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John Warnecke, Humanist & JFK Designer, 1919-2010
The San Francisco-based architect built one of the largest mid-century firms but never let its size impact the work
The JFK memorial at Arlington National Cemetary, one of many projects Warnecke undertook for the president and his family.

John Carl Warnecke, who died in Healdsburg, CA on April 17, is credited with having carried on the Bay Area humanist tradition inherited from architects Bernard Maybeck and William Wurster, and with fusing that tradition with the Beaux Arts training of his father, also an architect, and his own education with Walter Gropius. His firm, John Carl Warnecke & Associates that he founded in San Francisco in 1946, grew to be one of the largest in the country at midcentury, with offices in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Honolulu, and Washington, D.C.

COURTESY Courtesy margo Merck

One of Warnecke’s earliest projects, a 1956 design for the American Embassy in Thailand, drew heavily on local architectural traditions and received considerable critical attention. It was followed shortly by the commission to design the Hawaii State Capitol, the country’s first modern capitol building. But it was Warnecke’s intervention in the redesign of Lafayette Square, one of the premier public spaces in Washington, D.C., for which he is probably best known.

Plans for the replacement of the existing historic rowhouses with modern government office buildings were already underway when John F. Kennedy entered office in 1961. It was Warnecke, through his friendship with the Kennedys, who prepared a new scheme for the park that saved the existing rowhouses and set the federal buildings to their rear, helping to galvanize a growing national historic preservation movement.

James Roe Ketchum, former White House Curator, said that Mrs. Kennedy, who collaborated with Warnecke to save the historic buildings, “considered it to be one of the greatest accomplishments of the Kennedy administration.” Warnecke’s association with the Kennedys continued after the president’s death, when he was commissioned to design his memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Unlike such firms as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Warnecke’s firm did not operate as a large group practice, nor was it centered on a single creative force, such as the firm headed by Eero Saarinen. Rather, it functioned somewhere between the two, with an approach that strongly embraced collaboration and peer review but was still linked to an identifiable ideology.

The Hawaii State Capital, the only modernsit state capital in the country, designed by Warnecke.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Warnecke himself said “experience has proved that a complete integration of planning, architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, and interior design is necessary for excellence in design. The firm believes that there is basically one unified design profession rising above the separate design disciplines.” As the work of the mid-20th century continues to receive greater attention and study, the forward-looking Warnecke, and by extension the firm of John Carl Warnecke & Associates, will likely occupy an increasingly important place.

Meredith Arms Bzdak

Meredith Arms Bzdak is a senior associate with Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects in Princeton, NJ.