People may not think of Paul Devrouax the same way they think of Pierre L’Enfant or Benjamin Latrobe, men who left their mark on history by leaving their mark on Washington, D.C.
But they should. Starting in the 1980s, Devrouax, along with his partner Marshall Purnell, led the rebuilding of the national capital after decades of decay, crime, and neglect. Devrouax, who died March 22 at age 67, worked on many of the city’s recent landmarks, including the new convention center, the Verizon Center, the Washington Nationals baseball park, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial underway along the Tidal Basin.
His firm’s work was not only well designed, but well placed. The Reeves Center, a city office building opened in 1986, jumpstarted the renewal of the historic 14th and U street area, while the Verizon Center had the same impact on Chinatown. Devrouax was not a Washington native. Born and raised in New Orleans and Los Angeles, he took his architecture degree from Southern University at Baton Rouge, LA. The architect first came to Washington in the late 1960s as a sergeant in the Sixth Armored Calvary Regiment based at Fort Meade in suburban Maryland.
On April 4, just hours after King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, rioting broke out in central Washington. The next day, Devrouax’s unit received orders to move into the city and set up patrol alongside tens of thousands of other troops. I first met Devrouax when I interviewed him for a book I was writing about the King riots. Sitting in his studio in downtown Washington, he told me about how difficult those next few days had been. “It was something I was obligated to do,” he said. “If I hadn’t been in the army, if I’d been on the other side, I don’t know what I’d have been doing.”
That experience left a lasting mark. He returned to Washington in 1973, and five years later, Devrouax + Purnell opened its doors. Both architects were risk-averse in their designs, and their buildings never pushed the envelope of form or style. But when it came to rebuilding a city with the debilitating complexities of Washington in the 1980s, an experimental streak could have been a liability.
Instead, their work was about melding solidity with transparency, creating buildings that at once speak to the permanence of the city’s renewal as well as to its new spirit of openness and community. The Reeves Center, opened in 1986 on the exact site where the 1968 riots began, is a balance between squat massing and—for the time and place—a daring amount of glass and street-front retail space.
The same catalyzing effect can be felt at the Washington Nationals Park, which Devrouax + Purnell designed with HOK Sport (now Populous), and which opened in 2008. The park sits alongside the Anacostia River, in one of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. The architects decided to sink the playing field below grade and keep the outfield bleachers as low as possible; as a result, fans are greeted not by the structure’s ugly underside but the roar of the crowd and a spreading vista of green.
Some people strive to leave their mark out of vanity; others, like Devrouax, do it out of love for their community and a humble sense of service. Devrouax cut a tall, lanky yet imposing figure, but he was never intimidating. He had a warm smile and a rich, comforting voice. But more than that, he gave of his time to anyone who asked. He was, according to his former associates, a teacher and a mentor; it’s no surprise that, according to The Washington Post, at least 14 firms have emerged from the Devrouax + Purnell offices.
I experienced that same warmth about a year ago, when Devrouax joined me and two other Washingtonians on a panel at Busboys and Poets, a bookstore and cafe across the street from the Reeves Center, to discuss my book. As we chatted beforehand, Devrouax pulled out his iPhone to show me a fly-through video of his firm’s design for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, one of six chosen for the final round. The competition was in its final days, and the firm must have been wracked by deadlines and nervous impatience. Yet here was Devrouax, cool and collected, spending several hours sitting on a panel to promote someone else’s book.
Of course, Devrouax wasn’t there just for me. He was there to tell Washingtonians about his experience, to give even a few dozen people a little better insight into their city’s history. Like everything else he did, Paul Devrouax was there to give back to his community, and to do whatever he could to make it a better place.