A Trailblazing Campaign to Celebrate and Conserve Black Modernism

Brent Leggs, a senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is working to protect the legacy of 20th-century Black modernists
Conserving Black Modernism A Trailblazing Campaign
Brent Leggs, executive director, African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust For Historic Preservation; he is photographed at the Watts Happening Cultural Center in Los Angeles, one of eight recipients of the new Conserving Black Modernism grants.Photo: André Jones

On a recent visit to Watts Happening Cultural Center, Leggs recalls, “I was excited to see that the building is highly visible and has not been significantly altered.” The coffeehouse, he notes, is still decorated with memorabilia redolent of Black culture. Its $150,000 Conserving Black Modernism grant will be used to create a plan not just for restoring the building but for again making it, Leggs says, “a beloved resource and community asset.”

Charles McAfee swimming pool and poolhouse in Wichita, Kansas.

Photo: Nicole Bissey

Carson City Hall, some 10 miles south of Watts, is another 2023 grantee selected by Leggs, the trust’s Action Fund, and his external jury of nine architects, historians, and preservationists. The early 1970s building exemplifies late-modernist public architecture, California-style, with nautical motifs incorporated into its bright-white, vaguely Brutalist exterior. This time, the lead architect was Kennard and his firm, the Kennard Design Group. (Born in LA in 1920, he completed a number of important local buildings, among them parts of Los Angeles International Airport and the entrance to the Hollywood Bowl.) Carson’s grant will help create a framework for both restoring the building and for letting the world know about Kennard’s role.

Four other Conserving Black Modernism grants went to churches, which, as Leggs points out, were among the first institutions created by African Americans in this country. They include the First Baptist Church-West in Charlotte, North Carolina, designed by Harvey Gantt, who was also the city’s first Black mayor. Another grantee is Jenkins Hall at Morgan State University in Baltimore, designed by Louis Edwin Fry, the first African American to get a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard. Morgan State is one of a number of HBCUs that gave Black architects a chance to design what Leggs calls “intentional monuments, buildings that are stately and permanent,” when nobody else would. (Thanks to another trust program, the HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative, six schools received nearly $700,000 last year to preserve that legacy.)

The city of Wichita, Kansas, meanwhile, received a grant for a public swimming pool designed by and recently renamed for Charles McAfee, who has served as president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. McAfee, a Wichita native, recalls that “McAdams Park was always very important to me, as it was the only park Black people could attend when I was growing up.” So when he got the chance to build a pool there in the late 1960s, he notes, “I used materials that were going to last forever.”

But nothing lasts forever, which is where Leggs comes in. His goal? Not just to physically restore the pool and its distinctive modular shade structures, but to make its construction, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, part of the American story. Cheryl McAfee, Charles’s daughter and the first African American woman to receive an architecture license in the state of Kansas, says: “Black contributions don’t just need to exist—they need to be elevated.”

This story appears in AD’s February 2024 issue. Never miss an issue when you subscribe to AD.

All site below are 2023 grant recipients from the National Trust For Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which includes the Conserving Black Modernism initiative, a partnership with the Getty Foundation.