(Tribune News Service) — Henry N. Wilcots, 96, of Philadelphia, a retired celebrated architect, longtime collaborator with Philadelphia icon Louis I. Kahn and decorated Montford Point Marine, died June 17 of complications from age-associated ailments at Springfield senior living center in Wyndmoor.

Wilcots was working on a project in what is now Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1963 when he met Kahn, the world-famous architect known for combing ancient monolithic concepts with modern ideas. Kahn invited Wilcots to work on his latest project, the 1,000-acre National Assembly complex in Dhaka, and Mr. Wilcots spent the rest of his career and life in Philadelphia.

Together for a decade, in their offices at 15th and Walnut Streets, Wilcots and Kahn devised designs for the colorful Levy Memorial Playground in Staten Island, the soaring Temple Beth El synagogue in Manhattan, a family planning clinic in Kathmandu, Nepal, the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, dormitories at Bryn Mawr College, and other recognizable structures around the world. Their signature work was the capital complex in Dhaka and, with new associate David P. Wisdom, Wilcots and others completed that project in 1983, nine years after Kahn’s death.

The site includes spectacular buildings, a plaza, gardens, and a man-made lake, and is regarded by architectural scholars as one of the great designs of the 20th century. It received an Aga Khan Award for architecture excellence in 1989.

Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote a front-page story in 2017 about Wilcots’ career with Kahn, and Nicholas Gianopulos, a structural engineer who also helped Kahn, told her: “If it hadn’t been for Henry, goodness knows how the project would have been finished following Lou’s death.”

Wilcots paid attention to architectural details, and his work ethic and calm demeanor contributed to Kahn’s international success. Colleagues called him a “Kahn whisperer,” and he told the Yale Center for British Art at Yale University that their collaboration “meant long hours, weekends, setbacks, joy, growth.”

“ Lou [Kahn] once told me, and I never understood if it was a compliment or just a ‘stay out of my hair’ kind of thing. But he said: ‘No matter who’s in the office with me, you’re welcome to come in and sit.’”

Wilcots at a 2015 meeting of officials from the Getty Conservation Institute and the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania

He was featured in a video by El Dorado Films called The Architect: A Montford Point Marine, and he said his early experience with architect Amos Emery in Des Moines, Iowa, was “absolute magic” and that he and Kahn “just bonded.” He retired in 2000.

Wilcots enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1946, fresh out of East High School in Des Moines, and endured racial prejudice and brutal living condition at segregated Camp Montford Point, near Jacksonville, N.C. He went into the reserves after his initial three-year tour ended and was recalled in 1950 to serve in the newly-integrated Marines during the Korean War.

He spent 13 harrowing months on battlefields in Korea, rose to the rank of platoon sergeant, and was one of the first Black Marines, if not the first, to celebrate the Corps’ founding at a ceremony with white Marines in 1951. He later became a leader in the Philadelphia chapter of the National Montford Point Marine Association and shared his experiences with hundreds of students and dozens of community groups across the country.

“Sergeant Wilcots was prolific in telling the stories of the Montford Pointers,” said association official Joe Geeter.

He attended parades and veterans events, was especially popular with young cadets in the reserve officers training corps, and addressed the Naval Academy’s graduating class of 2021. He and other Montford Point Marines were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011 for their extraordinary service, and he was inducted into the National Montford Point Marine Association Hall of Fame in 2020.

Henry Nathaniel Wilcots Jr. was born May 24, 1928, and reared in Des Moines. One of 14 children, he delivered newspapers, enjoyed radio shows, sketched a lot as a boy, and followed his cousins into the Marines to use the G.I. Bill for college.

He studied architecture for three years at the University of Colorado Boulder in the late 1950s and worked with other architects in Des Moines, Denver, and Pakistan before meeting Kahn in 1963.

He married Eileen Jackson in 1956, and they has sons David and Eric, and lived in Denver and Pakistan before moving to Germantown and then Chestnut Hill. His wife died earlier.

Wilcots painted and sketched throughout his life, and listened to classical music and opera on antique radios. He liked to ski, read about history and architecture, and analyze the structures of barns and covered bridges he came upon.

He took his sons to museums and battlefields, and constructed his own impressive pieces of furniture. He overcame prostate cancer and donated many of his book and papers to Penn’s Department of Architecture.

“We grew up, my brother and I, in a house that valued and loved learning,” his son Eric said in The Architect. “That has stuck with me.” His son David said: “He valued learning and love. He was a great dad.”

In addition to his sons, Wilcots is survived by two granddaughters, three sisters, one brother, and other relatives. Five sisters and four brothers died earlier.

Services are to be held later.

Donations in his name may be made to the William Penn Charter School, 3000 W. School House Lane, Philadelphia, Pa. 19144.

(c)2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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A bronze duplicate of the front image of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Montford Point Marines in 2011 and presented in 2012.

A bronze duplicate of the front image of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Montford Point Marines in 2011 and presented in 2012. (United States Mint)

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