Breaking Barriers, Building Hope -- He Long Ago Proved He Could Succeed As A Black Architect; Now Seattle's Mel Streeter Is Helping Others To Do The Same

Mel Streeter has dedicated his career to building more than physical structures. As an architect he's responsible for Auburn City Hall, the Federal Aviation Administration building at Boeing Field, and the Everett home-port headquarters, among many others. But what people who know him talk about most are his people-building efforts.

For much of the 1980s, Streeter had a distinction he didn't want: His was the only African-American-led architectural firm in Seattle. Ben McAdoo, Seattle's first black architect, had died, and Leon Bridges had left to find a more fruitful location for his practice.

Streeter, 65, has long dedicated himself to opening the profession to African Americans, never forgetting he was once told the door was closed to him or anyone who looked like him.

"I love a challenge," Streeter says.

Streeter had been an average student until he took a high-school mechanical-drawing class and discovered a talent for drawing. That was in 1945 in Riverside, Calif., then a small town between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

"I'd stay up all night working on my drawings. I became the best in my class."

He read about Paul Williams, a black architect who worked in Hollywood, and his enthusiasm spilled over to other subjects. Math and English became important because he'd need them to be successful in architecture.

But when he asked his counselor to help him choose a college, the counselor said, "You can't become an architect. There are no members of your race who have become architects."

Colleges were recruiting him, though, because he was a big, tall, talented football and basketball player. He remembers John Wooden, UCLA's legendary basketball coach, asking him to join their program.

"I said, `Mr. Wooden, I have made up my mind to be an architect.' " There was no architecture program at UCLA then. Wooden suggested another major and kept after him.

When the University of Oregon offered him a full scholarship and a chance to study architecture, "My parents said, `You want to be an architect, you are going to the University of Oregon.' "

He tells young people today what his mother and father said to him then: "Don't let anyone tell you you can't be what you want to be."

Seattle's welcome wasn't warm

Streeter drew great energy from that high-school counselor's words. But, like many young people he has worked with, he also has felt the drag of negatives.

He had switched from baseball to basketball in high school because baseball was segregated then and he wanted to go as far as sports would take him.

Seattle, when he arrived, gave him less than he wanted. After college graduation in 1954, with an Army Reserve obligation to pay, Streeter was ordered to Seattle and Fort Lawton.

"I found a beautiful apartment on the third floor of a building on Dexter," he said. With his wife, Kathy, and 18-month-old son, he put down a deposit, returned to Eugene, Ore., to get their belongings, and then received a letter from the building manager. Its message remains vivid: "I'm sorry, Lieutenant Streeter. I've checked with the other residents in the apartment and I'm afraid they would feel uncomfortable with you and your wife."

"Well, I'm angry, but I still have to get up in the morning and serve this man's Army," he said.

The Streeters eventually found a rental house in the University District and stayed there seven years, though they wanted to move sooner. But Streeter couldn't bear house-shopping and having doors shut in his family's face.

Only after Seattle passed an open-housing ordinance - on a third attempt - did the family move to a Phinney Ridge house with the view he wanted.

Housing wasn't the only door that took time to open. He applied to 22 architectural firms before finding someone willing to hire him. He learned the business, worked for three more firms, and started his own in 1967.

Parents were role models

For inspiration, he could remember his parents. Before World War II, when Streeter was a boy, his mother was a domestic and his father a porter. After the war, his mother started a catering business with skills she'd learned working with the USO, and his father became a realtor. Their entrepreneurship and community involvement - his mother was a leader in the NAACP - were models for him.

Charles Kane, chancellor of the Seattle Community College District, who had known Streeter since third grade in Riverside, renewed their friendship when he came to Seattle four years ago.

"After many years I find him deeply concerned about the welfare of young people," Kane says.

It was a concern Streeter exercised first with his four sons.

"I poured into them the things I learned from military discipline, athletics, coaching. My wife, Kathy, gave them her love of education and art."

In telling his story, he talks as much about his sons as about himself. The one thing he brings to show an interviewer is a book, the cover showing a huge building his oldest son designed for a project on the Thames River in London.

Doug Streeter is the director of design for a large British architectural firm.

His second son, Jon, is a partner in a California law firm.

Ken is a Seattle screenwriter and Kurt is making the transition from professional tennis to making documentaries.

"What's happened to them and their success directly validates my life," Streeter says. "I could die tomorrow and feel happy."

Contributing to the community

He's not fading away just yet, though. Streeter is a member of the Seattle Planning Commission and of the Breakfast Club, a group of leading African-American businessmen, and he juggles other projects as well.

Streeter wants to focus attention on elderly black people. He's the spark plug behind a 65-unit housing project for the elderly that is to be built near Mount Zion Baptist Church.

He also continues promoting architecture as a career for young African Americans.

Seattle has three African-American-led firms now. Laurie Wilson, who runs one of the others, worked in Streeter's office beginning with a part-time job in high school.

Don King, who directs the other, came to Seattle from Los Angeles and was told to look up Streeter. "He's been very supportive of me and others," King said.

Streeter and two other architects, Denise Hunt and David Fukui, started a program that sent architects into Seattle middle schools to encourage minority students to enter the profession and to mentor those who seemed interested. Streeter says four of the young people became architects - a significant number in a profession with few minorities.

Hunt, special assistant to Mayor Norm Rice and president of the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architecture, estimates there are now 20 black architects in Seattle.

She and others say one of the remarkable things about Streeter is that he built and maintained a sizable firm for so long when getting contracts is so difficult for minority firms.

Contracts for public projects often are a mainstay.

Fukui says architecture is "primarily a service profession where you're dealing with people who decide what buildings are going to be built, and who is going to build them, and primarily it's a white group."

"Government and public agencies have been open and that has helped us."

At an age when many people have an eye on retirement, Streeter has started a new firm, Streeter and Associates, which he hopes will be a home for young architects aggressively seeking new business, particularly those difficult-to-land private contracts.

"I'm determined to break that door down," he says. ----------------------------------------------------------------- A profile in persistence

Name: Mel Streeter. Age: 65. Education: architecture degree from University of Oregon, 1954. Background: Worked for four architectural firms in Seattle before starting his own in 1967.