In 1964, Howard Francis Sims established his first design office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1968, he moved his firm to Detroit. That same year, the Detroit riot occurred following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but despite the civil unrest and the bureaucratic machinations associated with a burgeoning city, Howard Sims & Associates, which later became Sims-Varner and Associates, remained in the city and thrived. The firm is widely regarded as the oldest Black-owned architectural business in Michigan. Architect Harold R. Varner joined the firm in 1973, where he became a partner and eventually the executive vice president. The firm currently operates as SDG Associates.
When Sims founded the firm, African Americans had limited opportunities to design buildings in Michigan. "Certainly, it's true that at one time, Black architects had only one major client: churches and maybe funeral homes," Sims told the Detroit Free Press in 1982. "It wasn't until the mid to late '60s that black people entered the decision-making process so far as what might be built and where, and how it should look."
The Sims-Varner and Associates portfolio of modernist designs includes the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Cobo Hall expansion, McMichael Middle school, the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority Terminal, Greektown Casino, Orleans East Apartments in Lafayette Park, Franklin Wright Village in Elmwood Park, the Wayne County Community College District's main downtown campus and the Detroit Historical Museum Renovations and Master Plan.
Born on July 25, 1933, Howard Sims earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture from the University of Michigan. In 1951 as a Naval Petty Officer First Class, Sims served on the construction battalion during the Korean War. In 1977, the American Institute of Architects elected Sims to the College of Fellows. Two years later, he collaborated to write Michigan's first construction code. Howard was married to Judith Perry and they had four children.
Harold Richard Varner was a native of Detroit. He received his architectural education from the Cass Tech and Lawrence Technological University and became a licensed architect in 1967. For 15 years, Varner served on the Michigan Board of Architects. In 1981, he was elected to the American Institute of Architects' College of Fellows. He married and had two daughters, one of whom, Kimberly Varner Tandy, became an architect and joined his firm.
Both Sims and Varner were very much active in their community. In 1969, both men were part of a coalition of black business leaders known as the Harambee (meaning "all pull together" in Swahili) of Oakland County. The group received an interest-free loan of $1.1 million from General Motors to help "the rehabilitation" of Pontiac, Michigan's impoverished areas.
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) 16 Aug 1969, Sat Page 9
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) 08 Oct 1991, Tue Page 4B-5B