It would be an understatement to say that the architect currently known as Kwendeche is a creative genius.
His work — arresting, thought-provoking, refreshing — graces structures as far away as Jakarta, Indonesia, and as near as various historic homes and other structures in Little Rock, including the Daisy Bates House, the Max Mayer House, the Observation Trail Entry Gate of the Audubon Wildlife Trail and the Esse Purse Museum.
Oh, and that whimsical chair in Bernice Garden in the South Main district … the pyramidal one, with the bird perched on top and boots as legs? That’s Kwendeche’s doing.
Owner of Produksi Arymeus, Kwendeche, 71, describes himself as “sole proprietor and headmaker” for various and sundry projects that include historic preservation architecture, photography, wearable art, abstract painting, furniture, tribal masks and sculptures. He works from his studio at “my grandfather’s dream house” — the Lamb-McSwain House, house, built in 1925 in Little Rock’s Wright Avenue Neighborhood and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Kwendeche is known for being fun, quirky, off the beaten path. But he’s all about business when it comes to his work with nonprofit groups that are striving to preserve historic structures, especially the Rosenwald Schools built for Black children in mostly rural Arkansas communities in the 1920s.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Kwendeche many years ago and have continued to see his work extend into several communities in southeast Arkansas and northeast Texas,” says Kandi Williams, who represents the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff/Silas H. Hunt Community Development Corp.
On behalf of the organization, Kwendeche has spoken to high-school students about his career as a historical architect, Williams says. “Through his presentations, the students gained an appreciation of what our ancestors endured, the purpose of historical structures, how communities once thrived, and the importance of preserving our heritage.
“It is such an inspiration to hear his passion for preserving historical structures and cultural heritage,” Williams adds.
On Oct. 29, Kwendeche will do a virtual presentation about his career for his organization, the American Institute of Architects. Chances are, he won’t have the time to share all aspects of what has indeed been a storied career.
His distinctive single name has its own story.
One of three children born to Black schoolteachers John B. McSwain Sr. and Bernice Lamb McSwain, Kwendeche (pronounced “Kuh-wen-day-shay”) grew up as John McSwain. In 1985 — after having honored his father’s request that he research the family, and connecting with the white McSwains with whom he shared relatives — Kwendeche decided to change his name in honor of his father … whose ancestors, he knew, had not been McSwains originally.
In 1989, while working as an architect in Indonesia, Kwendeche sponsored a boy from Malawi via the Save the Children program. When he and the boy developed a pen-pal relationship, Kwendeche shared his plans to change his name to something with nine letters. “I’m a numerologist, in a sense that nine is important to me,” he says, noting that the numbers in his street address add up to 9.
“I said, ‘What about Kwende?’ It’s a common name [in Malawi] … It means ‘let’s go.’ It’s a very inspirational name … it sort of gives you sort of a reason to be better in your life. But then, it needed three other letters.” He added c-h-e and had his name legally changed.
“Not to say that I disrespect or disavow my family [name],” Kwendeche says. “But I took the personal … right, if you want to call it that, to live the rest of my life [with] the name that I felt more close to in terms of my heritage.”
Long before that name change, Kwendeche, who grew up with an older sister and younger brother, spent the first few years of his life in McAlmont, which adjoins eastern North Little Rock. Around the time Kwendeche was in first grade, his parents decided to move to Little Rock. They relocated to a home near Stephens Elementary School, where he enjoyed the benefits of a tight-knit neighborhood and plenty of friends. On Saturdays, he and his brother accompanied their father to the small farm the family maintained in John Sr.’s hometown of Humnoke. There, they worked the farm; sometimes they’d take their guns to target-shoot.
It was in ninth grade when Kwendeche’s road to a career in architecture began. He took a civics course in which each student had to do a career paper. The student had to research the career of interest, as well as interview a person who was engaged in that career. By the time he took the class, he’d decided, “just kind of in a subliminal manner … [that] maybe architecture might be a good [career].”
CENTRAL HIGH CRISES
Having a choice between attending Central and Horace Mann high schools, Kwendeche chose Central due to its drafting curriculum. But, entering that school less than a decade after its landmark desegregation crisis, he had some bumpy roads ahead.
He was suspended from school twice for fighting. Several of his drafting classmates were “bullies to no end.” During an instance in which the teacher had stepped out of the classroom, the bullies put a quiet, reclusive classmate up to trying to provoke Kwendeche by criticizing his work.
“That didn’t work, so they came over and just ripped my paper. That’s when I swung.” Months later, outside the drafting classroom, Kwendeche came upon one of the bullies smearing a chocolate-marshmallow substance on Kwendeche’s locker. “I cracked him in the head.”
Then there was the instance in which he and his parents were invited to the annual awards banquet held by the Draftsman’s Society, of which he was a member … but were given the wrong date. When they showed up, they were told the dinner had taken place the night before.
But, Kwendeche says, “[all] that was minor compared to what some students were going through.” He did well academically and remained determined to reach his goals of becoming an architect … and seeing the world.
After graduation from Central in 1967, Kwendeche followed his plan to spend his freshman year at his parents’ alma mater, Arkansas AM&N (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and take a course in architectural drafting. He then transferred to Howard University in Washington. There, however, he had to start over. The school’s five-year architecture program required that even students with previous college hours elsewhere be counted as freshmen. But Kwendeche delved in and became a member of the school’s crew (rowing) team.
ANOTHER KIND OF DRAFTING
As these were the Vietnam War years, Kwendeche had gotten a deferment at AM&N. When he got to Howard, he filled out the same form. Then he heard from the draft board. After reviewing his records, the board had determined that Kwendeche lacked the hours he’d claimed to have. How could he have been a freshman at AM&N for a year, then a freshman at Howard the following year? Kwendeche explained Howard’s architecture program policy but was notified that he’d have to meet with draft board members in person. After he was accused of using profanity during the meeting, his deferment was rejected.
“I was completing three years of architecture; I was so involved in the crew team,” Kwendeche says. “To get a letter saying ‘You’re going to get a draft notice’ … was kind of heartbreaking.”
He tried to join the Peace Corps but did so after he’d received the draft notice. Hearing this, the Peace Corps representative interviewing him abruptly turned him away. “I was just so dejected,” he says. Things continued to go downhill. That night, Kwendeche was attacked by some young local men near Howard’s campus and ended up with a stab wound located within an inch of his heart.
As he recovered, Kwendeche decided he’d finish up his year at Howard, then answer Uncle Sam’s call. He served in the Army from 1971-1973, working as a land surveyor.
As it happened, the military was the first vehicle by which Kwendeche began to see the world. Stationed near Frankfurt, Germany, he traveled to other European countries on weekends. Then his father became ill and was unable to continue farming. An Army chaplain helped Kwendeche obtain a hardship discharge, but John McSwain Sr. passed before his son could return to Arkansas.
Once home, Kwendeche harvested the crop his father had planted and spent another few months planting a new crop. Then he returned to Howard. In 1975, he again got to travel, going to Ghana as part of a student exchange program. He earned his degree the following year.
SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL
After graduation, Kwendeche took a job with Disney World in Florida and was involved in the team concept of the Epcot World Showcase. He met his ex-wife there; the couple moved to St. Louis in 1978. Kwendeche went to work with one of the leading architectural firms in the world, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc., for the next seven years.
Kwendeche was still in St. Louis when his marriage ended in divorce. He stuck around and become involved in art. Exploring the scrap-metal yards of East St. Louis, Ill., he ran across discarded water-heater lids and used them to develop a contemporary version of African masks.
