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Profiles in Architecture & Design: African American Architects Who Changed Our World

Last updated April 16, 2020

Profiles in Architecture & Design: African American Architects Who Changed Our World
 

At one point in our travels we have gone through Los Angeles International Airport. Did you know that one of the great African American architects in the United States was responsible for the concept of one of the busiest airports in the world? In an industry that still struggles with gender, racial equity, and inclusiveness, African-American architects continue to make an impact – and significant contributions in their communities, their cities, and around the world. They may be few in number, but these pioneering men and women are creating and designing marvelous structures and reshaping the American and international landscape. Read on to find out more about these architects who designed distinctive buildings – from commercial buildings to luxury houses – and made a lasting impact.

 

Paul Revere Willaims

Born in Los Angeles and an orphan at age 4, Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980) was the first African-American architect to become president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In a career that spanned more than 60 years, he became famous for his contributions to the design of Los Angeles International Airport including the “space ship” building in the middle of the airport; and many of the beautiful homes in Hollywood and Southern California as the “Architect to the Stars”.

The iconic Theme Building at Los Angeles Airport (LAX) was designed by Architect Paul Williams

Recognized around the world, the iconic "Theme Building" at Los Angeles Airport was designed by architect Paul Williams (Photo credit: Theme Building LAX Airport by Eric Salard under license CC BY-SA 2.0).

 

• Williams enrolled at the University of Southern California’s Engineering School and then won a prestigious architecture competition. He opened his own firm at age 28 and admitted that his “success during those first few years was founded largely upon my willingness – and anxiety would be a better word – to accept commissions which were rejected as too small by other more favored architects.”

Sketch of Paul Williams with some of his accomplishments circa 1943

Sketch of Paul Williams with some of his accomplishments circa 1943 - from hotels to houses to the "stars" (Source: Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. News Bureau. (06/13/1942 - 09/15/1945); by Charles Henry Alston).
 

• In addition to LAX, Williams made a name for himself as an architect of luxury house designs to Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Anthony Quinn, Bert Lahr, Danny Thomas and Zsa Zsa Gabor. In fact, he designed over 2,000 homes during his career.

 

 

 
In the videos above are just some of the many house plans and styles Williams designed in California and the West Coast – from traditional homes to ranches and even Southern styles.

 

• Among his other “creations”: a unit of Los Angeles General Hospital and the L.A. County Court House. He redesigned the Beverly Hills Hotel in the late 1940s, including the Polo Lounge, and is credited for the hotel’s trademark colors of pink and green.

Beverly Hills Hotel as seen from the pool

The Beverly Hills Hotel as re-designed by Paul Williams in its signature pink-and-green colors (photo credit: DSCN1111 by Alan Light under license CC BY 2.0).

 

J. Max Bond Jr.

Paul Williams’ legacy was not only in the buildings he designed but also in the “development” of  J. Max Bond Jr. (1935-February 18, 2009), one of the most influential African American architects in New York, who was responsible for the museum component at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center site.

J. Max Bond's National September 11 Museum

Above and Below: Views of the exterior of the September 11 Memorial Museum, designed by the architect J. Max Bond Jr. (Photo credit: Brian T. for The Plan Collection).

 

Alternate view of September 11 Memorial Museum designed by J. Max Bond Jr., Architect

 

• While a student at Harvard, racial tensions prompted one of Bond’s professors to tell him to abandon his dreams of becoming an architect. Fortunately, Bond had spent a summer working with Williams and from him, Bond knew he could rise above and conquer racial stereotypes.

Interior view of the September 11 Memorial Museum

Interior view of the September 11 Memorial Museum (photo credit: Brian T. for The Plan Collection).

 

• Bond started his professional architectural career in France. He also lived in Ghana in the mid-1960s where he designed several government buildings including the Bolgatanga Regional Library (near the border of Burkina Faso).

• Bond served as the head of the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem and his firm designed Harlem’s Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (The King Center) in Atlanta and the Birmingham Civil Institute in Alabama.

 

Vertner Woodson Tandy
New Yorkers may be familiar with St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on West 134th Street in Harlem. Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885-1949), who became New York’s first registered black architect, designed the present building, which is the fourth home of the first African American congregation of Protestant Episcopalians in New York City. This church was constructed in 1910-1911. Tandy also designed the Ivey Delph Apartments in Harlem, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

St. Phillip's Church in Harlem, New York City, designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy

St. Phillip's Church in Harlem, New York City, designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy (photo credit: St. Philip's Church 204 West 134th Street by Beyond My Ken under license CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

Vertner Woodson Tandy circa 1920.

