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D.C. architect Paul Devrouax led the way for black firms

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; C06

When Paul Devrouax was in the Army in 1968, he was sent from his post at Fort Meade into downtown Washington to quell the rioting after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He patrolled the intersection of 14th and U streets NW, near the heated center of the unrest.

Almost 20 years later, Mr. Devrouax (pronounced DEV-uh-roh) returned to the same corner, only without his helmet and rifle. By then, he was a principal in Devrouax & Purnell, one of Washington's largest black-owned architecture firms. He and his partner, Marshall Purnell, designed the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, the first major building to rise on U Street in decades. It was at the vanguard of an entire neighborhood's revival.

"I watched the city burn down," Mr. Devrouax told The Washington Post in 1989, "and I find it ironic that later I would be involved in building it back up again."

For more than 30 years, Paul S. Devrouax Jr. helped weave the urban fabric of Washington. He and his firm worked on some of the region's largest and most significant buildings, including the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the Pepco building, what is now Verizon Center and the Freddie Mac headquarters in McLean. Along with HOK Sport of Kansas City, Devrouax & Purnell designed Washington's Nationals Park, which opened in 2008.

"I like to say that every year, over 32 million people live, work, play or otherwise move through space we've designed," Purnell said Friday.

On March 22, after attending meetings for possible projects, Mr. Devrouax died at his home in the District of a heart attack. He was 67.

He and Purnell formed their partnership in 1978, working out of a basement near Dupont Circle. Mr. Devrouax focused on management and Purnell on design, but it was hard to tell where one partner's contributions left off and the other's began.

"We got to the point we could finish each other's sentences," Purnell said. "We never, in 32 years, had an argument. I don't think I heard him raise his voice, ever."

They designed the underground garage and luxury boxes at Verizon Center, including the private suite of the late Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin. They renovated historic buildings; built an information center at Howard University; designed the Studio Theatre and the African American Civil War Memorial; and had projects in California, Turkey, Yugoslavia and Russia.

It wasn't until 1995, upon completion of a 190,000-square-foot addition to the Freddie Mac campus in McLean, that Devrouax & Purnell could lay claim to a signature building. It marked the first time a black-led architecture firm had designed a headquarters building for a Fortune 500 company.

In 1998, Devrouax & Purnell began designing the new main offices for Pepco at Ninth and G streets NW. The building, made of limestone, granite, glass and stainless steel, went up between two Washington landmarks: the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, designed by Mies van der Rohe; and the 19th-century Patent Office Building, which now houses the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum.

When the Pepco building, with its bold, curving facade, was completed in 2002, Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey called it "a fresh wind blowing down Ninth Street on a bright spring day" and "as sure-handed a piece of architectural urbanism as Washington has seen in many a moon."

It became an instant landmark in its own right and was notable for something beyond its striking architectural presence.

"Surprisingly -- astonishingly," Forgey wrote, "the Pepco headquarters is the first downtown building in this majority black city ever known to be designed by African American architects."

The Pepco building, along with virtually every other project Devrouax & Purnell has handled, was finished on time and under budget. But even with a reputation as some of the city's most reliable and respected architects, Mr. Devrouax and Purnell still had a hard time breaking into the D.C. network of builders and developers.

A soft-spoken man who didn't like to raise the specter of racism in his profession, Mr. Devrouax sometimes wondered whether there could be any other explanation.

"It's difficult to put a finger on it, to say this is it," he told The Post. "We went to all the meetings and got to know all the movers and shakers. But our phone didn't ring."

Paul Spencer Devrouax Jr. was born on Oct. 4, 1942, in New Orleans. In his teens, while living with an uncle in Los Angeles, he attended a lecture at his high school by African American architect Paul R. Williams, who designed homes for dozens of Hollywood entertainers, including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck and Danny Thomas.

Mr. Devrouax returned to Louisiana and received his architecture degree from Southern University at Baton Rouge, then began his career at an Arlington County subsidiary of Westinghouse. He practiced architecture briefly in Miami before forming his first firm in Washington in 1973. Mr. Devrouax served on many cultural and civic councils and was president of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

His immediate survivors include his wife of 37 years, the former Brenda Stallworth, and a daughter, Lesley Devrouax, both of Washington; and two brothers.

But in another sense, Mr. Devrouax leaves a larger family of hundreds of younger architects who learned under his tutelage. No fewer than 14 architectural firms have been formed by his former associates, and in some ways Mr. Devrouax considered them his most enduring edifice.

"We know fully what our responsibility is," he said in 2004. "Helping other young architects -- now, that's the most rewarding accomplishment."

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