Tuesday, 01 June 2021 18:57

Charles Cassell, architect and early advocate of D.C. statehood, dies at 96

Written by Matt Schudel | The Washington Post
Charles I. Cassell during a 1998 meeting to discuss preservation of the Howard Theatre. Charles I. Cassell during a 1998 meeting to discuss preservation of the Howard Theatre. (Craig Herndon/The Washington Post)

Charles I. Cassell, an architect who helped shape the campus of the University of the District of Columbia and spent years rallying support for D.C. to become the country’s 51st state, died May 17 at a retirement facility in Washington. He was 96.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Linda Wernick-Cassell.

Mr. Cassell (pronounced kuh-SELL) grew up in Washington as the son of one of the country’s most distinguished Black architects, Albert I. Cassell, who headed the architecture department at Howard University and designed many buildings on the campus.

The younger Mr. Cassell followed in his father’s profession and spent several years as an architect for the Navy Department, designing buildings at military installations. He was a founder of the D.C. Council of Black Architects.

Beginning the in the 1970s, Mr. Cassell became chief of facilities and planning for UDC and was instrumental in having nine structures built on the university’s campus off Connecticut Avenue NW.

Mr. Cassell became a civil rights activist in the 1960s and helped lead the D.C.-based Black United Front with Stokely Carmichael. In 1968, Mr. Cassell won a seat on the D.C. school board, the first time elections were held for the organization. It was the only time he would hold elective office.

Along with Julius Hobson Sr., a fellow school board member who later served on the D.C. Council, Mr. Cassell helped form the D.C. Statehood Party in the early 1970s. At the time, Congress was granting the District a measure of self-rule, but incremental steps toward political sovereignty were not enough to suit Mr. Cassell. An admitted “rabble rouser,” he interrupted a 1972 council meeting to read a speech calling for full statehood, only to be led away by guards.

Mr. Cassell was a longtime opponent of Walter E. Fauntroy, who was the District’s nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971 to 1991. He said Fauntroy did not fight hard enough for D.C. residents and had perpetuated “the great D.C. fraud of 1972, in which our delegate to the Congress proposes meaningless home rule with Congress still acting as a colonial overlord.”

Mr. Cassell lost a 1974 bid to unseat Fauntroy.

In 1982, Mr. Cassell chaired a contentious 90-day D.C. statehood convention, with competing factions gathered to write a constitution for what they hoped would be the state of New Columbia. He struggled to maintain order as the convention descended into chaos, with its 45 delegates shouting at one another and sometimes getting into shoving matches.

At one point, a newsletter circulated among participants asked whether Mr. Cassell would “please read the rules, rather than make them up as he goes along?”

The convention ultimately completed a draft for a constitution, which was approved in a Districtwide referendum in 1982, but it was never recognized by Congress or the White House.

Mr. Cassell was also a champion of historic preservation and was a longtime member of the DC Preservation League. He chaired the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, served on an advisory board for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and helped lead what is now the National Mall Coalition, which was formed to oppose the construction of the World War II Memorial on the Mall.

“The Mall is itself a memorial,” Mr. Cassell said.

Mr. Cassell in 2000, leading a group of World War II veterans who opposed the building of a memorial on the Mall. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)
A World War II veteran himself, he was not opposed to recognizing veterans in some way, but he and other architects argued that the scale of the memorial was too large and that it marred the serene expanse of the Mall.

“I reject the decision on the site because it will desecrate the National Mall,” Mr. Cassell told The Washington Post in 2000, “and I don’t want that to be a part of my legacy, a design that obstructs the beautiful, long, green concourse.”

Those objections were ignored, and the World War II Memorial opened in 2004.

Charles Irvin Cassell was born Aug. 5, 1924, in Washington. His mother, the former Martha Mason, was a onetime teacher. His father designed 11 buildings on the Howard University campus, including the Founders Library, which in 2016 was named a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Albert Cassell also designed several buildings for Morgan State University, a historically Black college in Baltimore, and the Mayfair Mansions project, a 17-building apartment complex in Northeast Washington.

“My father,” Charles Cassell told a Cornell University publication in 2012, “decided that all four of his children were going to be architects, and would go to his alma mater.”

Charles Cassell’s studies at Cornell were interrupted by World War II, when he served in the Army “in the most dangerous theater of all: southern USA.”

After the war, he entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., receiving a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1951. His two sisters, the first Black female graduates of Cornell’s architecture school, both became architects. His brother was a draftsman.

After teaching urban affairs at the old Federal City College — which later merged with other institutions to become the University of the District of Columbia — Mr. Cassell spent about 15 years at UDC, retiring in 1988 as vice president of facilities. He was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Mr. Cassell was also a lifelong jazz aficionado and, with his wife, founded the Charlin Jazz Society, which promoted jazz in the District.

His marriage to Elaine Hancock ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 37 years, Linda Wernick-Cassell of Washington; two daughters from his first marriage, Kathryn Chenault of New York and Norma Barfield of Potomac, Md.; a half sister; and four grandsons.

Mr. Cassell’s ambition to have the District admitted as the country’s 51st state has not yet been realized, but his wife said he was aware of recent efforts to revive the cause he promoted half a century ago.

“Each political office I ran for,” Mr. Cassell said in 1982, “was . . . an opportunity to push the concept of statehood. That’s always been my purpose.”

Click here to read this article online in The Washington Post.

Read 214 times Last modified on Tuesday, 01 June 2021 19:05

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