Photograph of Vertner Woodson Tandy circa 1920.

 

Tandy was born in Lexington, Kentucky and attended Tuskegee Institute’s architecture program. After a year at Tuskegee, he transferred to Cornell University where he received his architecture degree.  He was one of the founders – “The Seven Jewels” – of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at Cornell. The Fraternity became incorporated under his direction. 

•  His most famous commission was Villa Lewaro located Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, a 30-room European style luxury house design known as Italianate architecture with its signature stucco structure and tiled roof. Tandy was hired by C.J. Walker, the first female African American millionaire, who made her fortune in hair products. The mansion was named for her daughter – Lelia Walker Robinson – an anagram of the first two letters of her name.

Front exterior of Villa Lewarto - Vertner Woodson Tandy's European style house design

Front exterior of Villa Lewarto - Vertner Woodson Tandy's European style house design (photo credit: Villa-lewaro by Dmadeo; cropped by Beyond My Ken licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).

 

Albert Cassell

One of the prominent mid-20th century African American architects in Washington, D.C., Albert Cassell (1895-1969), was born in Towson, Maryland and began his education in the segregated Baltimore public school system. Cassell moved to New York in 1909, enrolled at Douglas High School and studied drafting. In 1915, he was admitted to the architecture program at Cornell and was awarded his degree in 1919. 

The Founders Library at Howard University, designed by Albert Cassell

The Founders Library at Howard University, designed by Albert Cassell (photo credit: Founders Library by Derek E. Morton under license CC BY-SA 4.0).

 

• Cassell designed buildings for Howard University, Morgan State University (Baltimore) and Virginia Union University (Richmond). He also designed and built civic structures for Maryland and the District of Columbia.

• A year after his graduation from Cornell, Cassell joined the Architecture Department of Howard University as an assistant professor. He spent 18 years there as an instructor, land manager, surveyor and architect. His vision and work helped shape the campus with his designs for several buildings around the campus. The Founders Library (137), his most important design at Howard, has become the school’s architectural and educational symbol. 
 

Norma Merrick Sklarek

In a career of firsts, New York-born Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928-2012) was the first African American woman to become a licensed architect in the U.S., first to be licensed in New York (1954) and in California (1962). 

• Norma Sklarek became the first African American director of architecture at Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles (1966), the first African American woman to be elected Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and the first African American female architect to form her own firm – Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond, the largest woman-owned and women-staffed architectural firm in the U.S.

 • Sklarek’s designs include the San Bernardino City Hall in san Bernardino, California, the Fox Plaza in San Francisco, Terminal One at LAX and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan.

• Like most pioneers, she struggled during her early years.  After graduation from Barnard College and Columbia University, Sklarek could not find a job in her field – so she worked at the New York Department of Public Works. A few years later, she joined the New York architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill where she worked for four years before moving to California. 

Fox Plaza in San Francisco, designed by Norma Merrick Sklarek

Norma Sklarek's designs include Fox Plaza in San Francisco, a mixed-used commercial building, above, and the U.S. Embassy to Japan in Tokyo, below (above photo credit: Archstone Fox Plaza by J. Ash Bowie under license CC BY-SA 3.0; below photo credit: Embassy of the U.S. in Japan by Rs1421 under license CC BY-SA 3.0)

The U.S. Embassy to Japan in Tokyo, designed by Norma Merrick Sklarek

 

William Sidney Pittman
There are always sad side stories in the lives of renowned and successful people. William Sidney Pittman (1875-1958), Dallas’ first black architect, who was educated at Tuskegee Institute and Drexel Institute, died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave in South Dallas. 

William Sydney Pittman circa 1916

Photograph of William Sydney Pittman circa 1916.

 

• A son-in-law of Booker T. Washington, Pittman moved his family to Dallas to escape his famous father-in-law and make a name for himself.

Pythian Temple in Dallas, TX, designed by William Sydney Pittman

Pythian Temple, Dallas, Texas (source: The Dallas Express, Dallas, Tex., Vol. 30, No. 1, Ed. 1 Saturday, October 28, 1922).


• Pittman designed several buildings in Tuskegee and throughout the state of Texas, including the Pythian Temple (1915-1916), the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Joshua Chapel A.M.E. Church in Waxahachie, Texas. He is probably most famous for the Pythian Temple which housed offices for the city’s first black dentist, first black surgeon and other professionals.• In 1907 he became the first African American to win a federal commission – for the Negro Building at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in Jamestown, Virginia. He also designed several buildings for the Tuskegee Institute and developed the Fairmont Heights housing development for blacks in a suburb of Maryland.

Joshua Chapel in Waxahachie, TX, designed by William Sydney Pittman.

Joshua Chapel in Waxahachie, TX, designed by William Sydney Pittman (photo credit: Allen Chapel AME Church by Renelibrary under license CC BY-SA 4.0).

 

Robert Robinson

A profile series of such prominent African American architects would not be complete without mentioning Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942), the first accredited African American architect in the United States and first African American student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His father was a contractor and builder whose cargo ships traveled trade routes between the U.S. and South America.

Robert Robinson Taylor circa 1890

Robert Robinson Taylor circa 1890 (circa 1890 Source: MIT Libraries via MIT Museum).

 

Original Tuskegee University Chapel, designed by Robert Robinson Taylor

Original Tuskegee University Chapel, designed by Robert Robinson Taylor (source: Source: Max Bennett Thrasher, Tuskegee: Its Story and Its Work (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1900) via MIT).

 

  • At the invitation of Dr. Booker T. Washington, Taylor developed the industrial program at Tuskegee University in Alabama and directed the construction of campus buildings. His first project there was the Science Hall in 1893 (now Thrasher Hall and a historic campus building). He considered the Tuskegee Chapel his finest achievement, but unfortunately, a fire destroyed the chapel. The campus is the only college or university campus in the nation to be designated a National Historic Site by the U.S. Congress.

 

Michael Marshall

“As a young boy growing up here in Washington, D.C., I loved drawing and design. I could only have dreamed that a career contributing to the renaissance of our city would have led me to this meaningful moment” (comment on being named recipient of the 2018 UDC Alumni Award for Professional Accomplishments).

Contributing to  DC’s Cultural History 

Around Washington, D.C., there are a number of high-profile buildings that display the unmistakable impact of Michael Marshall in his native city. On Connecticut Avenue, there’s the Student Center at the University of the District of Columbia, the Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Langdon Park, the historic Howard Theatre on T Street, a number of public schools, and private residences. In the Southwest section of the city is Audi Field (home of Washington’s Major League Soccer team – DC United); and within the historic St. Elizabeth’s East campus is a new entertainment and sports facility.      

The fascination for architecture came early for Marshall. At age 11, he created his first set of blueprints after a friend showed him blueprints used for carpentry designs. With dreams of becoming an architect, Marshall enrolled at a technical school that offered design courses. In 1975, the school became a part of the University of the District of Columbia. Its faculty and community inspired the young Marshall to complete a degree in architecture and studio art at the Catholic University of America.

During his master’s program at Yale University, one of his professors was the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry who designed iconic buildings such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; the Olympic Fish Pavilion in Barcelona, Spain; and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.

After his graduation from Yale, Marshall worked as a Design Associate for Hartman-Cox Architects and Ward-Hale Design Associates – both in Washington, DC. In 1988, he won a Graham Foundation Fellowship and lived in Italy for a year to study modern Italian painting and architecture.  

Upon his return to the U.S. in 1989, he launched Michael Marshall Architecture and was officially in business.

One of his major projects during those early stages of his career was the restoration and renovation of his current home. In 1991, Marshall found buried treasure in the form of a 79-year old stone house in DC’s Forest Hills section. The home was on the auction block following a foreclosure, was covered in vines and steeped in sewage gases after being vacant for five years.

Inspired by Old World architecture during his time in Europe, Marshall and his wife spent considerable money renovating the 5,500-square-foot home – stripping the utilities but leaving its best original features: a fireplace made of stones from the Potomac River, rare chestnut woodwork, and oak floors. Marshall incorporated contemporary elements with the Old World feel of the English Tudor and French Norman styles into the home.

For 22 years, he was at the helm of Michael Marshall Architecture; then partnered with Paola Moya in 2011 to form Marshall Moya Design – a partnership that was dissolved in 2017. He rebranded in 2018 and created Michael Marshall Design (MMD).

