice, sharing the trials and tribulations he navigated throughout his career, which also seems only right. In 2018 he helped establish the Interdisciplinary Charette for Undergraduates, a program that brings together first- and second-year undergraduates from each of the college’s five core programs.

Like everything these days, news of Harold’s death spread like a wildfire on social media. As my personal channels pinged incessantly over those few days, what amazed me was not the incredibly touching things people said but the intimacy of the comments and the fact that they came from all across the globe. Europe, Asia, the Middle East. Harold touched so many people—so many young professionals so early in their careers—in so many places.

Most of the comments, dozens of them, refer to him as a mentor and a type of father figure, which seems apt of course. He was the guy you never wanted to let down, the guy who kicked you in the ass when you needed a kick in the ass, and the guy who helped you up when you got punched in the nose, dusted you off and threw you back in the ring.

Harold’s legacy was not just RTKL. It was family.

Harold Lynn Adams FAIA, JIA, RIBA died in the early morning of Tuesday, 12 April 2022, at his home in Bryan (College Station), Texas, surrounded by his family. His death came after a short battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He is survived by his wife, Janice; his younger brother Dan; and his children Harold Lynn II, Abigail, Ashley John (AJ), and Samuel, and 11 grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Harold L. Adams ’61 Interdisciplinary Professorship in Visualization or Harold L. Adams Interdisciplinary Charrette for Undergraduates, Texas A&M University School of Architecture.


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