Updated: Apr 14, 2021
You could easily mistake the building above for one of the modernist villas in Vienna’s famous Werkbundseidlung, but in fact it's in Virgina. And it was not designed by a modernist STAR-chitect but by a self-taught African American architect, who happened to be a lesbian. Amaza Lee Meredith was nothing short of amazing. She built a life and home for herself and her partner Edna Meade, despite so many obstacles. Rejected from architecture schools due to her race and her sex, Amaza Lee persisted.
According to the Dictionary of African American Architects, Beverly Loraine Greene is widely acknowledged as the first African American woman accepted to an architecture school, at the University of Illinois in 1942. With the exception of Howard University which had an architecture program, most architectural departments at this time were not accepting black students let alone female black students. As a result, many historic African American architects taught themselves through on-the job learning, and apprenticeships with other self-taught black architects. Amaza Lee not only succeeded in designing buildings for her family, friends, and community but also founded the art department at what is now Virgina State University.
She was born in 1895 in Lynchburg, Virgina. Her father, who was white, was a carpenter and her mother was black. Because Virginia banned interracial marriage, the two traveled (in separate segregated trains) to Washington DC to be legally married. Amaza Lee graduated first in her class in high school and received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in art education from Columbia University. At Virgina State , Amaza Lee met educator Dr.Edna Meade Colson who was seven years her senior and one of the founding members of the University. Edna Meade Colson had degrees from Fisk and Columbia University. According to Docomo US, both were highly respected faculty members at Virgina State as well as lifelong partners. They are buried next to one another in Petersburg Virgina.
In 1938 Amaza Lee designed and built Azurest South, a modernist home for herself and Edna on what is now the campus of Virgina State University. With its glass block, flat roof curving walls and streamlined exterior, one could be forgiven for thinking it was designed by any European modernist such as JJP OUD, Reitveld, Pollini or Paul Bauer. When it was completed, Amaza lee and Edna Meade lived here for the rest of their lives. This building is now a historic landmark and houses the alumni office at Virginia State University.
She also designed the historic mid-century modern development Azurest (North) in Sag Harbor. This historic black summer community was entirely self- financed, built, and designed by Amaza lee, her sister Maude, and others from the Harlem Renaissance. It was impossible for African Americans to get bank loans at this time. African Americans were prevented from purchasing the affordable housing that was being built throughout the US, such as Levittown, which was offered to many white Americans at this time. But that didn’t stop this group of talented individuals, who purchased what was then considered undesirable land on Long Island and developing it into120 plots for modest single-family summer homes. These classic mid-century modern homes with open floor plans and lots of glass, recall the modest summer houses designed by Walter Gropius and other modernists at Cape Cod. (If you haven’t already, don’t forget to check out the New York Times spread on many of the gorgeous interiors and the fascinating people who live in them here)
Unfortunately like many mid century modern housing developments that weren’t designed by the elite group of white male Star-chitects such as Gropius , Neutra or Breuer, this historic community is under intense pressure from developers, who are now trying to buy up properties and build typical developer mcmansions. (I guess they haven’t heard that “millennials don’t want your mcmansion”) The small footprint of almost all modernist and mid-century modern housing is considered undesirable in our current consumption-based society. As a result, developers see little value in these homes and even more so when they are in in black communities, which have always been the subject of predatory developement. While this community has received federal designation as a historic community, it has not received local (state) historic designation, which means that these homes can still be purchased and torn down. Please consider donating to the Eastville Community Historical Society here to help sustain and preserve this historic black mid-century modern community, designed by a gay black woman. You can earmark or specify that you’d like to donate to SANS, Sag Harbor Azurest, and Nineveh Subdivisions. I will be continuing to write about the SANS community as I learn more and to update readers about its status. Thirsty for more? Make a classic Daiquiri with the recipe here