Some of his projects include:

  • City Vista (2006-2008) – An award-winning mixed use development at the former location of the Old Wax Museum at 5th and K Streets, NW, it includes apartment units and condominiums, a Safeway, Starbucks, a bank and retail space. MMD collaborated with Torti-Gallas and Partners to design and build the complex.  
  • Rock Creek Residence – designed by MMD – is a 20,000-square-foot home and entertaining space for a high profile media executive. Separated into two wings, the luxurious home has a west wing with the children’s bedrooms and family room. The east section accommodates the two-story living-dining space, kitchen, home office, and a master bedroom suite. The breezeway between the two wings provides views from the rear terrace out to Rock Creek Park.
  • Marshall’s restoration and renovation of the interior of DC’s Howard Theatre – the country’s oldest African-American performance hall – created a significant buzz in the city. The design includes a “two-story theater and basement, full-service restaurant and kitchen, dome ceiling with multi-colored LED hanging lights, lightbox images illuminating pictures of historical performing artists, and custom signage.”

Newly redesigned Howard Theatre in Washington, DC

After the design… here’s the new exterior of the iconic Howard Theatre. Today, the 30,390-square-foot theatre is a multi-functional facility that hosts celebrity events, live performances, corporate meetings, and “Sunday Gospel” brunches. Its beautiful new interior designed by MMD and completed with Moya Design – begins a new era in music, performing arts, and corporate events. (photo: Richard Gunion | Dreamstime).

 

  • Chuck Brown Memorial – located in the District’s Langdon Park – is a space dedicated to the legendary Godfather of Go-Go. MMD’s design features a photo mosaic tile wall that wraps around the amphitheater and showcases Brown in a larger-than-life format. The memorial is a perfect place for outdoor recreation – providing lawn seating and benches for outdoor performances and instrumental drums for children to play with. Features include: (1) an arc of photos that curve around the exterior of Chuck Brown Memorial, highlighting his life and career; (2) a huge sculpture of the musician that stands at the entrance of the park to greet visitors; (3) space next to the photo wall for chimes and drums that children can play with. 
  • Audi Field, the new home of DC United – Washington’s Major League Soccer franchise – is a collaboration with Populous, a globally-recognized architecture firm based in Kansas City (MO). The 437,938-square-foot state-of-the-art stadium accommodates 20,000 fans and features 31 luxury suites. In addition, there is a 200-capacity bike valet lot and close to 500,000 square feet of space for offices, retail, and other amenities. Audi Field opened in July 2018 for the Major League Soccer season.

Audi Field in Washington, DC

Part of Audi Field, the home turf of Washington DC's soccer team, DC United, is this “seating bowl” with canopies surrounding an uncovered field (photo credit: Audi Field by Rainclaw7 under license CC BY-SA 4.0). 

 

With his newly branded firm – Michael Marshall Design – Marshall has a number of projects on the pipeline not only in the Washington area but around the country and abroad. They include schools, libraries, water towers, mixed use complexes, and a skating rink. He and his group continue to design and create relevant public spaces that drive positive change in communities and inspire others through architecture.

 

Gabrielle Bullock
“The work we do is directly tied to cultural differences. … That’s why the design profession should mirror the community and clients we serve” (induction ceremony at the Annual Meeting of the International Interior Design Association).

An Architect of Many “Firsts”

One of only 404 African-American women who are licensed architects in the U.S., New York City-born Gabrielle Bullock is principal and director of global diversity at Perkins+Will, an 83-year-old architecture and design company with a workforce of more than 2,000 professionals. Bullock – the firm’s first African-American woman managing director – has been with Perkins+Will for 30 years, first in New York and now in Los Angeles. Her appointment as director of global diversity was an industry-first that set off a wave of similar roles, programs, and initiatives across the design profession, and she is the first African-American woman to preside over the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), the world’s leading industry group for interior designers.

Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, CA

 The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood is Bullock’s biggest work. Her firm – Perkins+Will – served as executive architect for the hospital designed by I.M. Pei and C.C. Pei of Pei Partnership Architects (Photo: Ken Wolter | Dreamstime).  

 

Art Leads to Architecture

Like Michael Marshall, Bullock discovered her artistic talents quite early and began designing her own stationery when she was nine or 10 years old. Her artistic ability earned her a coveted spot at the Fiorello H. Laguardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. From Laguardia High School, it was on to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where she graduated with degrees in fine arts and architecture in 1984 – becoming the second African-American woman to earn an architecture degree from that university.

Although she grew up in the upscale community of Riverdale in the Bronx, as a young girl Bullock had a firsthand view of poorly designed housing projects in other areas of the borough. She noticed that “[the housing projects] were very tall, had very small windows, and [had] very little relationship to the scale of a person living there. They didn’t engage the inhabitants. They were simply a place to lay your head.” 

