Williams, 87, an architect for social justice

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2011 - 9:45 PM

As a cofounder of the Minneapolis' Williams/O'Brien firm, his focus was urban renewal and development.

Lorenzo D. "Pete" Williams

Lorenzo "Pete" Williams, a longtime Twin Cities architect who sought to advance social justice through building projects that made life better for the poor and disabled, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease Aug. 26 at his daughter's home in Torrance, Calif. He was 87, and had lived in Minneapolis most of his life.

"Lorenzo was committed to bringing beauty to the lives of all people, including people of low or moderate means," said Minneapolis civil rights advocate Josie Johnson, Williams' companion of more than 20 years. "He brought artistry to his work as an architect."

Williams was born in Louisville, Ky. After high school, he served in the Army. In 1950, he graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

In an early job in the Minneapolis office of architect Benjamin Gingold, he met James O'Brien, who became a lifetime friend and business partner. In 1962, they formed a firm later named Williams/O'Brien Associates Inc., and for 37 years, until Williams retired in 1999, were business partners with offices in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"Both of us were very socially motivated, and as a result we focused on urban renewal and development," O'Brien said. "We had a wonderful, diverse office, in the days before people talked about diversity, with amazing, talented people."

Early projects included Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis and the Jamestown Homes in St. Paul. In the mid-1960s, the two formalized a process that gave neighbors a strong say about projects in low-income neighborhoods.

Subsequent Minneapolis projects included Findley Place housing development, which was honored with a 1975 citation from Progressive Architecture magazine; the Bethune (formerly Grant) Park housing project, a Plymouth Avenue redesign and the Matthews Park project in the Seward neighborhood.

Williams also served on state and national commissions dedicated to making public buildings handicapped-accessible, with appointments by President Lyndon Johnson and Minnesota Govs. Karl Rolvaag and Harold LeVander.

He was a founding member of the Monitors Club, which provided African-American men with social, financial and civic opportunities.

Family life was also important to him, said his daughter Pamela Maury, who cared for her father during his final years at her California home. "He was the best thing in the world," she said. "When I was young, we'd go to his office on Saturdays and he'd sit us up on the drafting tables -- it was back in the day when architecture was done with pencils -- and we'd color and draw and just be so happy.

"He taught us to value honesty and dignity," she said.

Williams was preceded in death in 1984 by his wife of 31 years, Lillian Williams, the first director of the University of Minnesota's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. In addition to his daughter Pamela Maury and his fiancée, Josie Johnson, he is survived by a son, Gregory Williams of Minneapolis; another daughter, Jennifer Williams of Minneapolis, and two grandchildren. Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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