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John Carl Warnecke, 91

John Carl Warnecke dies at 91, designed Kennedy gravesite

Mr. Warnecke with Jacqueline Kennedy, viewing a model of Jackson Place at Lafayette Square.
Mr. Warnecke with Jacqueline Kennedy, viewing a model of Jackson Place at Lafayette Square. (Robert Knudsen, White House, Office Of The Naval Aide, Courtesy Of The John F. Kennedy Library)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

John Carl Warnecke, 91, a San Francisco-based architect whose friendship with the Kennedy family led to some of his best-known designs, including Washington's historic Lafayette Square and the Kennedy gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, died April 17 at his family ranch in California's Sonoma County. He had pancreatic cancer.

In a career spanning more than 45 years, Mr. Warnecke made a name for himself as an architect whose modernist approach was tempered by a sensitivity for history and the environment. He built what was once one of the country's largest architectural concerns, John Carl Warnecke and Associates, which took on projects as diverse as commercial skyscrapers, airports, libraries, civic complexes and shopping centers.

Working first with his architect father and later alone, he rose to prominence with well-regarded designs for schools and university buildings in his native California. In the mid-1950s, he won a commission to build the U.S. Embassy in Thailand. His design, described in the New York Times as "a kind of floating pagoda rising up on slender white stilts," received widespread acclaim.

But it was a trip to Washington in the early 1960s that launched Mr. Warnecke into the orbit of the Kennedy family, according to Harold Adams, who worked for the architect in the 1960s. In town to judge a design contest, he accompanied an old friend -- Paul Fay, John F. Kennedy's undersecretary of the Navy -- to the White House.

Kennedy, who had studied at Stanford University before World War II, recognized the 6-foot-3 Mr. Warnecke as a onetime Stanford football hero. When Kennedy discovered that Mr. Warnecke was an architect, he asked him to help with a problem.

The General Services Administration planned to raze the historic townhouses lining Lafayette Square just north of the White House, replacing them with behemoth federal office buildings. Critics argued that the changes would destroy the character of the square, originally called President's Park, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy was sympathetic.

Mr. Warnecke proposed to renovate the rowhouses and build office buildings behind them, maintaining the square's sense of the past. The plan was ultimately hailed as an elegant solution to the problem of historic preservation in an age of rapid urban renewal.

Mr. Warnecke was appointed to the Fine Arts Commission by Kennedy and grew so close to the president and his wife that after Kennedy was killed in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy chose Mr. Warnecke to design her husband's gravesite. His simple plan for a prominent green slope at Arlington National Cemetery was universally praised as an exercise in restraint.

The circular walkway leading to an overlook and white gravestones set into the earth, flanking an eternal flame, was "a statement that was an understatement," wrote a Times critic.

Mr. Warnecke went on to build many other projects domestically and abroad, including the Oakland, Calif., airport, a 40-story hotel in San Francisco and the Hawaii statehouse, a stone building rising from a reflecting pool.

In the Washington area, his notable buildings include several at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, a Friendship Heights shopping center on Wisconsin Avenue and Georgetown University's brutalist Lauinger Library.

In the 1980s, he built the Hart Senate Office Building and designed a project on 2000 I St. NW that, like his Lafayette Square plan, featured a modern office building behind the historic rowhouses. Neither project received the glowing reviews of Mr. Warnecke's earlier work.


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