Then his company opened a Hong Kong office after winning a competition to do a $250 million hotel-retail center in Jakarta, Indonesia. Kwendeche was invited to work on the project and became part of what eventually was a five-person team, working out of Hong Kong. Kwendeche spent his free time exploring mainland China and creating an artful line of neckties.
The company’s Hong Kong office was eventually closed because the firm couldn’t get any actual work in China. The team was called stateside to work in different locations. But Kwendeche moved to Jakarta, ran the project there and got it completed. He was invited to work on another $250 million project in Bali and ultimately joined an Indonesian company as its technical adviser. He lived in Indonesia from 1987 to 2004.
KEEPING HOPE ALIVE
Kwendeche has indeed traveled the world, but for the past 10-15 years, he has been involved in historic preservation architecture involving Rosenwald Schools in south Arkansas. A good friend, Precious Williams, is a rural-Arkansas community activist who has run the Silas H. Hunt Community Development Corporation. “She introduced me to south Arkansas. I had no idea,” Kwendeche says. He has been working on projects involving former Rosenwald Schools in Camden, El Dorado, Stamps, Ashdown and Lewisville.
In Arkansas, there are 17 or 18 surviving Rosenwald Schools out of 380-plus that were built, Kwendeche says.
Initially, Williams asked him to look at the school in Ashdown. He met with the organizers, who needed funding to begin their project. He rolled up his sleeves.
“Fast forward three, four years later, that school district is now a National Historic District,” Kwendeche says. He has also lent his expertise to those who wanted to renovate a gymnasium in Camden, all that’s left of its Rosenwald school. Several months ago, he heard from a group associated with the school in Stamps, asking for his help to make it a functioning space for the community.
Flossie Moore, vice president of Lafayette School Restoration Inc. in Louann, reminisces about how Kwendeche came to the organization at the time they were searching for an architect.
“We were not aware we had a person world renowned, an architect extraordinaire,” she says. “The detailed work he has done for us is second to none.”
James T. Cook, board chairman of the Little River County Training School Community Project Site in Ashdown, refers to Kwendeche as “a devoted preservation architect.”
“He has presented … a vision and detailed drawings to renovate this property” with the intent of developing a community center, Cook says. “With Kwendeche’s assistance, we have been able to renovate one building.
“We look forward to … utilizing his talent and technical documentation to improve this facility and the community for many years to come.”
Other projects Kwendeche is handling include an ongoing project with the John Lee Webb House in Hot Springs, a project in Lewisville involving its downtown, a museum project in El Dorado and the Henry L. Dumas center in Sweet Home near Little Rock, and a couple of projects in Pine Bluff. “I can go on and on.”
These days, Kwendeche is working on a website that will showcase his paintings along with his tribal masks and his coming book projects, including a photographic story depicting an alien character that observes and critiques humans in New York; and a book featuring his black-and-white photos from Bali.
Meanwhile, he’s often approached by parents who seek career-pursuit advice for children who want to become architects.
“I tell ... parents, don’t inhibit their [children’s] desire to be away from home.”
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Sept. 7, 1949, Little Rock
• A BOOK I RECENTLY READ: "Ernesto Che Guevara: the Motorcycle Diaries."
• SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: During college, I was a member of the varsity crew (rowing) team.
• I WISH I COULD: Know the full and factual story of outer space.
• MY MOST VALUABLE POSSESSION: My health and well-being.
• I AM MOST COMFORTABLE WHEN: Traveling anywhere not seen before.
• MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: A 1958 family road trip to New York City.
• FIVE PEOPLE I WOULD INVITE TO A FANTASY DINNER PARTY: The 14th Dalai Lama, King Tutankhamun, Maya Angelou, Haile Selassie and Daisy Lee Gatson Bates.
• ONE OF THE BEST GIFTS I EVER RECEIVED: The breath of life at birth.
• MY FAVORITE MEAL: South Indian vegan (with tandoori roasted masala papad).
• I AM MOST PROUD OF: My architectural-related work in south Arkansas.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Focused