Beverly Lorraine Greene (1915–1957) was the first African American woman to be licensed as an architect in the United States. Greene began her career in architecture in the late 1930s working for the Chicago Housing Authority, and later moved to New York City, where she worked for notable architecture firms, including Marcel Breuer’s. She was an advocate for professional black women throughout her career.
Early Life and Education
Greene was born in Chicago on October 4, 1915, the only child of James A. Greene, a postal worker from Texas, and Vera Greene, a wage worker from Missouri. The family was part of the Great Migration that transformed Chicago starting in 1900; by 1920 more than 85 percent of the black population in Chicago lived within a chain of neighborhoods located on the South Side and known as the “Black Belt” and “Bronzeville.” Greene and her parents were listed as “mulatto” in the 1920 census, at a time when a particular ancestral lineage and difference in skin color warranted a special label. In the 1930 census, they were reclassified as “Negro.”
Greene and her mother lived as lodgers on Chicago’s South Side, and Greene entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1932 to study architecture. She was the only black and only woman member of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ student chapter and she also became a member of Cenacle, the university’s drama club.11Greene’s name and image are included in a group photo of the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Greene is also mentioned in an oral history project interview by Rudard Jones, a classmate, who later taught at the university. In response to a question about how many women were in his class, he responded: “Very few. I remember there was one gal in my class and she was what we called ‘colored’ girls then—Beverly Greene. And she was just one of the gang then. I often wondered what happened to her. There weren’t many girls.” Rudard Jones Oral History interview by Ellen Swain, April 4, 2001, transcript in “Voices of Illinois,” University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Greene supported Chicago theater for children by designing and painting sets and designing costumes. She was active in several social and political groups, including the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, one of the most popular national sororities for black women; Greene took on leadership roles at Delta Sigma Theta and headed several committees.22This sorority, better known as the Deltas, was founded at Howard University in 1913; its goals included providing support to under-served communities and highlighting relevant issues. The archivist at the University of Illinois confirmed Greene’s graduation dates and the degrees that she received in an email to the author in February 2003. Greene’s graduation was also noted in an article about student activities at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Chicago Defender (National Edition), June 27, 1936. After receiving a bachelor of architecture degree, she continued her studies at the University of Illinois in the graduate program of City Planning and Housing.
Greene’s civic commitments expanded after she finished her master’s degree in 1937. That year, Greene was part of an African American committee that raised money to purchase an ambulance for the International Brigade fighting with the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War.33“Name Spain Ambulance Committee,” Chicago Defender, December 18, 1937. The following year, she led the South Side Girls’ Club, which built awareness and sought solutions to address “a noticeable neglect of the need of Negro girls of all ages” during the Depression.44“Permanent Clubhouse for Girls is New Goal,” Chicago Defender, December 17, 1938.
Early on in her career, Greene established contacts with leading black architects, contacts that would lead to her first major professional opportunities. In December 1937, she and twenty others were invited to a dinner in Chicago for Paul R. Williams, the county’s best-known black architect, who was visiting from California. The event was organized by architect Robert Rochon Taylor (son of Robert Robertson Taylor, a pioneering black architect), who would be appointed to the board of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in 1938.55The names of the people who were at this gathering were reported in a society column in the Chicago Defender, “Preface,” on October 30, 1937, by one of the attendees Consuelo Young-Megahy. That Beverly Greene was invited to an event attended by important business, housing development, and black personalities suggests that she was recognized as a potentially important person in her profession. Taylor, in addition to being an architect, was an insurance businessman and one of the founders of the Illinois Federal Savings and Loan Association, one of two institutions that provided mortgages to black homeowners on Chicago’s South Side. Although Charles S. Duke did not attend the Chicago dinner, he was a crucial member of a group fighting for the inclusion of black architects in society. Duke founded the National Technical Association (NTA) composed of black architects, engineers and scientists. In 1929, Duke was designated as the consulting engineer and architect for the group established by A. L. Foster and in 1934 designed a prototype for what became the Ida B. Wells housing project. The group included A. L. Foster, executive director of the Chicago Urban League and president of the Chicago Council of Negro Organizations (CCNO). Also present at the dinner were five members of a group of black citizens (including Taylor) who in 1933 organized to bring a low-income housing project to the South Side. Charles S. Duke, a black engineer and architect who founded the National Technical Association (NTA), had produced preliminary architectural designs for a new public housing development in the area’s Bronzeville neighborhood, which the group submitted to the housing division of the Public Works administration before the creation of the CHA.66See A. L. Foster, “History of Fight for Housing Project Told,” Chicago Defender, Saturday, October 26, 1940, part III, 16. Foster describes how a group of African American leaders and housing advocates developed a study for a South Side housing project and how the proposal was ignored by CHA while three other projects that did not accept African Americans were constructed. The designs were rejected.
