Leonard D. Blackford, a pre-eminent Sacramento architect who designed modern buildings that became monuments, including headquarters buildings for SMUD and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, died Sept. 24 at 90.
He had emphysema and other ailments, said his wife, Josie.
A descendant of Northern California pioneers, Mr. Blackford was a forward-thinking architect who designed innovative buildings with a modernist style that won early acclaim. He joined partner Albert Dreyfuss in 1953, and within several years the pair unveiled a dramatic, rectilinear edifice of glass and steel off Highway 50 near 65th Street as the new home of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
“You didn’t see anything like it on the West Coast,” said John Webre, president of Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects. “It was featured in The New York Times real estate section. It was a meaningful piece of work and a homegrown icon that put him on the map in a big way.”
The SMUD headquarters, which won top design awards and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, heralded a wave of architectural projects by Mr. Blackford that stood apart with groundbreaking features and exceptional looks. The sprawling CalPERS administration center at Lincoln Plaza introduced nature to the concrete landscape downtown with a fully landscaped garden roof and “green” energy-saving systems for lights, shade and air conditioning.
Finished in 1986, the office complex was one of the first constructed with raised access floors to manage computer cables and accommodate moveable workstations, Webre said. “It remains one of the most innovative office buildings I’ve ever been in,” he said.
Mr. Blackford blazed trails with the IBM building on Capitol Mall, the first pre-cast highrise in Northern California; and a 10-story apartment building at 4100 Folsom Boulevard, the first held up by its wall panels rather than an internal framework. He designed the Mansion Inn Hotel, the federal office building on Cottage Way, the former Sacramento Union building downtown, and portions of the Sacramento and San Francisco international airports.
He received many professional honors, including election in 1969 to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. In a 1979 profile in The Sacramento Bee, he described what makes a building “good.”
“It fits into its environment well,” he said. “It looks like it belongs there right after it’s built – and, as it gets older, people like it even better. It wears well.”
Mr. Blackford was born in 1923 in Wheatland, which was founded in Yuba County in the 1860s by his maternal great-grandfather Cyrus King Dam, according to a family biography. On his father’s side, his grandfather and a relative ran a wagon freight line from Sacramento to Virginia City, Nev., and his grandmother’s parents built and ran the Rough and Ready Hotel in Nevada County.
He graduated from Berkeley High School in 1940, enlisted in the Navy the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served aboard a fleet oiler in the Pacific. He returned home after World War II and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from UC Berkeley.
After moving to Sacramento in 1952, he worked as a state architect before joining a firm started by a neighbor he met who lived across the street, Albert Dreyfuss.
Mr. Blackford retired from Dreyfuss and Blackford Architects in the mid-1990s. He designed a home and lived in Kauai, where he enjoyed swimming and playing golf, and later returned to the Sacramento area. He lived most recently in Davis.
In addition to his wife of 30 years, Josie, Mr. Blackford is survived by two children from a marriage to his previous wife, Betty: a son, Dennis, and a daughter, Janet. He also is survived by three stepdaughters, Susan Denise Costa, Tracey Mundy and Michelle Aldrich; 11 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
A service is set for 10 a.m. Oct. 3 at East Lawn Cemetery, 4300 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento.