Russ King stands by a window inside the Jamesville-Dewitt Library, designed by King & King Architects in 2017. (photo by Lauren Young)
While every man is the architect of his own fortune, Russell King made his fortune being one.
Russell “Russ” King is the oldest family member of the oldest continuously-operating architecture firm in New York State — and the third oldest in the country — which celebrated its 150th year anniversary last March with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the redesigned and renamed King & King Architecture Library at Syracuse University.
The King & King Architects patriarch turned 89 this year, and though he retired about 20 years ago, and reflected on how his life-long work ethic laid the foundation for the man he has become today, from delivering newspapers seven days a week as a paper delivery boy to being a 22-year old lieutenant junior grade with the U.S. Navy in Korea.
King, who was a partner of the firm for over 40 years, has lived in Manlius for about 20 years now and, despite his age, he still mows his lawn — about three to four acres of it, to be exact.
And while the firm is currently Syracuse-based, is was headquartered in Manlius for 26 years, between 1983 to 2009.
The King family has a long history in the Fayetteville-Manlius area, with four generations having lived in the area — and it’s where King ultimately grew up and first started working as an architect.
Since the firm was founded in 1868 by legendary architect Archimedes Russell, King & King Architects has built itself into a powerhouse in the Syracuse area and beyond, contributing to over 40 projects at Syracuse University and designing many long-lasting and environmentally-conscious structures.
Since Melvin King, Russ’ grandfather, became a partner of the firm in 1906, a member of the King family has been with the firm ever since.
While today’s CEO and managing partner of the firm is Kirk Narburgh, who has worked for the firm for over 30 years, two generations of the King family are active at the firm — Russell King’s twin sons Pete and Jim King, and grandson Tom, who recently joined the firm.
“Consistent all the way back from the beginning”
King & King Architects celebrated its 150th year in business at Syracuse University late March with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the redesigned and renamed King & King Architecture Library in Slocum Hall.
Russ King said he wanted Slocum Hall to represent the remembrance of the firm and its connection to the campus, as King himself graduated from the School of Architecture in 1952 — the first of three generations to have done so — and designed Bird Library 20 years later.
“I’ve always had great regard for the university because we did 40 different projects up there,” said King, who specialized in high-technical buildings, like hospitals and science buildings, in his time at the firm.
“One of my last major jobs was the Bird Library, and I’ve been interested in the library since. I’ve spent 15 years of my life getting that building designed.”
When David Seaman, the Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, proposed the renovation project to King, he was sold.
“I was an easy sell,” admitted King, who has spent many years volunteering at the library and being a “vocal” member of the Syracuse University Library Associates. “I rolled right over and opened up the wallet.”
“I thought, this is great. This would be a great opportunity to do two things — honor my past wife, who was a fantastic lady, and it was a coincidence that it was the 150th anniversary of the firm. Those two things fit together.”
King met his wife, Joan “Jiggy” King, who died in 2012, at SU, and considers the library a gift from them.
Multiple generations of the King Family are also graduates of the Syracuse University School of Architecture: Harry King ’24, F. Curtis King ’24, Russell King ’52, Peter King ’77, James King ’77, and Alex King ’11.
While the King & King Architects name is catchy enough, the firm wasn’t always known as such. In 1906 it was called Melvin L. King Architects, then in 1932 it changed to Melvin L. & Harry A. King Architects when Harry King became a partner. In 1945, it changed to Melvin L., Harry A. & Curtis King Architects when Curtis King became a partner, and in 1959 Russell King became a partner — changing the firm’s name to King & King Architects.
And while the name has changed, there is one thing that has stayed the same — its consistency.
“I think the caliber of work that we’ve done is consistent all the way back from the beginning,” said King.
Building its foundation
In 1868, Archimedes Russell opened his own architecture office at 28 years old. But before then he was an apprentice, as King said that was the only way to get into the field at that time.
“But he was quite experienced,” said King. “In those days, there was no easy way to reproduce drawings, so the apprentices did a lot of tracing.”
Archimedes’ father was a builder in Massachusetts, so he apprenticed as a sign and wagon maker. But what he wanted to be was an architect.
At 17, Archimedes later apprenticed at an architecture firm in Boston, but because the amount of civilian work was limited during the Civil War and the Boston market was saturated, Archimedes knew he wanted to make his mark in Syracuse.
King said Archimedes “knew Syracuse was a growing community,” with its canal and railroads.
Ultimately, Archimedes ended up apprenticing for Horatio Nelson White, a well-known Syracuse architect, when he was about 20 years old.
Some of Archimedes’ early work was for Cornell University, later designing three of the first four buildings on the Syracuse University campus, including Crouse College of Fine Arts, the Holden Observatory and the first library, which is now the Tolley Humanities Building.
“I learned the value of a dollar early on”
Born in 1929, Curtis King always used to say Russ “came with the crash.”
“Growing up in the Depression…we weren’t poor, but I learned the value of a dollar early on, and I learned nothing came for free,” said King.
When King was 12 he bought his own bicycle, costing $25. “That was a lot of money back then,” he said. “It had nothing on it, only a bell.” But King said that bike had special value to him, as he had worked for the money to buy it himself.
“I earned all the money I had,” said King, who was working seven days a week as a newspaper delivery boy.
King said he was always asked by others if there was any pressure to be an architect growing up, as he was the son of one, but he said that’s not the case at all.