After the rejection by the federal government, Foster collaborated with the NTA and other black civic organizations to lobby the City: they asked for the construction of a housing project that would serve Chicago’s black population and for the hiring of black architects, drafters, technicians, and sub-contractors to work on the project. In October 1938, the Chicago Housing Authority Chairman Joseph W. McCarthy informed Foster that the employment of black architects and drafters could only be considered after CHA received approval and a federal loan contract for the project. McCathy explained that the architectural work done to date had been of a preliminary nature such as was necessary for the preparation of the application to the United States Housing Authority for the loan and grant including site plan and typical units developments. “I am sure that every consideration will be given to the employment of services of competent Negroes,” he assured Foster.77“Housing Authority Promises to Consider Race Architects,” Chicago Defender, October 8, 1938.
After several years of struggle, the site was officially acquired for the CHA housing project. Originally known by its WPA assigned name: South Park Garden Housing Project, at the urging of several black civic organizations including the NTA, CCNO and Taylor, the only black commissioner, the project was renamed for Ida B. Wells, a journalist and anti-lynching activist.88“Want Project Named After Ida B. Wells,” Chicago Defender, January 28, 1938. This project would become one of the first that Greene worked on as a professional architect.
By June 1939, Greene, just two years out of graduate school and not yet licensed, was working for the CHA with other black drafters and designers on the Ida B. Wells housing project. Having a master’s degree in planning and housing helped her obtain the job, as did having influential friends. Her hire was announced the following month in the Chicago Defender, which suggested that Greene’s talents would be used beyond the Ida B. Wells project: “The Housing Authority further stated that Miss Beverly Greene who is one of the few Race women in the United States to receive a graduate degree in architecture, will be appointed as an architect in the office of the Chicago Housing Authority to develop plans for additional housing projects.”99“Race Given Construction Jobs for Ida B. Wells Homes,” Chicago Defender, July 8, 1939. The term “Race” was often used to refer to black Americans who took pride in being African-American and worked to support racial justice. St. Claire Drake and Horace R. Cayton in Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945, 2015) discuss some of the connotations of the term “Race Man,” noting that its usage varied in black and white communities.
Under construction from 1939 to 1941, the 1662-unit, low-rise Public Works Administration (PWA) Wells project was built to house black families segregated on the South Side, while three other completed CHA housing projects in Chicago were intended exclusively for white families. The need for housing for black families was so great that 17,544 people applied to live in the Wells project.1010Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940–1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 30). Black contractors, technicians, engineers, draftsmen, architects, and skilled and unskilled workers were also working on the Ida B. Wells housing project. The project’s low-rise garden-type buildings contrasted with the high-rise buildings that later came to characterize Chicago public housing. Later, in 1961 and 1970, two additional, large-scale complexes were built adjacent to the Ida B. Wells Houses. By the late 1980s, this housing project was known as a drug and crime haven. By 2011, the project was demolished. In June 1939, Greene spoke about the new housing project at a careers luncheon for black women, attended by some one hundred interested women. She announced that construction was scheduled to begin in mid-July and take eighteen months to complete, and that two-to-five bedroom apartments would be available for four and five dollars per room per month, respectively.1111Elizabeth Galbreath, “Typovision,” Chicago Defender, June 24, 1939. She also emphasized the opportunities for black women in architecture.
In December 1939, the CHA announced the hiring of its first licensed black architect, George M. Jones, to join the housing design staff to work on the new $7,719,000 project. At the time, the staff consisted of seven white male architects and was led by Henry K. Holsman, FAIA.1212“Race Architect to Work on $7,000,000 Project,” Chicago Defender, October 9, 1939. It is not clear what role the staff architects had on the Ida B. Wells housing project. A digital archive at the Art Institute of Chicago lists the architect/designer of the Ida B. Wells Housing Project as Charles S. Duke, who developed the original rejected 1934 scheme, while Walter T. Bailey, considered Illinois’ first licensed black architect, is listed as “Additional Architect or Designer.”1313Ida B. Wells – Archival Image & Media Collection The work continued despite numerous obstacles, including labor strikes, lawsuits by white Chicagoans claiming that a black-occupied project close to housing for whites would lower their property values, and contractor objections to labor-intensive construction methods intended to increase employment of black workers.
