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John Carl Warnecke, Known for Contextualism and Charisma, Dies

April 23, 2010

By Suzanne Stephens

John Carl Warnecke, c. 1975
Photo courtesy Margo Warnecke Merck
John Carl Warnecke, c. 1975

John Carl (“Jack”) Warnecke, FAIA, died of pancreatic cancer at his ranch in Healdsburg, CA, on April 17. Warnecke, considered by those who knew him as a “larger than life” figure, was a tall, burly architect, known for his ebullient personality and his ability to win clients and friends. One of his best known works was the redesign of the Lafayette Square area in Washington, D.C. [RECORD, April 1968, page 147]. This urban development near the White House included not only the preservation of historic houses, but the construction of the National Courts Building (1967), and the New Executive Office Building (1969) whose red brick masses, oriel windows and mansardesque roofs represented distinct attempts to be both modern and contextual.

During the years Warnecke worked in Washington, he became friendly with President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, both of whom had been concerned by the government’s plans to tear down the Federal-style houses around the square. After Kennedy was assassinated, Warnecke designed the JFK grave site at Arlington National Cemetery (1967), and, according to an unpublished memoir, became romantically involved with Jackie before she married Aristotle Onassis in 1968. 

John Carl Warnecke, right, with John F.Kennedy, 1963
Photo © Associated Press
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Warnecke had studied at Stanford University, where he played left tackle on the football team that won the 1941 Rose Bowl. After graduating that year, he enrolled at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, then under the direction of Walter Gropius. Upon getting his M.Arch in 1942, Warnecke returned to the Bay Area—a football injury prevented his enlisting in the military. In 1945, he opened his own office in Richmond near his first project, the Mira Vista Elementary School (1951) in El Cerrito, and not far from  the Oakland firm of his father, Carl, a Beaux-Arts trained architect. The younger Warnecke, steeped in Bauhaus modernism, did not stay enamored of Gropius’ singular puristic approach. As he writes in the memoir (called “Architecture of Place”), Warnecke adhered to the Modernist values of emphasizing function and structure, but searched for an architecture that respected historic buildings and the natural setting. He was not alone: after World War II, Bay Area architects, led by William Wurster and others, became known for fostering a regional modernist style.

By 1960, Warnecke, having moved his firm to San Francisco, expanded eastward, opening an office in 1962 in Washington D.C.  Five years later he started up a New York office, and brought in Eugene Kohn, FAIA, now principal of Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), to run it. In fact, all three principals of KPF, Kohn, William Pedersen, FAIA,  and  the late Sheldon Fox, FAIA, worked for Warnecke in those years. Says Kohn, “Jack had a great eye, was a good critic, and desired quality—and he knew how to hire, not just us, but in general.” 

By 1977, Warnecke, according to Building Design and Construction magazine, had the largest architectural firm in U.S., with offices in New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu. During those years he executed a range of buildings, including the Soviet Embassy (1975) and the Hart Senate Office Building (1975) in Washington, and the South Terminal at Logan Airport in Boston (1977). In the 1980s, with the impact of the 1970s recession lingering, he began closing them, but kept a home base in San Francisco until his death.

In the last years of his life, Warnecke was at work establishing the Warnecke Institute of Design, Art and Architecture at his Healdsburg ranch. His intent, according to his writings, was to create an “international retreat and think-tank” that would investigate global warming and other relevant topics.  According to his daughter, Margo Warnecke Merck, an affordable housing specialist, the institute will continue at the ranch with an artists’ residency program. Warnecke is survived by his sister Margaret K. Putnam; his sons, Rodger Warnecke, Fred Warnecke, a landscape architect, and a daughter Margo Warnecke Merck; four grandchildren, Pierce, Alice, Grace and Tessie Warnecke; and by his former wife, Grace Kennan. He was preceded in death by his son, John Warnecke Jr, and his first wife, Grace Cushing, the mother of his children.

A memorial service will take place on May 16 at 11 a.m. at the Warnecke Ranch and Vineyards in Healdsburg. 

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