By Susie Ling
In 1986, Robert Kennard was inducted into the prestigious AIA College of Fellows for excellence in the field of architecture. Established in 1957, his Kennard Design Group (KDG) is one of the largest and oldest African American architectural firms in Los Angeles. Robert Alexander Kennard (1920-1995) was a Monrovian who graduated from Monrovia High in 1938. It was Jerome Robinson of USC’s School of Architecture who recently dug into this history in his thesis. Perhaps, Monrovia should better celebrate its own rich heritage.
Robert Kennard was born in Los Angeles to James and Marie Bryan Kennard. James had been a pullman porter. The family moved to Monrovia in 1924. “Grandma wanted to do farming here,” said Gail Kennard, now president of KDG. They built a half acre of orange grove at 533 E. Walnut Ave. in Monrovia.
The Kennards wanted their four children to thrive and complete college, but the children were forced by Monrovia School District to attend the segregated Huntington Elementary. Marie Kennard decided different. She insisted that seven-year old Robert be allowed to attend Wild Rose Elementary that was actually closer to their home. For about two weeks, Robert would walk to Wild Rose where the school administrators would turn him away each day.
James Kennard acquired an attorney. Monrovia School administrators compromised and allowed Robert to enroll in Orange Avenue (now Monroe) School. Huntington Elementary would remain segregated until 1970.
As an adult, Robert asked his mother why she insisted on such a difficult path for a young boy. Marie said, “Because 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 easy.”
Aside from his parents, Robert had a handful of teachers that believed in him at the integrated Monrovia High. Edna Chess and Roy Eller encouraged Robert’s passion for drawing. Mr. Eller introduced Robert to the work of pioneering African American architect Paul R. Williams. The seed was sown.
At Pasadena Junior College (PJC), Robert met Benjamin McAdoo of Pasadena. Robert and Benjamin won first and second place in the PJC architectural design competition. Despite excellent grades, Robert could not afford the $10 admission fee to USC and thought to work first.
Robert wrote 13 letters to architectural firms requesting apprenticeship. In the ensuing seven interviews, he was rejected seven times as architectural firms then “[didn’t] hire colored people.” Robert’s daughter Gail Kennard said, “Perhaps it was more difficult for African Americans to penetrate the Hollywood and architecture industries as their success would become immortal.”
Robert transferred to USC School of Architecture with the G. I. Bill after serving in World War II. Kennard Design Group has worked on more than 800 projects including: LAX Parking Lot 1, 3, 4; Carson City Hall; Van Nuys State Office Building; and entrance to the Hollywood Bowl.
More importantly, Kennard always invested in mentoring others in ways that he wished he had been mentored. He worked with a lot of women and people of color moving into architecture. Gail, said, “Dad spoke on many career panels – even in elementary schools!”
Jerome Robinson added, “Robert’s mentoring is most obvious in the success of his own three children.” Kennard’s other daughter, Lydia Kennard is now a Trustee at USC and his son William Kennard was an ambassador in the Obama administration.
Gail Kennard also said, “On June 11, 1949, 21 members of the USC graduating class originally attended Monrovia High. Yes, my father was the only African American of this 21. But how many Monrovia High students graduate from USC today?”
Jerome Robinson’s thesis, “An Odyssey in B-Flat: Rediscovering the Life and Times of Master Architect Robert A. Kennard”, is available at the Monrovia Historical Museum at 742 E. Lemon.
On Feb. 23, 1-3 pm, Monrovia Duarte Black Alumni Association presents “Black Migration and Urban Realities” at the Monrovia Community Center. Kennard will be there in spirit.