“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote rings as the Monrovia Historical Museum celebrated King’s 90th birthday with a presentation on Robert Kennard (1920-1995) by Jerome Robinson and Gail Kennard on January 20, 2019. Robert Kennard, a 1986 inductee to the American Institute of Architects’ prestigious College of Fellows, graduated from Monrovia High School in 1938. As Robinson writes, “Today the [Kennard Design Group] is the oldest, continuously owned African American architectural firm west of the Mississippi River. Kennard designed over seven hundred buildings and structures – including forty homes.” The more public Kennard legacies include LAX Parking Lot 1, 3, and 4; Carson City Hall; Van Nuys State Office Building, and entrance to the Hollywood Bowl.
Kennard was born in Los Angeles to James, a Pullman Porter, and Marie, a mother who wanted to move closer to the land. In 1924, the family owned a half acre at 533 E. Walnut in Monrovia and raised oranges and other fruit trees. A teacher at Huntington Elementary, Mrs. Savage, encouraged the Kennards and others to challenge the District’s racial segregation practice, and attempt to send their children to Wild Rose Elementary. Robert’s parents would send the 7-year old to Wild Rose each morning; but for weeks, he would be sent home. Robert said in a 1987 LA Times interview, "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." Robert was allowed to be the one African American student at Orange Avenue Elementary (now Monroe School). When later asked, Marie said “I wanted you to know the kind of world you were going to grow up in. You might as well learn now; because, don't think that you're going to have it that easy."
At Monrovia High School, Robert got support from certain teachers. The drawing teacher, Roy Eller, was so impressed with Robert that he encouraged him to follow the footsteps of pioneering architect Paul Williams. Said Gail, “After USC Architectural School, my father’s job applications were all rejected because he was ‘colored’. But Curtis Chambers saw my father’s talent and hired him.” Gail, now president of Kennard Design Group, added, “My father was mentored and he pledged to mentor others.” After he started his own practice in 1957, Kennard went out of his way to help women, immigrants, and other young architects get their start. “He would speak at Career Days at universities and even elementary schools. He was not wealthy but he always made donations.”
Jerome Robinson said, “[In those days,] it was hard for African Americans to get into acting and architecture, perhaps because in these fields, you can reach immortality.” Robinson, whose own mother was at the Museum to support his presentation, said, “Perhaps the best testimonial to Robert are his three children.” Gail’s sister, Lydia, is a member of USC Board of Trustees. Their brother, William, was U.S. ambassador to the European Union under the Obama administration.
Gail Kennard said, “My dad was mentored by his mother and a handful of teachers. And he paid it forward. We need to also do all the good we can.”