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Donald Ryder, architect of Black heritage sites, dies at 94

Donald Ryder (center), along with J. Max Bond Jr., (left) and Nathan Smith circa 1969. Ryder, whose firm Bond Ryder & Associates designed important repositories of Black culture and social history in becoming one of the nation’s most prominent partnerships of Black architects, died on Feb. 17.
Donald Ryder (center), along with J. Max Bond Jr., (left) and Nathan Smith circa 1969. Ryder, whose firm Bond Ryder & Associates designed important repositories of Black culture and social history in becoming one of the nation’s most prominent partnerships of Black architects, died on Feb. 17.VIA DAVIS BRODY BOND, LLP/NY

Donald P. Ryder, whose firm designed important repositories of Black culture and social history in becoming one of the nation’s most prominent partnerships of Black architects, died Feb. 17 at his home in New Rochelle, New York. He was 94.

His death, which was not widely reported at the time, was confirmed recently by his daughter Lorraine Ryder.

Donald Ryder joined with J. Max Bond Jr., widely regarded as the most influential African American architect in New York, to form Bond Ryder & Associates in the late 1960s.

With Mr. Ryder managing the firm through economic roller coasters, Bond Ryder, based in Manhattan, went on to design the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, which includes King’s crypt; the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem; the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama; and the Studio Museum in Harlem, which champions Black artists.

The firm, which later included John A. James, also left its mark on the Upper Manhattan skyline, designing residential buildings such as the Lionel Hampton Houses, built by a public-private partnership; the Frederick Douglass Houses, built by the city’s Housing Authority in Harlem; and the Towers on the Park condominiums, on West 110th Street overlooking the northern edge of Central Park.

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“Their designs provided outdoor gathering spaces for the community wherever possible,” said John Samuels, a former colleague of Mr. Ryder’s. “Don’s philosophy also included providing opportunity to members of this same community to participate in the design process and influencing their own built environments.”

After Bond Ryder merged with Davis, Brody & Associates in 1990 and Mr. Ryder left the firm, he became a professor and later chairman of the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. He had begun there as a lecturer in 1972 and continued teaching until his retirement in 2001, seeking to instill in young architects a commitment to the special needs of marginalized urban residents.

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It was a passion he developed early on, his daughter Gail Perry-Ryder Tigere, a former professor at Lehman College in the Bronx, said by email.

“He was drafted out of college at 19 years old into service in the segregated armed forces to serve as a prison guard and driver to white officers, and attended a segregated college campus,” she said. “So he was all too familiar with the indignities of racism in everyday life.”

Over the years, she said, he could see “the visual realities of racism reflected in the built environment in terms of residential patterns” created by redlining, displacement because of gentrification and “what was being called ‘urban renewal’” in the 1980s.

Gordon Davis, founding chairman of Jazz at Lincoln Center and a longtime friend of Bond’s, said of Mr. Ryder and Bond in an email: “Two young, progressive, community-sensitive, smart Black architects starting a firm in New York City in the late 1960s was a very bold and some thought foolish step — doomed to fail. But they did good and touched many of the most significant Black institutions.”

“The firm had a reputation for excellence, a quiet determination and a community-based aesthetic,” Davis added. “They were in every sense pioneers and trailblazers and highly respected.”

Bruce Goldstein, a professor of architectural history at Swarthmore College, said Mr. Ryder had confronted “an architectural scene that consistently denied African American firms the kinds of big and sustaining jobs that their peers received.”

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Goldstein, author of “The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem” (2017) and a forthcoming biography of Bond, said Mr. Ryder’s accomplishments were a testament to his “quiet tenacity.”

Donald Porter Ryder was born Aug. 28, 1926, in Springfield, Ohio. His mother, Emma Marie (Belsinger) Ryder, died when he was 10. His father, Earl Ryder, a chemist, then married Miriam Curtis, who raised Don and his two siblings in Dayton, Ohio.

After serving with the Army Air Forces from 1945 to 1947, Donald Ryder enrolled in the University of Illinois as a chemistry major but soon found that chemistry wasn’t for him.

“My father was always a talented artist and painter,” said his daughter Natalie Ryder Redcross, an associate professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, “so he figured he’d try architecture instead, and found his strength in drafting and design.”

He graduated in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture.

In 1957, he married Shauneille Gantt Perry in Chicago, where he was hired by the giant international firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and worked on the design of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

In addition to his three daughters, Mr. Ryder leaves his wife; his sister, Bernadine Ryder Matthews; and four grandchildren. His brother, Bob, died in 2007. Bond died in 2009 at 73.

In 1959, the couple moved to New York, where Mr. Ryder worked for several firms, including Marcel Breuer and Harrison & Abramovitz. He helped plan Lincoln Center and was director of campus planning for Borough of Manhattan Community College.

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“The whole saga of Bond Ryder, I think, happened at just a particular right point in time, at the end of the ’60s,” Mr. Ryder told Goldstein in 2019. “It was when the communities were demanding at least some kind of say as to who their consultants would be. And there we were, qualified consultants with an office.”