July 14, 2021

The Colorful Past and Bright Future of Azurest South, Home of a Pioneering Black Architect

The exterior of Azurest South.

photo by: Calder Loth

Azurest South is one of the most important works designed by Amaza Lee Meredith, an architect and teacher who lived there for more than 40 years.

The color “azure” is not merely a shade of blue. Azure is a distinct hue most easily described as the bright blue, graced by hints of cyan, that fills a cloudless sky on a sunny day. There are any number of reasons that Amaza Lee Meredith, one of the earliest Black female architects in the United States, might have chosen to reference the color in naming her 1939 home Azurest South, located at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia, and recently awarded a paint donation from Benjamin Moore as part of the National Trust’s Where Women Made History campaign. But perhaps Meredith’s choice can be best interpreted retroactively as the perfect representation of her boundless potential, the removal of social barriers that her work helped accomplish, and the inventiveness of Azurest South’s design.

“[Azurest South] is such an anomaly for Virginia,” says Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “At the time, people weren’t building buildings that looked like that in Virginia. We were still extremely traditional; everything looked Colonial. To have something [in the] International Style was a notable departure.”

Born in 1895 in Lynchburg, Virginia, Meredith encountered tragedy at a young age when her father died by suicide in 1915, apparently due to stress suffered from the controversy and financial impact of his interracial marriage to Meredith's mother. Despite such trauma, Meredith graduated from high school that same year and moved on to Virginia State University (a Historically Black College and University then known as Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute), where she studied education and met Dr. Edna Meade Colson. Meredith and Colson would become lifetime partners and companions, living together despite broad opposition to same-sex relationships that characterized the time.

Meredith soon obtained a teaching certificate and, after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from Teachers College, Columbia University, returned to her alma mater as an art educator. By 1935, she had become chair of the art department altogether.

Meredith balanced her commitment to education with her architectural ambitions, establishing a small practice and designing homes for friends and families. At a time when Jim Crow laws continued to suffocate Black communities (and only a few decades after the 1910 United States Census identified just 59 Black architects actively working in the country), Meredith’s ability to simply carve out a career in the field was plenty notable. But when she received the opportunity to create a home for herself and Colson, settling for “notable” was not enough.

The dining room of Azurest South.

photo by: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

A 1939 home economics class inside Azurest South's dining room.

Kitchen tiles at Azurest South.

photo by: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

The mosaic tile countertops of Azurest South's kitchen as seen in 1993. The tiles were removed sometime after 1984 but could be replicated in the future.

Constructed out of stuccoed concrete block, the five-room Azurest South stood in stark contrast to the rest of the university’s building stock, not to mention the state of Virginia’s at the time. Its clean lines, curved form, and lack of ornamentation placed it in the International Style, not entirely dissimilar from the works of famed architects such as Le Corbusier. Inside, colorful mosaic tiles decorated the kitchen’s countertops, matching the playfulness of the reds and blues found elsewhere in the house.

“Seeing it, you just have a spontaneous reaction to it,” says Langan. “It jumps out at you.”

Similarly impressive was Azurest North, a 1940s enclave of summer cottages for Black vacationers in Sag Harbor, New York. Meredith established and managed the subdivision with her sister, Maude Terry, in defiance of discriminatory redlining laws in the region. The likes of Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte were frequent visitors. Though Meredith may have designed several of the houses in the community, it is currently unknown exactly how many or if any still stand.

Meredith continued to teach and practice architecture until her death in 1984. Her will dictated that her portion of Azurest South be donated to the Virginia State University Alumni Association (VSUAA). After Colson’s passing two years later, VSUAA decided to purchase the rest and began utilizing the property primarily as an alumni event space.
The exterior of Azurest South.

photo by: David Myers

Azurest South is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. VSUAA and others are now working to nominate the site as a National Historic Landmark, which would bestow significant protections.

Franklin H. Johnson, Jr., national president of VSUAA, recalls passing by “the little white house” on a near-daily basis as an undergraduate student in 2000. It wasn’t until becoming a VSUAA board member years later that he learned the history of the house and its remarkable architect. Meredith’s personal life particularly stood out to him. “Even the articles that I read—they state that [Meredith] lived with her partner,” Johnson says. “For me, being a member of the LGBTQ community, just to know that was an amazing piece of history in and of itself.”

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources successfully listed Azurest South on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 and began working with VSUAA to secure the building’s future. It added a cast-iron highway marker outside the property to highlight its significance, and Langan brought it to the attention of the National Trust in 2020 as part of Where Women Made History. The campaign and Benjamin Moore selected Azurest South from a nationwide list of sites to receive the paint donation.

By the end of August, at least fifty gallons of paint will refresh Azurest South’s exterior and prepare the site for increased visibility; Johnson says that the story of Azurest South will become part of the first-year curriculum, ensuring that every Virginia State student understands the significance of a site he or she might otherwise walk past.

After the paint work is complete, VSUAA hope to restore key elements of the building’s interior, such as the vibrant kitchen tiles that have been removed. It’s the latest chapter in an inspiring history, and as its namesake color suggests, the sky is the limit for Azurest South.

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Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

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