Amaza Lee Meredith
Amaza Lee Meredith, Architect [1895-1984]
Amaza Lee Meredith [†] was born in Lynchburg, Virginia on August 14, 1895. She was the eldest child of Samuel Meredith, a respected carpenter, and Emma Kennedy. Because her father was white and her mother black, the two could not be legally married in Virginia. Meredith was determined to legalize his relationship with Emma Kennedy so the two journeyed to Washington, D.C. in racially segregated railroad cars, to be married. Subsequently Meredith lost much of his business, apparently as a result of the marriage. He took his own life in 1915. Following graduation from high school in 1915 at the top of her class, Amaza Meredith enrolled at the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute near Petersburg where she received the "Summer School Professional Certificate" for teachers. In her first summer at what was to become Virginia State University Miss Meredith met Dr. Edna Meade Colson, daughter of James Major Colson III, one of the Institute's founding faculty members. Dr. Colson, Miss Meredith's senior by 7 years, had degrees from Fisk College and from Columbia University. She belonged to a well-educated, upper-middle-class family, descended from free blacks. Miss Meredith and Dr. Colson were each to become highly respected members of Virginia State's faculty as well as lifelong companions.
Having received her teaching certificate, Miss Meredith began her professional career in Botetourt County schools, where she found a local black community dispossessed, disenfranchised, and complacent. She returned to Virginia State University, acquiring her degree in teaching in 1922. After teaching for several more years, Miss Meredith moved with her sister to Brooklyn where she enrolled in 1926 in Teachers' College, Columbia University and majored in fine arts. There she received a bachelor's degree with honors in 1930 and a master's degree in 1934.
Miss Meredith was hired by John Gandy, third president of what had become Virginia State College for Negroes, to teach art. She struggled to provide small, primitive facilities with the minimum equipment necessary to establish a fine arts department. In 1930 she wrote to the campus business manager: "The sink is most urgently needed as all water used in room 8 has to be brought and carried to and from the third floor, the center of the building. The nearest heat is in the hospital, therefore the gas stove is badly needed." In 1935 Miss Meredith became chair of the art department. Miss Meredith was dedicated to the notion that fine arts be included in the public school curriculum. She successfully sought funding for two art scholarships at Virginia State. Photographs she took of Azurest in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s show a home decorated with students' paintings and sculptures. [Note: Azurest was a middle-class, African-American community developed in the 1930s and 1940s in The Hamptons, Long Island, New York]
Miss Meredith began to design her home, Azurest South, in the late 1930s. Though the plan and axonometric are not drawn by an experienced hand, they indicate an understanding of construction details and materials that Miss Meredith likely gained from her father. The drawings carefully delineate treatments such as the smooth, curved walls, accentuated with ribbons of glass block. Paths of slate flagstone are deliberately illustrated as merging with straight-edged stoops of poured concrete. Steel pipe railings define the edge of a roof terrace reached by way of a steel ship's ladder, very much in the manner of the French International Style master Le Corbusier. Miss Meredith notes both materials and construction details with equal care. Though not facile in her use of architectural vocabulary, Miss Meredith clearly gave both the esthetics and the material functions of this project balanced consideration. Her scrapbook of photographs provides fascinating glimpses of Azurest under construction, in its landscaped setting, and with an interior filled with eclectic furnishings and artwork. Outdoor photographs hint at frequent gatherings of faculty, students, and friends in the lush, shaded dell on the grounds.
A Virginia Historic Marker, approved in 2008, reads: Lynchburg native Amaza Lee Meredith was one of the nation's few African-American female architects. Her design, Azurest South, is a rare Virginia example of a mature International Style building. She also designed houses for her family and friends in Virginia, Texas and New York. Principally employed as a teacher, Meredith founded the Fine Arts Department at present-day Virginia State University and served as chair until her 1958 retirement. She willed her half of Azurest South to the university alumni association after her death. It was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the national Register of Historic Places in 1983.
† Calder Loth, Mary Harding and James Hill, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Azurest South, Chesterfield County, VA, nomination document, 1993, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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