The Washington Post Sunday
Architect and urban planner designed Navy Memorial, Reston development
William J. Conklin, an architect and urban planner whose design of the Navy Memorial helped set in motion the redevelopment of Washington’s Penn Quarter neighborhood and who was a principal designer of the early stages of the development of Reston, Va., died Nov. 22 at a retirement facility in Mitchellville, Md. He was 95.
The death was confirmed by a niece by marriage, Gayle Denney. She said there was no specific cause.
Mr. Conklin was a Harvardtrained architect who studied under Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. Mr. Conklin adapted the clean lines of his mentor in countless designs for houses, public buildings, town plans and restorations.
A house he designed in Peekskill, N.Y., in 1958, jutting over the side of a hill, was hailed by Architectural Record magazine as one of the year’s 20 best designs. In 1962, Mr. Conklin and his longtime architectural partner, James Rossant, were praised for their innovative Butterfield House, an apartment building in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The architects then joined a design team assembled by Robert E. Simon Jr., who was developing one of the country’s first planned communities about 18 miles west of Washington.
Mr. Conklin was a primary designer of Lake Anne Village, a mixed-use community alongside a man-made lake, which came to be the centerpiece of the town of Reston. It contained pedestrian paths, a fountain, shops, townhouses and apartments. The first residents arrived in 1964.
“As we became involved in the master plan,” Mr. Conklin told The Washington Post in 2002, Simon “decided to try us out on the concept of villages. We introduced the concept of mixed uses and wrote the first zoning that permitted this.”
It was one of the first times that townhouses — the very definition of urban living — had been built in a semirural setting.
“The result . . . is one of the most striking communities in the country,” New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote. “Reston — the name is taken from letters in Mr. Simon’s name — looks like an attractive cross between an updated Georgetown and an Italian harbor town like Portofino.”
The Lake Anne Village center is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mr. Conklin, who spent much of his career in New York, later became the chief architect of another major Washington-area project, the Navy Memorial and adjacent Market Square, midway between the U.S. Capitol and White House on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
After several design revisions, the memorial, commemorating the history of the Navy, was dedicated in 1987. A visitors center opened four years later.
The memorial includes a broad plaza with fountains, flags, a “granite-sea” map of the world and a statue dedicated to the “Lone Sailor.” Mr. Conklin also designed two adjoining neoclassical buildings, whose colonnaded facades curve around the circular plaza, between Seventh and Ninth streets NW.
The monumental office and residential complex, designed to correspond visually with the nearby National Archives and National Gallery of Art, was among the earliest efforts to redevelop the then-blighted Penn Quarter neighborhood.
After the project was completed, Mr. Conklin moved to the District and lived for many years in a penthouse apartment overlooking the Navy Memorial.
William J. Conklin was born May 2, 1923, in the small town of Hubbell, Neb. (His middle initial, “J,” stood for nothing.) His father was a banker and state legislator, and his mother also worked in the local bank.
Mr. Conklin graduated from the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire before returning to Crete, Neb., where he graduated in 1944 from what is now Doane University. He studied chemistry and theology.
He skipped his graduation ceremony to enlist in the Navy and served in the Pacific during World War II. He was aboard a ship that monitored the U.S. atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945.
He received a master’s degree in architecture in 1950 from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, then worked at several New York architecture firms before becoming a partner at Whittlesey and Conklin in 1960. He and Rossant had an architectural design business from 1967 to 1995.
Mr. Conklin worked on early designs for the Battery Park development in Lower Manhattan and, in the 1960s and 1970s, helped create a master plan for Dodoma, Tanzania. He also designed the Crystal Bridge Conservatory, which opened in 1988 as part of a botanical gardens complex in Oklahoma City.
He was president of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects and also chaired the influential New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. He worked on numerous historical preservation projects, including a restoration of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.
In addition to his work in architecture, Mr. Conklin was an authority on Incan textiles from the Andes Mountains, particularly on the messages embedded in knotted patterns in fabrics. He was a research associate at the Institute of Andean Studies in Berkeley, Calif., and the Textile Museum in Washington.
He and his wife, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions, frequently traveled to South America.
In 1998, Mr. Conklin was featured in an episode of the PBS series “Nova” after devising a method to unwrap an ancient mummy of an Incan girl, nicknamed Juanita, without destroying the delicate fabric.
Survivors include his wife of more than 70 years, the former Barbara Mallon of Mitchellville; and a son, Chris Conklin of New York.
Mr. Conklin and his wife often invited fellow Nebraskans, including students from their alma mater, to watch the presidential inaugural parade from their penthouse overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue.
Soon after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Mr. Conklin wrote him a letter, recommending that he stop during the inaugural parade at the Navy Memorial and National Archives, as a gesture of respect to the military and the country’s founding ideals.
On Jan. 20, 2009, with nearly 20 Doane University students and teachers looking on from above, Obama and his wife, Michelle, stepped out of the presidential limousine at the exact spot Mr. Conklin had suggested.