Carleton W. Adams, architect, was born in Alma, Nebraska, on November 26, 1885, the son of Jay E. Adams, a prominent real estate developer. In 1890 the elder Adams moved his family to San Antonio, Texas, where he was involved in developing the north-side area now in the Monte Vista Historic District. Adams attended Main Avenue High School in San Antonio and subsequently studied architecture at Columbia University, where he graduated with a bachelor of architecture degree in 1909. He returned to San Antonio and together with his uncle Carl C. Adams founded the architecture firm of Adams and Adams. After Carl Adams died in 1918, Max C. Friedrich, a senior employee, became an associate member of the firm.
Among Adams's early works was the Mediterranean-style Santa Gertrudis ranchhouse at the King Ranch, completed in 1917. Although he continued to design houses for many of San Antonio's elite, Adams specialized in large commercial and public structures. During the late teens and 1920s he and his associates produced a number of multistory buildings in the Beaux-Arts style then reigning, including the San Antonio Drug Company Building (1919), the San Antonio National Bank of Commerce, the Great American Life Insurance Building in San Antonio (1925), the Kerr County Courthouse in Kerrville, the Sames-Moore Building in Laredo, and the Nixon Office Building in Corpus Christi. Like most architects at the time, however, Adams produced works in a variety of styles and types. Among the best known of these is the Spanish Colonial-revival Jefferson High School in San Antonio (1930–32), which received national attention. In the early 1930s Adams also began to experiment with Art Deco style; he produced several of the state's best examples in the Texas State Highway Building in Austin (1931), the Alamo Cenotaph in San Antonio (1936, with sculptures by Pompeo Coppini), and the Hall of State (1936) at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. Among Adams's other important works were the Student Union Building at Texas A&M in College Station (1950) and the State Archives and Library Building in Austin (1962).
Adams married Marcia Booth in 1909. The couple had three children. Adams was a member of the American Institute of Architects and the Presbyterian Church. He was also active in the San Antonio Rotary Club and served for a time as its president. He died of a heart attack while on a hunting trip on his ranch in Devine on November 20, 1964, and was buried in Mission Burial Park, San Antonio.