Joseph A. Wilkes dies; architect was early advocate of green building practices

Joseph A. Wilkes
Joseph A. Wilkes (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010

Joseph A. Wilkes, a Washington architect who had a taste for modern buildings and displayed a bent toward environmental awareness long before it became fashionable in architecture circles, died Aug. 18 at Montgomery Hospice's Casey House in Rockville. He was 91 and had prostate cancer.

In the 1960s, Mr. Wilkes co-founded Wilkes & Faulkner, a small firm that specialized in designing contemporary homes. The firm also won institutional and commercial contracts, such as the National Zoo's Great Ape House, Small Mammal House and Reptile House buildings and alterations and additions to the embassies of Venezuela and Japan.

In the 1970s, the firm won federal contracts to build post offices for the Brookland and Congress Heights neighborhoods. The buildings featured trellises that turned the buildings' facades into a tangle of wisteria, an effect that The Post's former architecture columnist, Wolf Von Eckardt, called "unusual and enchanting."

Mr. Wilkes's business partner, Winthrop W. Faulkner, did most of the firm's design work. Mr. Wilkes, an expert in construction methods and materials, was responsible for the nuts-and-bolts work of translating the drawings into buildings.

"He wasn't an artiste trying to make a statement -- that wasn't his interest," said Roger Lewis, who worked for Wilkes & Faulkner in the 1960s and now writes Shaping the City, a column about architecture in The Washington Post. "He was one of these architects who really cared about making buildings functional, making them comfortable and making them meet the budget."

Mr. Wilkes taught at the University of Maryland at College Park from 1971 until 1985. He was the editor of the five-volume Encyclopedia of Architecture (1988) and the co-editor of "Architectural Acoustics" (1999).

He retired in the mid-1980s after moving from Montgomery County's Rock Creek Woods to Annapolis, where he and his sons designed and built an energy-efficient passive-solar home on the banks of the Severn River.

Joseph Allen Wilkes was a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a graduate of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces in North Africa, Sicily and France. After the war, he received a master's degree in architecture from Columbia University in New York.

During the 1950s, Mr. Wilkes taught architecture at the University of Florida in Gainesville. There he designed a sleek, eco-friendly home for his family and oversaw its construction on a wooded lot. In an effort to cut down as few trees as possible, he designed the home in the shape of the letter Y; he sought to complete the home with reused and recycled materials, such as plate-glass windows from a local cigar store.

Mr. Wilkes moved to the Washington area in 1959 to work briefly for the National Research Council's Building Research Advisory Board. He then apprenticed for several years at Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon in Washington before leaving to found his own practice with Faulkner.

As former president of the National Center for a Barrier-Free Environment, Mr. Wilkes worked on accessibility standards for the Americans With Disabilities Act. He was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

His wife of 44 years, the former Margaret Wilcoxson, died in 1990. Survivors include two sons, Jeffrey Wilkes of Washington and Roger Wilkes of Takoma Park; and a sister, Anita Dore of Rockville.

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