Though Black Americans as workers virtually built this nation, Black architects have been as scarce as chicken lips and snake hips. Well, not quite that bad, at least not historically when you consider the phenomenal careers of Paul Williams (1884-1980), who was known as the “Architect of the Stars” in Hollywood, having designed homes for Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, to mention a few notables who sought his creative ingenuity.
Vertner Tandy (1885-1949) and the recently departed J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935-2009) left their remarkable buildings around New York City and elsewhere, but here’s a few living Black architects that warrant more than a passing nod.
Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928–) of West Indian heritage and raised in Harlem, most of her educational training was acquired in New York City, especially her architectural degree from Columbia University in 1950. She was the first Black woman to receive a license as an architect in the U.S. But being a Black woman architect she had three strikes against her and she was unable to find employment in her field at first. Undaunted she eventually landed a job at a California firm and by 1966 she was its first female director. Among her major projects is Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Currently, she is a partner in Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond one of the largest firms in the United States to be owned entirely by women.
Most Americans know Harvey Gantt (1943–) as a politician and the first African-American mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. But before entering the political arena, Gantt, who was the first African American student at Clemson University (South Carolina) in 1963, was the third ranking student in the architecture program. He went on to earn a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in urban planning. From 1965 to 1970 he worked in architectural firms in North Carolina, subsequently establishing his own firm, Gantt-Huberman in 1971.
Bradford Grant is the Interim Dean of the Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences at Howard University. He is also the director of the School of Architecture and Design. Before arriving at Howard, Grant was chair of the Architecture Department at Hampton University. He received his master’s degree in architecture with a concentration on social and cultural factors from the University of California at Berkeley. Grant is a registered architect with extensive experience in housing and community design.
Howard Sims of Detroit is among the leading Black architects in the country, having directed individual and team projects in the realm of culture, institutions, residential and transportation. His firm, SDG, played a key role in the expansion of the University of Michigan campus in Dearborn and the historic Stroh River Place Development in Detroit. He has directed major projects at airports all over the nation, including Detroit Metropolitan Airport, George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, and Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
At one time Harold R. Varner was a partner with Howard Sims, but now he is the CEO and chairman of the United States Solar & Wind. He is also the founder of Varner & Associates which is among the leading architectural firms in the state of Michigan. For several years he was the Director of the City of Detroit’s Housing and Urban Redevelopment Department. During his fifty years as an architect he has forged an enviable reputation and the completion of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, with its unique rotunda, stands as his crowning achievement.
Melanie Boyd is a senior architect at Cleveland State University. She also a member of the City of Cleveland Planning Commission, and is vitally involved in the restoration and development of several historic districts in Cleveland, including the Warehouse, Mall, Playhouse Square and Prospect Avenue.
Riccardo Ferguson is the Principal Architect at Solomon-Ferguson, based in Solana Beach, California. Over the years the company has satisfied clients in a diverse set of markets, expressing an expertise in architect and design for commercial, residential, and retail projects. Ferguson earned his master’s in architecture from the University of Maryland in 1984. Among his specialties is the design of chapels, which he has completed in Japan and Hawaii.
Tenika Felder is a Project Manager at Enviro Design in Lanham, Maryland. She is owner of the Redlef Group Architects LLC which is currently in the process of completing designs on elevators and shafts in residential buildings in Prince George’s County. While a student at Howard University’s school, she, along with a classmate, was a first place prize winner when they created lab modules that face light-filled galleries sheathed in glass with rust-colored concrete panels to add warmth to outside walls. “If I didn’t go into architecture,” said Felder, a Lanham resident, “I would have chosen medical research or biomedical engineering, so working in the NIH environment was a perfect fit.”