The father of the Washington, D.C., region's historic preservation movement, modernist architect Francis Donald Lethbridge, FAIA, passed away after a stroke on April 17, 2008, at the age of 87 in Nantucket, Mass. While he achieved great success designing homes, communities, and government buildings in a modern aesthetic, he revered old architecture and worked throughout his lifetime to effect the conservation and preservation of historically significant buildings.
He co-founded the National Capital Landmarks Committee in 1964, served as its first chairman, and was an active member for 15 years. Comprised of architects, historians, and preservationists, the committee's goal was to identify—for the first time—historically important properties throughout Washington, D.C., and encourage their preservation.
He successfully navigated the frequently choppy waters between modern architecture and the emerging preservation movement. Lethbridge had one foot in each camp, which was remarkable at the time, according to Donald Myer, FAIA, who worked with him on the committee.
Some of Lethbridge's most notable residential work, completed with his partners, created the contemporary communities of Pine Spring, Holmes Run Acres, Potomac Overlook, and Carderock Springs around the metropolitan region, as well as multifamily projects Tiber Island and Carrollsburg Square Condos in the city. As primary architect and planner, he also designed the master plan of Arlington National Cemetery and its visitor center (with Coffin & Coffin, David Volkert & Associates, and Patricia Schiffelbein).
Many of the most successful buildings designed as part of an urban renewal effort in Washington were done by Lethbridge's firm, according to Heather Cass, FAIA, of local firm Cass & Associates Architects. "It was notable to me that someone who had been so involved in those projects was also very passionately raising the issue of preservation at a time when it was certainly not what mainstream modern architects tended to be thinking about," she says.
After serving as a Navy fighter pilot during World War II, Lethbridge received his Master of Architecture degree from the Yale School of Architecture and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1947. He worked as a draftsman and designer for the firms of Berla & Able, Victor de Mars, and Faulkner, Kingsbury & Stenhouse until 1950, when he formed a partnership with Arthur Keyes, Clothiel Smith, and Nicholas Satterlee. In 1955, the firm split, but Lethbridge and Keyes remained partners until 1957, when David Condon joined them, forming Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.
Continuing the work of the earlier Keyes/Lethbridge partnership, Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon was known as an incubator of talent. The careers of many leading Washington architects were nurtured in their early stages at the firm. "When I came to Washington, that was the place to work for young, up-and-coming architects, because out of that firm had come many great young firms," remembers Cass, who worked at Keyes Lethbridge & Condon from 1972 until 1974.
His younger colleagues remember Lethbridge primarily as a mentor who passed on his love and respect for old buildings. "He was such a historian, and he loved architecture," says Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA, of Hugh Newell Jacobsen, F.A.I.A. Architect in Washington, D.C., who worked for Lethbridge at Keyes Lethbridge & Condon from 1957 to1958. "And he put that in all of our veins; he put fire in our bellies for this wonderful profession."
The force of Lethbridge's personality left some of his former protégés with an impression of a larger-than-life presence. "He had a very strong personality," says Colden "Coke" Florance, FAIA, vice president of SmithGroup Washington, D.C., who worked at Keyes Lethbridge & Condon mostly between 1954 and 1974. "He wasn't unpleasant about it, but it was very strong." According to Cass, he was big and somewhat gruff but extremely warm.
Lethbridge also had strong architectural viewpoints that he expressed without reservation, often quite succinctly. Florance remembers several occasions when Lethbridge delivered helpful life lessons during conversations, arguments, and project pitches, foremost among them: maintaining quality standards and knowing when to let go and stop arguing.
Lethbridge established his own firm, Francis D. Lethbridge & Associates, Architects and Planners, in 1975. He also served as a member of the U.S. Department of State's Architectural Review Board, as advisory architect to the Federal Reserve Bank Board, and as a member of the board of advisors to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Throughout his career his work was recognized with numerous awards by professional organizations, including The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and its chapters. In 1983 he was the first recipient of the Columbia Historical Society's Renchard Prize for historic preservation, recognizing his contributions to preservation in the nation's capital.
An active AIA member, Lethbridge served as president of the Washington Metropolitan Chapter of the AIA in 1964 and as national AIA vice president from 1969 to 1970. From 1971 through 1973, he was president of the AIA Foundation. He also co-wrote the first edition of the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C., published in 1965.
Even in his retirement on Nantucket, Lethbridge worked to preserve architectural heritage by serving as an adviser to the Nantucket Historical Association and as a trustee of the Nantucket Atheneum, providing oversight of the library's restoration and renovation in 1996.