Four More African-American Architects You Should Know
Back in February, we profiled a few influential African-American architects who have left their mark on the country’s built environment. That list was far from complete. Join us as we take another look at four more architects whose names you should know.
Julian Francis Abele
Julian Francis Abele was born into a prominent family in South Philadelphia in 1881. He studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and was elected president of the school’s Architectural Society during his senior year. In 1902, he became the first African-American to graduate from the school.
He joined the firm of noted architect Horace Trumbauer in 1906. He was named the firm’s chief designer two years later, and as such, he designed or helped design hundreds of buildings, including Harvard’s Widener Memorial Library, the Museum of Art in Philadelphia, the Free Library in Philadelphia, and a number of Gilded Age mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, and New York. Most notably, he helped design much of Duke University, after tobacco millionaire James Buchanan Duke hired Trumbauer’s firm to expand a college in Durham into a major university bearing his name. Abele worked on the library, faculty houses, and, most notably, the chapel, among other campus buildings.
Abele was elected to the American Institute of Architects in 1942. He died in 1950.
Charles T. Russell
Charles Thaddeus Russell was the first African-American architect in Richmond, Virginia. He transformed the city’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, designing a number of buildings that turned the area into a thriving business district that has been called the “Black Wall Street of America.”
A Richmond native, Russell graduated from the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, in 1899 with a certificate from the carpentry department and a diploma from the academic department. Two years later, he went on to serve as supervisor of carpentry at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he learned mechanical drawing and served an architectural apprenticeship during the campus’ construction. In 1907, he returned to Richmond after he was named an instructor in manual training and superintendent of university grounds at Virginia Union University. It was there that he began to take on architectural commissions.
Russell designed many notable buildings in Richmond, including the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank (which he later expanded and refurbished), the Richmond Beneficial Insurance Company building, and a number of houses, churches, and multi-use commercial buildings. In 1925, he remodeled and expanded the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was originally built in 1890 by George Boyd. That building was saved from demolition in the mid-1950s when Interstate 95 was developed, cutting through the Jackson Ward neighborhood. A number of the neighborhood’s buildings were destroyed during this interstate construction project— including many designed by Russell—but this church still stands as a fine example of Russell’s legacy.
Norma Merrick Sklarek
Born in Harlem, Norma Merrick Sklarek received a degree in architecture in 1950 from Columbia University, where she was one of only two women in her class. In 1954, she passed the New York state exam and became one of the first African-American women to become a licensed architect, and the first in New York. She was also the first to be licensed in California, in 1962.
Sklarek found it difficult to find work after graduating, but eventually she was hired at the New York Department of Public Works. In 1955, she took a position at prestigious architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and in 1960, she moved to Los Angeles to work with Gruen Associates. She stayed there for two decades, becoming the firm’s first African-American director of architecture. She later served as vice president at the Welton Becket firm; co-founded her own firm, Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond; and became a principal with The Jerde Partnership in 1989.
Among her many projects, she worked on the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Terminal 1 at LAX airport, Queens Fashion Mall in New York, and Fox Plaza in San Francisco.
Sklarek was the first African-American woman to become a member of the American Institute of Architects, in 1959, and was the first African-American woman to be elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, in 1980. She died in 2012.
Beverly Loraine Greene
Beverly Loraine Green is believed to have been the first African-American woman licensed to practice architecture in the United States, after registering in Illinois in 1942. Born in Chicago, she received a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1936 and a master’s in city planning from the school in 1937.
After graduating, Greene returned to Chicago and worked for the Chicago Housing Authority. She later moved to New York, where she was hired to work for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which was developing “Stuyvesant Town,” a private housing project in lower Manhattan. However, she quit the job after several days and enrolled in Columbia University, where she received her master’s degree in architecture in 1945.
Greene worked with a number of noted architects. While working for Edward Durell Stone, she contributed to the design of the arts complex at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and a theater at the University of Arkansas. She also worked with Marcel Breuer and helped design the UNESCO United Nations headquarters in Paris, which was completed in 1958, one year after she died.