Designer of San Francisco's Martin Luther King Memorial Dies

Behind the waterfall at the San Franciscos Martin Luther King Memorial designed by Houston Conwill (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Houston Conwill invested his sculptures and memorials with a deep spirituality. That's evident in the design for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens. It's a waterfall, 50 feet wide, that invites visitors to step behind into a cool, damp refuge from the city. There they find photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and words from his speeches etched in Sierra granite. Included in the engravings is a bible passage from the prophet Amos that King often quoted: "But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Conwill died Nov. 14 in the Bronx at the age of 69. He was a former seminarian and a Vietnam War Veteran who later built site specific installations honoring African American culture, such as the MLK waterfall and a memorial to poet Langston Hughes in Harlem.

"Mr. Conwill captured the essence of a man and a movement," the Reverend Amos Brown said during a phone interview Monday. Brown, the pastor at San Francisco's Third Baptist Church, said he suggested the quote and the water theme for the memorial to Conwill, and the results were better than he ever imagined.

Locals and tourists often discover that the King waterfall is a memorial almost by accident. Mark Sonny, a school teacher visiting the city from La Habra in Southern California, was there with his wife and young daughter Monday morning, and he was impressed by the power of Conwill's design.

"The water represents what King was trying to do in a peaceful way," Sonny said, "the water falls on the rocks and over time the rocks begin to lose their sharp edge."

Looking out from behind the waterfall at San Franciscos Martin Luther King Memorial designed by Houston Conwill
Looking out from behind the waterfall at San Franciscos Martin Luther King Memorial designed by Houston Conwill (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Brown said the recent Presidential election is a good reason to revisit the King memorial. "Mr. Conwill reminds us that the water has got to flow, and never be cut off or dammed up. Until all people are respected for their worth and dignity, until all people have  equality of opportunity. Until all people have equal protection under the law. "

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Conwill is survived by his sister, poet Estella Majozo, and the architect Joseph DePace. Both of them collaborated with Conwill on San Francisco's King Memorial. His wife is Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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