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Architects Step Up to the Plate

Architects Marshall Purnell, left, and Paul Devrouax have put their stamp on major D.C. projects including the Washington Convention Center.
Architects Marshall Purnell, left, and Paul Devrouax have put their stamp on major D.C. projects including the Washington Convention Center. (James M Thresher - The Washington Post)

They joined forces in June 1978 at the Dallas convention of the American Institute of Architects. At the time, Devrouax, a graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., had his own, tiny firm in a basement office in Dupont Circle, while Purnell, who graduated from the University of Michigan, worked on staff at the AIA.

Purnell was ready for a change. Although his job allowed him to travel to Russia, France and California, he wanted to practice architecture, not champion it for a professional society.

"I was getting fat and happy flying around the world. It was too good," Purnell said. "I was young and wanted to practice."

He had many offers from large firms, he said, but chose to join Devrouax because the two had similar goals: As young African American architects, they wanted to break through ages of discrimination and prejudice and design major commercial buildings in the District.

"We didn't want to do additions to schools and firehouses and churches in the suburbs," Purnell said "We were in it to do main commercial structures that could be high design."

Devrouax had the local connections. He had worked mostly in housing, but was ready to take the next step. Purnell had the federal and national connections from his time at AIA. During their first few months together, the pair got a new office on Connecticut Avenue NW.

Devrouax remembers returning from a fruitless interview for a big job to find Purnell whooping it up with champagne. At first, Devrouax was stunned: "This was my new partner?"

It turned out that they had landed a job helping design what would become the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW. A short time later, they won a consulting gig on the Pennsylvania Avenue historic preservation study.

"You could see the synergy," Purnell said. "Within the first six months, we saw this thing had potential."

Making Their Mark

By the 1980s, the firm was established and rolling with more than 20 full-time staff members.

Eric Colbert, who now runs his own D.C. firm, spent a year at Devrouax & Purnell in 1980. "A lot of the work was really grueling," he recalled recently. "Go and measure 50 burned-out row houses on North Capitol Street in the freezing cold and with homeless people living there. It seemed not necessarily the most glamorous work, but it gave me a good feel for dimensions of houses and measuring buildings. The thing I learned most from being there was an introduction to residential architecture."

Devrouax and Purnell had ambitions larger than housing. They wanted the big offices. The Reeves Center was completed in 1986. They designed a parking garage at Union Station and some of the interior at MCI Center.

Their next big project was designing a building on the McLean campus of mortgage-broker giant Freddie Mac. That gave them the credentials they needed to compete for what has become their signature work: the Pepco building at 9th and G streets NW.

John M. Derrick Jr., then chairman of Pepco's board, "made it a point to try to not just go to one of big-10 firms," said John Chirtea, a consultant who helped coordinate the project. "They wanted to look locally. They looked at some of the work that Devrouax and Purnell had done and said, 'Let's give them a shot.' "

It was a clarion moment. No major building in the downtown core had been designed solely by black architects, Purnell said.

The challenge of the building was manifold. Several architectural styles are present at that intersection: The classical Smithsonian American Art Museum (the Old Patent Office Building) is on one corner, and the sleek, minimalist Mies van der Rohe-designed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is on another. Furthermore, the Pepco building could not be extended all the way to the corner because of zoning rules.

So Devrouax and Purnell incorporated a public plaza. The building has a glass curtain along 9th Street that curves, affording southbound pedestrians a clear view of the stately art museum as they approach the intersection at G Street.

Pepco, said Chirtea, was "extremely pleased. They have nothing but great things to say about them."

Shortly after the building opened in 2002, Washington Post art critic Benjamin Forgey described the glass curve as "as sure-handed a piece of architectural urbanism as Washington has seen in many a moon."

Big Projects Still Elusive

Despite their success with the Pepco building, Devrouax and Purnell say they have not gotten many more calls to be the sole designers for major commercial buildings. They designed the Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex in Largo. They were part of a team that worked on the Washington Convention Center, and they designed a 16,000-square-foot building for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation in Southwest.

But in the District, big projects have been elusive.

"It's a shame," Chirtea said, "but many developers are just reluctant to step out and use a black firm."

Devrouax & Purnell has had steady work, including partnering with San Francisco's ROMA Design Group to design the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall. But the duo is not satisfied.

"We are talented and know it, but still the development community does not pick up the phone and call us," Devrouax said. "We hope that will change someday."

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