Leatrice McKissack — the matriarch of McKissack & McKissack, which bills itself as the oldest minority-owned architecture and construction firm in the country — was inducted into the Nashville Entrepreneur Center’s hall of fame last week.
The Nashville Post caught up with the award winner and her daughter, Cheryl McKissack Daniels, who now oversees the firm, which was founded in Nashville more than 100 years ago and now operates nationally. During the interview with the mother-daughter duo, McKissack Daniels promised the Post that she will return to Nashville to build the tallest tower in the city. While her timeline is not concrete, she is confident she will fulfill her bold promise.
Post: Telling a reporter that you will build the tallest tower in Nashville one day is a big promise. Where does this idea of building the tallest tower in Nashville stem from and what makes you think McKissack & McKissack can accomplish this tall order?
Cheryl McKissack Daniels: McKissack & McKissack has recently submitted a bid to build the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere to date in Manhattan, New York. It would be the first skyscraper built and developed by African Americans in New York City history. The plan includes a 1,663-foot tower, two hotels, an observation deck and skating rink as well as commercial office spaces with the NAACP headquarters. The building would be called the Affirmation Tower. It will employ more than 30,000 people and generate $5 billion in tax revenue for the city/state, but more importantly, it will serve as a symbol of Black excellence and achievement for the world.
We want to build Affirmation Towers — Black-developed, built and owned — in large metropolitans across the U.S. to fuel economies and add diversity in the skylines. After we finish New York — which I’m confident we’ll accomplish — I want to build the second Affirmation Tower in Nashville, where our family’s legacy began and my mother still lives.
Post: What large-scale projects is your company currently working on?
Cheryl McKissack Daniels: We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now. Our company is the ongoing program manager for the $6.5 billion Terminal 1 project at JFK Airport. The company is also the construction manager for the $4 billion Delta Airlines terminal at LaGuardia Airport and the $888 million construction of Coney Island Hospital.
Post: Did you always know you would take the company over from your mother?
Cheryl McKissack Daniels: Yes. My sisters and I did not have a choice in our careers. From a young age, we knew we were going to be architects and engineers. My twin sister and I were about to graduate from Howard with our civil engineering degrees when my father had a stroke. We rushed home to help my mother with the company. We graduated but didn’t get to walk in the ceremony. Every developer in this town was trying to buy our family’s business. They were calling my mother before my father was even dead. All three of us helped, but then I returned to New York with my twin sister while our eldest sister helped mother.
About four years later, my mother called my boss at Turner Construction in New York and informed him that I would be quitting that day so I could help her. Then, for the next two years, I commuted weekly back and forth from New York to Nashville to help my mother in Nashville and still oversee some of the projects.
Leatrice McKissack: Then, she retired me in 2000 and bought the company!
Post: Where does the firm have offices/operate today?
Cheryl McKissack Daniels: We closed the Nashville office and opened offices in New York and Philadelphia, as well as a project office in Atlanta where most of our projects are being constructed. However, we are overseeing and working on projects all across the country in cities where we don’t have offices. I will say, it is a goal of mine, to reopen a Nashville office at some point in the future when it makes sense.