The Ida B. Wells Homes opened in 1941, and Greene was licensed in Illinois on December 28, 1942 (Certificate Number 3002), at the age of twenty-six. The 1940 census lists her occupation as supervisor at a technical center, a role that may have been connected with the CHA project.1414This center may have been related to her work for the Wells housing project. Although little is known about Greene’s career during the war years, it seems that she worked at one or two architecture firms in Chicago after leaving the CHA.1515During this period, she chaired the planning committee for the Delta’s 1940 Annual Jabberwock and a May 1944 three-day Mid-Western Delta Conference. In April 1944, she was part of the cast in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience presented at the Play-Arts Guild in Chicago. Greene’s interest in theater and music would continue after her move to New York City, where nightclub singer and movie actress Lena Horne was reportedly one of Greene’s closest friends. An October 1945 society column reported that Greene was planning to start a recording company in Washington, D.C. Dan Butley, “Back Door Stuff,” New York Amsterdam News, October 20, 1945.
In 1944, Greene applied for a position as an architect with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in New York City, which was planning to build an 8,000-unit housing complex in Lower Manhattan. Greene’s prior experience with a large housing project and degrees in planning and housing made her a good candidate for the job; but after she learned that the company was planning to bar Negro residents from living in its new Stuyvesant Town housing project, she was sure that she would not be hired. In fact, she was one of the first architects hired, perhaps to deflect criticism of the housing policy.1616The company’s response, in part, was to develop the Riverton Houses project in Harlem in a demonstration of the “separate but equal” policy followed by many organizations at the time. Some black women who had read Greene’s interview saw this as evidence of Metropolitan Life Insurance’s willingness to hire black employees during this period, and they applied for office work.
Shortly after arriving in New York, Greene visited the Columbia University campus to ask about night classes in architecture, and after presenting her credentials she was admitted with a scholarship.1717The Columbia University Archives confirmed that the 1944–45 Student Directory included Beverly Lorraine Greene as a student enrolled in the School of Architecture at Columbia University. Her graduation date and the degree she received were confirmed by the Registrar’s Office in an e-mail to author, April 18, 2003. She worked at her new job at Met Life for only two-and-a-half days before leaving to become a full-time student. On September 24, 1944, a society column in the New York Amsterdam News, one of the most important black metropolitan newspaper in America at the time, announced that Greene (“said to be the only certified female Negro woman architect”) was in New York City to stay.1818Dan Butley, ‘Back Door Stuff,’ New York Amsterdam News, Septemeber 24, 1944. The following June she completed her master’s degree in architecture and was recognized for the achievement by the National Council of Negro Women.1919The Pittsburgh Courier, April 6, 1946, 8 and “Women in ’45 Made Strides, Aided Return to Peace,” New York Amsterdam News, December 29, 1945. Both articles misidentified the school.
“I wish that young women would think about this field,” Greene remarked in a 1945 interview. “Never did I have one bit of trouble because I was a Negro, although there had been arguments about hiring a woman. However, the War has ended that, and Negro women in the postwar world will have a fertile field in architecture. I wish some others would try it.”2020“Woman Architect Blazes a New Trail for Others,” New York Amsterdam News, June 23, 1945. Throughout her life, Greene was committed to advancing professional opportunities for others and understood herself to be a trailblazer.
Greene’s optimism stands in contrast to the fact that when she arrived in New York, there were only two prominent black architects with established offices: Vertner Tandy, one of the first black architects to be licensed in New York State, and John L. Wilson, one of his protégés, who had worked on the Harlem River Houses project, a WPA-era housing project in Harlem. Greene may have known them or other black architects before moving to New York, but becoming a member of the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture (CANA) established by Wilson, brought her into greater contact with black practitioners. Conrad Johnson (licensed in New York State in 1948) and Percy Ifill, Johnson’s future business partner (licensed in 1950) were both to become good friends with Greene. She would also have known Norma Fairweather, later known as Norma Sklarek (New York State’s first black female architect, licensed in 1954).
