Francis D. Lethbridge, 87; Leading Architect

Francis Donald Lethbridge designed modern houses while fostering respect for historic buildings.
Francis Donald Lethbridge designed modern houses while fostering respect for historic buildings. (Photo By Terry Pommett)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Francis Donald Lethbridge, 87, the dean of Washington architects who combined decidedly contemporary taste with leadership of the local historic preservation movement, died after a stroke April 17 at Nantucket Cottage Hospital in Nantucket, Mass., where he had lived since 1990.

Mr. Lethbridge designed modernist suburban communities, Arlington National Cemetery's visitors center, River Road Unitarian Church and the building at 1619 Massachusetts Ave. NW, which now houses part of Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. He also designed the U.S. chancery in Lima, Peru.

Unusual for an architect with modernist preferences, he also led a historic preservation movement years before the idea of cultural conservation was widely accepted.

"You could call Don the father of historic preservation in Washington," said architect Colden Florance, a board member of the D.C. Preservation League.

Mr. Lethbridge co-founded the National Capital Landmarks Committee in 1964 and led what was primarily a grass-roots movement for more than a decade. "He had a basic philosophical understanding of architecture and was not simply stylistic," Florance noted.

"Preservation is better than restoration, restoration is better than reconstruction," Mr. Lethbridge said at the time.

"He was an architect with a conscience and a sense of public responsibility, and in a way, a spokesman for architectural values to the community," said Benjamin Forgey, retired architecture critic of The Washington Post. Mr. Lethbridge's opinions were firm and pointed. In 1963, he described many of Washington's new office buildings as "fat, graceless forms tightly clad in store-bought suits . . . [which] lack any serious purpose other than individual economic gain." He was also critical of the design for the Kennedy Center, which he often referred to as "the box that the Watergate came in," Florance said.

More than 10 years later, speaking about his award-winning partnership Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon, Mr. Lethbridge said: "We've been opposed to architecture as trickery or showing off. . . . We've reacted strongly against buildings as a billboard or a bizarre affliction. In the urban scene, anything that's eccentric, which clamors for attention, becomes a bore if repeated. . . . We all believe that conspicuous consumption is unbecoming in a building."

The firm, where Mr. Lethbridge worked from 1957 to 1975, employed so many architects who went on to later start their own firms that it was called "Washington's post-graduate school of architecture."

It was there, as well at his previous partnership with Arthur Keyes, Clothiel Smith and Nicholas Satterlee, that Mr. Lethbridge designed the suburban communities of Pine Spring and Holmes Run Acres in Virginia and Carderock Springs and Potomac Overlook in Maryland. The contemporary houses were individually sited by the architects, with as little alteration to the landscape as possible, an unusual amount of attention for affordably priced homes. The interiors featured open floor plans with sliding glass walls.

"The whole idea of contemporary design was so new in Washington that Nick [Satterlee] and I had to write the ads and the brochure to explain what we were trying to do," Mr. Lethbridge said in 1974. "I guess we succeeded, because the printer of the brochure went out the next day after setting it and bought a house in Holmes Run."

That Fairfax County development was listed on the National Register of Historic Places a year ago. At one time, 80 architects were among the 300 homeowners there.

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