Cecil Alexander, the architect responsible for some of Atlanta’s most iconic building designs, dealt in more than brick and mortar. He also built relationships between the city’s disparate communities during the civil-rights era and beyond.
“He was one of the visionaries who helped you see what Atlanta could be,” former Atlanta Mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young said.
Alexander, 95, died Tuesday at home of natural causes. A funeral is planned for 1 p.m. Friday at The Temple, Atlanta. A graveside service will follow at Crest Lawn Memorial Park, Atlanta. Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care is in charge of arrangements.
Alexander was principal architect at the FABRAP architectural firm, and on the team responsible for Coca-Cola’s headquarters, what was the BellSouth tower and the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He also marched in Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession, served on the King Center board and co-founded and co-chaired the Black/Jewish Coalition with John Lewis. He co-chaired Lewis’ first campaign for Congress as well.
An Atlanta native, Alexander descended from one of the city’s pioneer Jewish families. His ancestors moved here in 1848 from Charleston and fought for the Confederacy, even though they had opposed secession. He grew up in the segregated Atlanta of the 1920s and ’30s and, at that time, never seriously questioned the racial barriers of Jim Crow. Though he thought the Jewish community was regarded with some suspicion, he never noticed being treated differently from his Gentile friends.
His eyes were opened during World War II, when he became a Marine fighter pilot, flying 60 missions in the Pacific. When he returned after the war, it bothered him that black veterans, despite their sacrifices, were still considered second-class citizens. His recently published, memoir “Crossing the Line,” goes into detail about those and other feelings.
“I realized the opportunities that were open to me, and the country I was coming back to was a hell of a lot different for blacks who were in a lot more dangerous battles than I was,” Alexander said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A 1940 graduate of Yale University, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a year before enlisting to fight in World War II. Afterwards, he earned a master’s degree from Harvard University, where he studied under one of the luminaries of modern architecture, Walter Gropius.
Another notable Alexander creation: An interim redesign of the state flag, adopted in 2001 after then-Gov. Roy Barnes sought a change from the 1956 standard, which included the confederate battle flag.
Alexander’s work wasn’t just on and around the Atlanta skyline, but in its neighborhoods too. The home he built in 1956, on Mount Paran Road, won a 2007 preservation award from Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
And when it came to his civic participation, Alexander was responsible for a number of memorable and lasting creations, said his son, Doug Alexander, a former Atlanta city councilman
“Dad would say the important things were the buildings,” his son said. “But I would say it was the people and what he was able to do for the city in that manner.”
When William Hartsfield asked Alexander to chair the Citizens Advisory Committee for Urban Renewal in the late 1950s, the larger-than-life mayor didn’t expect much to come of it.
In the late ‘50s, under Alexander’s leadership, the biracial group was able to clean up some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods.
Alexander’s work earned him a role in other civic efforts. Some Atlantans approached him about running for mayor before Hartsfield retired in 1961. He declined and instead became a key supporter of Ivan Allen Jr., taking a two-month leave to work on the businessman’s campaign. Once elected, Allen appointed Alexander to run the Atlanta Housing Resources Committee.
He also became vice-chair of the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission and a member of the state housing committee for the low-income for Gov. Jimmy Carter. He was also on the board of the Lovett School, but he resigned when the private institution refused to admit Martin Luther King III.
“Cecil was such a statesman, it’s a shame he never offered for public office,” said former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition. “He was comfortable with people from all walks of life, and was (gifted) at bringing differing factions together.”
One of Alexander’s most important causes grew out of tragedy.
One night in 1983, he and his wife were driving home when a teenage drunken driver struck their Buick, killing Hermione and shattering his pelvis. While still hospitalized, Alexander formed a committee to make drunk-driving laws tougher and to raise the legal drinking age in Georgia from 18 to 21.
The year after Hermione died, the Fulton County Commission named a one-lane bridge she fought to save after her. Known as Hermi’s Bridge, it is now a footbridge that spans the Chattahoochee and connects Fulton and Cobb counties. Cecil Alexander supported multiple efforts to restore it in recent years.
Two years after his wife’s death, Alexander married Helen Eisemann, a longtime friend who shared his interest in civil rights and philanthropy.
In addition to his second wife and his son, Alexander is survived by daughters, Terri Alexander-Cox of Smyrna and Judith Augustine of Atlanta; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
— Former staff writer Jim Auchmutey contributed to this article.