At age 12, she made up her mind to be an architect as a way to improve public housing and the lives of those who lived in them. So after graduation from RISD, Bullock worked for several small firms specializing in public housing, then to Chicago-based Russo and Sonder, a healthcare-focused firm that Perkins+Will acquired.

Over the course of three decades, Bullock has directed notable projects that are community based and engaged with the neighborhood. Among them are the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, one of the largest building projects ever completed for the University of California system – and one of the biggest that Bullock had ever worked on and managed – a project where she learned more about technique and the theory of design.

One of several "bridges" connecting buildings of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center

The "bridge" at right is one thoose connecting buildings of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in the Westwood section of Los Angeles (photo: Ken Wolter | Dreamstime).

 

Bullock also worked on the design of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Cancer Immunotherapeutics and Tumor Immunology at the City of Hope medical, education, and research facilities in Duarte, CA, and the Jeddah campus of King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, the first public university specializing in health sciences in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

Bullock’s latest big project is Destination Crenshaw, a 1.1-mile outdoor museum that celebrates the story of black Los Angeles through art, history, music, and technology. Working with her on Destination Crenshaw are three other African-American architects – including Phil Freelon, who was the lead architect for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC; Zena Howard; and Drake Dillard.

Professional Activities

Currently president of the board of the International Interior Design Association, Bullock is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and serves on the AIA’s Equity in Architecture Commission. She is a member of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), a past board member of the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles, a board member of the Center for Architecture and Urban Design Los Angeles, and a LEED Accredited Professional.

As Bullock continues to advocate and create opportunities for the underrepresented, she is encouraged by the moderate progress and is optimistic about the future of minorities in the architecture and design fields.

 

Frank Christopher Lee

“It’s the beginning of a great program. I’m just glad being a South Sider that the newest boat house is built on the south leg of the Chicago River.” (Comment about the Ping Tom Memorial Park boathouse)

Ping Tom Park in Chicago's Chinatown riverfront

Frank Christopher Lee, President and Co-founder of Johnson & Lee Architects, designed the boathouse at the Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chicago’s Chinatown refiverfront (photo: StockPhotoAstur | Dreamstime).

 

For more than 40 years, Frank Christopher Lee has designed buildings, recreation facilities, hotels, libraries, and restaurants in urban communities. Born on Chicago’s Southside, Lee attended Lindblom Technical High School and is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. He received his Master of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Lee has been a visiting professor, critic, and lecturer at universities across the country, including Cornell, Tulane, Virginia Tech, University of Michigan, University of Virginia, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has also lectured at the Toronto Society of Architects, Chicago Architecture Foundation, the Graham Foundation, Chicago Chapter or the American Institute of Architects, The Society of College and University Planners, and the Chicago Historical Society.  

Prior to founding Johnson & Lee in 1983 with Craig Johnson, Lee worked at Helmut Jahn’s firm – Murphy/Jahn and O’Donnell, Wicklund, Pigozzi. From community centers and colleges to banks and other buildings, Lee’s designs promote positive social interaction and provide architecture that enhances community life and the restructuring and revitalization of their neighborhoods.

Take the renovation of the historic Strand Hotel in the Woodlawn section of Chicago. Working with Holsten Real Estate Development Corporation, Johnson & Lee converted the hotel into an affordable 63-unit apartment complex.

In describing the conversion of the Strand Hotel into an apartment complex, Lee noted that his firm “wanted to keep the street animated, which retail on the first floor will accomplish … and access to the green line enhances the transit-oriented development” reinforcing his philosophy of creating developments that blend in with the surrounding community.

With the boathouse at Ping Tom Memorial Park, Johnson & Lee helped transform an unused industrial strip of land into a beautiful public space.

Another project completed by Lee’s firm is the redesign and expansion of the Whitney Young Library into a state-of-the art facility that serves Chicago’s Chatham and Park Manor neighborhoods. Included in the renovation: an Early Learning center for children; Youmedia digital lab for teens; additional seating; meeting and study spaces; expanded computer access; and ADA accessibility throughout the building. The new Whiney Young Library includes an additional 3,000 square feet that provides neighborhood residents a much-needed public gathering space for community activities. 

 

Like their predecessors who paved the way for them in the architecture and design fields, these architects and many other great African American architects and designers have succeeded in changing the way we view and appreciate architecture. They demonstrate the power to shape the world and, in the process, make a difference.

 

Additional Sources:

Washington Post

Michael Marshall Design

Los Angeles Times

Curbed

Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Chicago Curbed

 

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