Three of Greene’s employers—architects Isadore Rosenfield, Edward Durrell Stone, and Marcel Breuer—were all members and supporters of CANA, whose tenets encouraged the employing of black architects.2121“Why Whites Would Work in C.A.N.A.” CANA Newsletter 14, no.1 (June 1963). The Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture was an organization founded in 1953 by the leading African American architect in New York at the time, John Louis Wilson, FAIA. The objective of the organization was to seek full and equal opportunities in the field of architecture for African Americans and other minorities, and the membership included both black and white architects. In 1964, Wilson folded CANA into the new NYC AIA Economic Opportunities Committee. Rosenfield specialized in hospital design and wrote the basic textbook on medical building design; he employed Greene in 1947–48. Rosenfield’s projects during this period included the Laboratory and Morgue, Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, an alteration/addition to the Pediatrics Pavilion at Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem, and Beth-El Hospital’s private pavilion in Brooklyn.2222Information about Greene’s employment by Rosenfield was obtained during a 2000 interview by author with Clivetta Stuart Johnson about her husband, Conrad A. Johnson, who supervised detailed planning and design in Rosenfield’s office. The names of other projects were mentioned in published obituaries. In Stone’s office, Greene worked on drawings for the theater at the University of Arkansas campus in 1949 and a portion of the Sarah Lawrence College Arts Complex in Bronxville, New York (completed 1952).2323“Woman Architect’s Services at Unity,” the obituary for Greene in the New York Amsterdam News (September 7, 1957) mentions her work on the two projects at Stone’s office and on the New York University Campus project and the UNESCO project at Marcel Breuer’s firm. Between 1951 until shortly before her death in 1957, Greene worked in Marcel Breuer’s office, where she was a draftsperson on several projects, including the Grosse Pointe Library in Grosse Point, Michigan (1953) and a servant’s quarters addition for the Winthrop Rockefeller house in Tarrytown, New York (1952).2424Greene’s name appears on two projects in the online archives for the Marcel Breuer Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. Sheets from these two projects provide samples of her drafting skills, while a letter she wrote in response to an owner’s question mentions a revised drawing and bulletin and explains Breuer’s opinion on how a structural pre-bid question should be handled. This letter suggests that she was more than a draftsperson and had some responsibility in the office. B.L.R. [Beverly Lorraine Greene], letter to J. Husband, August 30, 1951.
She also worked on the New York University campus project at the University Heights campus in the Bronx (1956–61) and the UNESCO Secretariat and Conference Hall in Paris, France (1954–58). Greene was the only black woman employed by the firm, and one of only two women overall (the other was Belva Jane Barnes).2525In Architecture Without Rules: The Houses of Marcel Breuer and Herbert Beckhard (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), David Masello writes that in 1951 two of Breuer’s employees were women—Beverly Greene and Belva J. Barnes—and that one was black was a reflection of Breuer’s “eclectic, enlightened and open-minded approach to architecture.” In 1953, Greene also seems to have been the leading designer on a third project: a newspaper article in the Atlantic Daily World states that Greene’s “firm sent her to Chicago . . . to design and execute the remolding of one of Chicago’s largest department stores, Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company.”
While Greene was still working for Breuer, she completed two renovation projects in Harlem on her own. Dr. C. B. Powell, an entrepreneur and the publisher and principal owner of the New YorkAmsterdam News, purchased a two-story building in Central Harlem and hired Greene to transform the space into a funeral home. The Unity Funeral Home opened its doors on August 9, 1953 and quickly became one of Harlem’s most enduring mortuaries.2626“Woman Architect’s Services at Unity,” New York Amsterdam News, September 7, 1957. In 1965, following Malcolm X’s assassination more than 30,000 people visited Unity Funeral Home during a two-day wake for Malcolm X. Greene’s second project was for Rev. Eugene Callender, the first black minister of the national Christian Reformed Church; Greene created the church sanctuary in 1955.2727Al Mulder, Learning to Count to One: The Joy and Pain of Becoming a Multiracial Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2006).
In December 1956, Greene participated in an exhibition of design work by New York black architects organized by CANA. Co-sponsored by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA NYC) and the Architectural League, the exhibit of CANA members’ work was seen at St. Philips Church and the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem and before traveling to Hampton University in Virginia where it was to be displayed for an educator’s conference.2828In a letter published in Ebony Magazine (March 1957, 12), Isaiah Ehrlich, a CANA member, gives the names of other black women architects who participated at this exhibition. In addition to Norma Fairweather (later Norma Sklarek), he names Garnett Keno Covington (the first black female architecture student to graduate from Pratt Institute), Beverly Greene, and Carmen Seguinot. Although there were prior exhibits of the work of black architects (for example at Howard University in 1931 and at Southern University in 1949) this was the first exhibit which included the work of black female architects.
Greene died suddenly after a brief illness at the age of 41 on August 26, 1957 at Sydenham Hospital in New York City. A memorial service held at Unity Funeral Home was attended by friends including singer Lena Horne, Horne’s husband Lennie Heyton, and musician Billy Strayhorn. Beverly Greene’s remains were sent to Chicago where a few days later a funeral was held at a chapel in Chicago attended by her family and Chicago area friends.2929“Woman Architect’s Services at Unity,” New York Amsterdam News, September 7, 1957. Greene’s father’s occupation at the time of her death was listed as attorney. Marian Logan, a nationally-known civil rights advocate who was once a cabaret singer, sang at Greene’s funeral.
Greene’s death did not go unnoticed by the black press; her obituary appeared in black newspapers and periodicals across the country, including the New York Amsterdam News, Philadelphia Tribune, Chicago Defender, Chicago Daily Tribune, Atlanta Daily World, and Jet Magazine. In her short forty-one years of life, Beverly Greene showed that it was possible for a black woman, working in a space where both her gender and race were obstacles, could overcome stereotypes and create a meaningful life in architecture.