Harold L. Adams, longtime CEO of RTKL, passes away at 82


Harold L. Adams, longtime CEO of RTKL, passes away at 82

Harold L. Adams, Chairman Emeritus of RTKL Associates, now CallisonRTKL. (Courtesy CallisonRTKL)

Harold Adams, an architect and educator who worked on federal projects in the 1960s with then-President John F. Kennedy and then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and later served as chairman and CEO of RTKL, has died after a brief illness at his home in Bryan, Texas. He was 82.

As head of RTKL, Adams brought business savvy and led the transformation of a one-office architectural firm in Baltimore to a global design practice with projects in more than 60 countries.

Under his leadership, RTKL became one of the first American architecture firms to be allowed to practice in China. RTKL invested heavily in technology and introduced CAD earlier than many offices. In 2015, RTKL merged with Seattle-based Callison and is now known as CallisonRTKL.

Born in Palmer, Texas, Harold Lynn Adams graduated from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1962. After college, he was hired by John Carl Warnecke and Associates and began working with Warnecke on Kennedy-era building projects in the nation’s capital, including a preservation-oriented plan for introducing federal courts and an executive office building to Lafayette Square without destroying historic homes in the area.

portrait of a young harold adams
Harold L. Adams (Courtesy CallisonRTKL)

Adams’ work on Lafayette Square, which caught the attention of the President and First Lady, led to multiple projects for the Kennedy family, including an addition to Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s house in McLean, Virginia; renovations of several homes at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and early meetings to discuss possible sites for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Adams also served as the project manager for the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, known for its “Eternal Flame.” 

RTKL was started in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1949 and later moved to Baltimore to work on the 33-acre Charles Center renewal project for the Greater Baltimore Committee. Its early principals gave the firm its name: Rogers, Taliferro, Kostritsky, and Lamb, for Archibald Rogers, Francis Taliaferro, George Kostritsky, and Charles Lamb—later shortened to RTKL Associates Inc. and then to RTKL.

Adams joined RTKL in 1967, became president in 1969, CEO in 1971, and chairman in 1987. During his tenure, RTKL grew by opening offices in cities such as Madrid, London, Tokyo, and Shanghai, and gained a reputation for design and management expertise. When Adams retired in 2003, the firm had 1,200 employees in 14 offices around the world.

During Adams’ time at RTKL, the firm’s projects included rebuilding the Pentagon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; the United States Capitol Visitor Center; the renovation of Bancroft Hall at the U. S. Naval Academy; the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, and master planning for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the urban ballpark that’s celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Adams worked with three different Architects of the Capitol on the Capitol Visitor Center.

members of an architecture firm posing for a photo in the 1960s
Members of RTKL, pictured left to right: Frank Taliaferro, Tom Wheatly, Charlie Lamb, Harold Adams, and George Pilorge. (Courtesy CallisonRTKL)

Lance Josal, who joined RTKL in 1979 and was its CEO or chair from 2009 to 2019, said Adams had a rare ability “to identify and hire varying types of design talent from throughout the profession who became instrumental in building his vision of a world-class architectural firm…He was a great evaluator of talent. He really knew design talent when he saw it.”

Josal said a big part of Adams’ success is that “he had a unique capacity to really think like our clients, to know what they were looking for, while all the time knowing how to assemble a team to execute as a world-class architecture firm. Not only could he find the talent, but he also was very good at talking to clients about what their concerns were and putting a team together that would respond well to those concerns.”

Adams is credited with founding the Large Firm Roundtable for the American Institute of Architects (AIA), giving executives of large design firms a collegial setting where they can meet and discuss problems and solutions the same way operators of smaller firms do.

The AIA awarded Adams with two of its highest honors, the Edward C. Kemper Award, for his leadership in the profession, and membership in its College of Fellows. He served as chancellor of the College of Fellows in 1997–1998. In 2014, he received the College of Fellows’ highest honor, the Leslie N. Boney Spirit of Fellowship Award, for his years of service.

Adams also received the Society of American Military Engineers’ first-ever Max O. Urbahn Medal for achievement in architecture and was inducted into The National Academy of Construction. He was one of the first Americans to hold a first-class Kenchikushi license from Japan’s Ministry of Construction and also belonged to the Royal Institute of British Architects. He served as a trustee and board chair for several arts, education, and civic organizations in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of Texas A&M in 2011, Adams joined its College of Architecture in 2018 as a Professor of Professional Practice. The following year, he received an honorary doctor of letters degree from the university. He endowed four professorships and one scholarship with the College of Architecture and served as a member of its College Development Advisory Council.

The cause of Adams’ death was glioblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer that occurs in the brain. He is survived by his wife, Janice; children Harold Lynn II, Abigail, Ashley John, and Samuel, and 11 grandchildren. A memorial service will be held later this spring, and he will be buried on his family farm in Needmore, Pennsylvania.