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Celebrating Beverly Lorraine Greene: A Pioneer in Architecture

Beverly Lorraine Greene, an architectural trailblazer, left an indelible mark on the profession despite facing numerous challenges due to her race and gender. Born on October 4, 1915, in Chicago, Illinois. As the first African American woman to be licensed as an architect in the United States, Greene’s journey was one of resilience, talent, and unyielding determination. Her collaboration with renowned architect Marcel Breuer not only shaped the built environment but also challenged the prevailing norms of a predominantly white and male profession.

Early Life and Education

Growing up in Chicago during the Great Migration, Greene’s family was part of the city’s vibrant Black community. She pursued her passion for architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she stood out as the only Black and female member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Greene’s involvement in various social and political groups, including the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, reflected her commitment to community and activism.

Career Beginnings

In the late 1930s, Greene joined the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) as part of a team working on the Ida B. Wells Housing Project. Despite the prevailing racial segregation, Greene’s talent and determination led her to become the first licensed Black architect in Illinois in 1942. She played a significant role in designing low-rise housing for Black families in Chicago, addressing critical housing needs in segregated neighborhoods.

During its construction phase from 1939 to 1941, the Ida B. Wells project, funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA), aimed to provide housing for black families who were segregated on the South Side of Chicago. This initiative responded to the pressing need for accommodation, evidenced by the staggering 17,544 applicants for the 1662-unit development. The project’s significance extended beyond mere housing; it symbolized a pivotal step towards addressing racial segregation in Chicago.

In June 1939, Beverly Lorraine Greene spoke about the project’s implications at a careers luncheon for black women, attended by a hundred enthusiastic individuals. She outlined the construction timeline, stating that the project would commence in mid-July and take eighteen months to complete. Apartments ranging from two to five bedrooms were to be offered at four and five dollars per room per month, respectively. Emphasizing opportunities for black women in architecture, Greene’s remarks underscored her commitment to breaking down barriers in the profession.

The project faced myriad challenges, including labor strikes, lawsuits by white residents, and objections from contractors regarding labor-intensive construction methods. Despite these obstacles, the Ida B. Wells Homes opened in 1941, marking a significant achievement in Greene’s burgeoning career. Her licensing as an architect in Illinois on December 28, 1942, added to her accomplishments, solidifying her status as a pioneering figure in architecture at the age of twenty-six.

Following her tenure at the CHA, Greene’s career trajectory led her to Chicago-based architecture firms during the war years, although specific details remain scarce. In 1944, she applied for a position at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in New York City, which was planning an ambitious 8,000-unit housing complex in Lower Manhattan. Despite initial concerns over discriminatory housing policies, Greene secured a position and also began night classes in architecture at Columbia University. After only two and a half days working at the MetLife position she transitioned back to being a full time student.

She graduated with her master’s degree in architecture in June 1945, an achievement that was recognized by the National Council of Negro Women. In a 1945 interview she discussed her experience pursuing her master’s degree and has the following to say. “I wish that young women would think about this field. 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.”

Her optimism regarding opportunities for black women in architecture was palpable and throughout her career she would continue to work and support the breakdown of barriers in the field for both women and black architects alike. Greene’s entry into the predominantly white and male architectural profession was remarkable, serving as an inspiration for aspiring architects and activists alike.

In New York, Greene became acquainted with prominent black architects, including Vertner Tandy and John L. Wilson, through her involvement in the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture (CANA). Her friendships with Conrad Johnson, Percy Ifill, and Norma Fairweather, later known as Norma Sklarek, further cemented her legacy as a trailblazer in architecture. Throughout her life, Greene remained committed to promoting diversity and equity in the profession, leaving an indelible mark on the architectural landscape.

a quote that says "Breaking barriers is not just about making history; it's about opening doors for future generations"

Working in New York

Greene’s journey continued in New York City, where she confronted discrimination but found opportunities to thrive. She worked with notable architects such as Isadore Rosenfield, Edward Durrell Stone, and Marcel Breuer.

Greene’s professional journey gained momentum when she joined the architectural firm of Marcel Breuer in New York City. During her tenure with Breuer, Greene played a pivotal role in various projects that showcased her architectural acumen and design sensibilities. Working alongside Breuer, she contributed her expertise to a diverse array of endeavors, leaving an indelible imprint on the architectural landscape.

Major Projects and Contributions:

  1. UNESCO Headquarters, Paris (1954–1957): One of the most iconic projects Greene worked on during her collaboration with Breuer, the UNESCO Headquarters stands as a testament to modernist architecture’s boldness and vision. Greene’s contributions to the project underscored her keen eye for detail and her commitment to pushing the boundaries of architectural innovation.
  2. Grosse Point Public Library, Michigan (1951): The Grosse Point Public Library stands as a testament to Greene’s ability to blend form and function seamlessly. Her collaboration with Breuer on this project yielded a space that not only served as a repository of knowledge but also as a beacon of architectural excellence.
  3. Winthrop House Rockefeller Addition, Tarrytown, New York (1952): Greene’s role in the Winthrop House Rockefeller Addition project epitomized her penchant for merging tradition with modernity. The addition, designed by Breuer with Greene’s invaluable input, redefined the concept of residential architecture, setting new standards for elegance and sophistication.
  4. New York University Building Complex, Bronx, New York (1956): Greene’s collaboration with Breuer on the New York University Building Complex showcased her ability to tackle complex architectural challenges with grace and precision. The project, characterized by its innovative design and functionality, remains a testament to Greene’s enduring legacy.

Beyond her contributions to specific projects, Greene’s tenure with Marcel Breuer’s firm epitomized her commitment to advancing the principles of diversity and inclusion within the architectural profession. At a time when opportunities for women and minorities were scarce, Greene’s presence served as a beacon of hope and inspiration for aspiring architects from all walks of life.

List of Major Projects:

  1. Ida B. Wells Housing Project, Chicago Housing Authority project: Designed by an architectural collaborative, Chicago, 1938–41.
  2. Theater Project, Fine Arts Center, University of Arkansas: Designed by Edward Durrell Stone, Fayetteville, Ark., 1949.
  3. Sarah Lawrence College: Designed by Edward Durrell Stone, Bronxville, N.Y., 1950.
  4. Grosse Point Public Library: Designed by Marcel Breuer, Grosse Point, Mich., 1951.
  5. Winthrop House Rockefeller addition: Designed by Marcel Breuer, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1952.
  6. Carson Pirie, Scott and Co. Department Store alteration: Chicago, 1953.
  7. Unity Funeral Home: Alteration of an existing building, New York City, 1953.
  8. Christian Reformation Church in Harlem: Alteration of an existing building, New York City, 1955.
  9. New York University Building Complex: University Heights campus, Bronx, N.Y., 1956.
  10. UNESCO Headquarters, Secretariat and Conference Hall: Designed by Marcel Breuer, Place de Fontenoy, Paris, 1954–57.
Advocacy and Legacy

Throughout her career, Greene advocated for greater diversity and inclusion in architecture. She was a founding member of the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture (CANA), paving the way for future generations of Black architects. Greene’s sudden passing in 1957 marked the end of a remarkable journey, but her legacy continues to inspire aspiring architects and advocates for equity in the profession.

Remembering Beverly Lorraine Greene: Beverly Greene’s life and achievements serve as a testament to the power of perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity. Her groundbreaking contributions to architecture shattered barriers and opened doors for marginalized communities. As we celebrate her legacy, let us honor Greene’s pioneering spirit and commitment to social change in the field of architecture.

To learn more about Beverly Lorraine Greene and her work, be sure to check out the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation’s article.