“I knew when I was in the seventh grade,” he said, describing how he even wrote two term papers for Career Day in the seventh and eighth grade about why he wanted to be an architect. “I heard all the stories [about my father working in architecture] at the dinner table at night, and in the summer time I traveled with my dad to different jobs.”
For King, there are two major world events that affected the foundation of his character, though he hadn’t realized so until many years later.
When King was 12 years old, 2,400 Americans died after a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base.
“I can remember that day like it was yesterday, but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast,” said King.
Though King joined the naval reserve after the war when he was 17, he didn’t feel it was “unusual” of him not to join the service, as all his older cousins had served in World War II. Five years later, King climbed the ranks to naval officer.
But before this, King had his sights set on marrying his college sweetheart, Jiggy, whom he had met on a blind date about three weeks before she graduated. King himself still had two years left in school.
When King graduated in 1952, he married Jiggy, and that August, he left for Officer Candidate School for four months, where he knew he’d be drafted into the Korean War afterwards. For about six to eight months he spent time in Korea and Japan on a ship until an armistice was singed on July 27, 1953 — which was perfect timing, considering his wife Jiggy had just given birth to their twins, Jim and Pete.
After returning from service in 1956, King became a licensed architect in 1959 and began work for Syracuse University, as the school’s student population was swelling beyond belief. King was one of two students in a class of about 30 people who was not studying under the GI Bill.
“We were competing with these guys in their 20s who were married and had kids,” he said. “The competition was tough.”
But in 1959, Russ King became a partner of the firm – officially changing its name from Melvin L., Harry A. & F. Curtis King Architects to King & King Architects. But the competition — and workload — only grew from there.
“They know how to get something done”
Just as King said there was never any pressure to become an architect growing up, he placed just as little on his four children growing up. But 39 years later, his twin sons Jim and Pete are still both partners at the firm, joining in 1979 and becoming the fourth generation of the King family to do so.
“Jim and Pete … they’re fraternal twins, but they’re so different,” said King. “But they both have great capabilities and they’re hard-workers. They know how to get something done and they’ve proven it, over and over.”
King said Jim is the firm’s “school guy,” and while the firm never used worked with more than four or five school districts, today it works with 60.
By comparison, Pete is passionate about environmentally-conscious design practices, leading the firm’s headquarters into becoming the first LEED Platinum building in Syracuse after relocating it to an existing 1913 structure on the Near Westside in 2011.
King said one project in particular helped lay the groundwork for their successes. When the firm did a “huge job” for Developer Bob Congel at a Massachusetts shopping center — about a million and a quarter square feet that “felt like Destiny [USA],” Congel asked if 23-year-old Pete could work on the site as a construction manager.
When the developer found out he had a twin brother, Jim tagged along for the project as Russ knew it would be “great experience for the both of them.”
“As a matter of fact, it was probably the greatest experience they ever could’ve had because they didn’t have a whole lot of practical knowledge of how things go together and how to manage subcontractors and contractors, and neither did their boss,” said King. “But they learned. And they learned that they can do anything they put their minds to if they worked at it hard enough, and they were working about 12 to 13 hours a day. It was like getting a PhD in how to get something done.”
When they returned to the firm a few years later, King said “they were so far above their peers in terms of ability,” but because they were the boss’ sons, Russ knew that others would expect the twins to be “twice as good as anybody else, and work twice as hard.”
Beyond their exploits as successful architects, Jim is a longtime YMCA board member, original committee member for the development of the East Area YMCA, and has been instrumental in recent improvements to Camp Iroquois, while Pete was the past chairman of the Center of Excellence and is currently on the school advisory board at Bird Library.
“They’ve done a fantastic job with the firm,” said King.
“Competency wasn’t enough”
“One of the things I keep asking myself is, what is it that has made us last for over 150 years? And I think it’s really being a team player with the owner,” said King. “I knew if we were going to grow the firm we needed more horsepower at the top,” he said, which is why he selected four men who were “technically and design-wise competent.”
“But I learned soon that competency wasn’t enough,” said King, as three of those four men turned out to be “failures.”
“They didn’t share the same kind of philosophy that I did and the firm had developed over so many years,” said King. “They were high-fliers,” he said, adding that they didn’t believe the firm was “up to date.”
“There’s one factor that runs through [becoming successful], and it’s having good people, being super honest, and facing a problem if you get it,” said King.
And King had to be honest with himself — the firm need a “different way of doing business” when both his father, Curtis, and his cousin were in their 60s and ill.
“We had no marketing…at least before that time you couldn’t advertise,” said King.
But when marketing laws relaxed, the firm started “an active marketing program” to identify desirable clients, as they aimed for those who knew what architects did and how they work.
“It’s tough when you deal with a client who has never dealt with an architect and doesn’t have any idea what they do or their professional responsibilities, and that’s impossible to work with,” said King. “It’s the people behind the project that count.”
In its 150 years of business, notable projects from the firm include:
Today the firm employs 56 people and specializes in education and healthcare, and 2015 the firm won an AIA New York Architecture of Merit award for its work on the WCNY studios.
Now at 89 years old, Russ King said he’s had a “great life,” and says the people behind the proposals have made its foundation as strong as it stands today.
“I’m almost 90 years old. I’ve got 10 grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and they’re all doing well,” said King. “The children are being successful, and all the grandchildren are being successful — it’s more than what I could ever ask for.”
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.