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Alumni World

Patricia Harris ’74 - Turning dreams into reality one brick at a time

In the seventh grade, Patricia Harris wanted to be an architect. But in the mid-1960s, there were no African American women architects. She remembers being strongly discouraged from pursuing architecture. “There was no one like me,” she recalled.

Despite such discouragement, Harris eventually achieved her dream. In 1994, she became the 10th African American woman in the United States to become a licensed architect.

“Langston Hughes speaks about dreams deferred,” she said. “I decided to make my dream a reality.”

Today, she has taken her dream one step further. She owns The New Synergy Inc., a Durham, N.C.-based architecture firm that employs eight and specializes in community-based projects and public buildings.

“That had always been my goal,” said Harris, who earned a B.A. in English with an emphasis in speech and theatre. “I wanted to have a firm that provided community architecture to help guide policy and also design parts of a city.”

Her theatre experience at Wittenberg provided her with excellent training for her future career in architecture. “The theatre was the best training I could have had because what I do has a lot to do with translation and transformation of dreams,” said Harris, who grew up on a small farm near Yellow Springs, Ohio. “The theatre is a place where we create dreams.”
After graduation, Harris began her long, arduous journey of becoming an architect. She worked a series of jobs in social services, educational planning and construction. She then applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning her master’s degree in architecture in 1986.

It took another eight years, though, before she became a licensed architect. Harris had to work for more than three years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect. She then applied to take the licensing exam. Once accepted, she had five years to pass the exam.

“Architecture is the only thing I know that has a range of creativity and is meaningful in people’s lives,” she said. “It’s a way of improving our communities.”

She selected Durham because she wanted to be in a location where she would not be an anomaly. She wanted to work and live in a place with a history of achievement by African Americans and where she could contribute to the town.
When Harris arrived in Durham, however, she only knew fellow classmate James Lehrer ’74, who gave her a place to stay in a house he was renovating. Three weeks later, she found a position with a firm that a fellow MIT alumnus was starting. She worked for three years with The Freelon Group and then worked for two years at North Carolina State University in Raleigh as an African American coordinator. She then founded her own firm.

The New Synergy focuses on projects that benefit entire communities such as libraries, schools, city halls and education centers. “We want to do life- and community-enhancing architecture that addresses the entire person,” Harris said. “We want people to go to our buildings and feel good and uplifted.”

She is particularly proud of a project in Princeville, N.C., which her firm worked on after Hurricane Floyd devastated eastern North Carolina in 1999. The entire town of Princeville, which is the oldest town in the United States incorporated by African Americans, was flooded under 20 feet of water.

The town wanted to rebuild, so she and her firm designed the new town hall. “It is important to me to help cities maintain their identity,” Harris said. “This is the pivotal building in this community. It is a source of strength to continue building their lives.”

Despite the long work days, Harris still makes time for her community. A member of several Durham boards, she and her staff, including the interns, also visit schools and boys and girls clubs to encourage young children to achieve their dreams.

“It’s important for them to see us,” she said. They tell the children that they don’t have to be NBA players or pop divas. They can be so many other things.

“It’s like spreading seed. Some of it will take root and thrive,” she said. “We’re about building communities.” — Heather Maurer


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