When I last ran into Bob Madison at the grand opening of the new Case Western Reserve Dental School and Clinic on Chester Avenue at 94th Street a few weeks ago, the 96-year-old master architect was looking as fit as a fiddle and physically was as strong as ever, with a firm handshake and steady gaze. And of course, was looking very dapper … always very dapper.
As he states in his amazing memoir Designing Victory, architects, for some reason, live very long lives. His friend, the world-renown I.M. Pei (who designed the iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a project that Madison assisted on), just died last week at age 102. By all appearances Bob Madison is going to live at least that long, if not longer.
His life is a story that mirrors part of the black experience in America, the highly educated part, those black families that, in the first generation out of slavery, were accomplishing great things in education. The son of a college-educated engineer (who served as a professor of engineering at a couple of universities), Bob Madison was the first black architect registered to practice in the State of Ohio, but his journey wasn’t without pitfalls, roadblocks, and drawbacks. What black story is?
After serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in World War II he applied to the School of Architecture at Case Western Reserve upon his return in 1946. But even after serving his country (and getting wounded in the process in Italy), he was denied entrance to the program. He went back a few days later dressed in his full military uniform with his medals on his chest and was allowed in, albeit grudgingly.
He somewhat gleefully recounts how the professors threw difficult class work at him in an attempt to flunk him out, but what they didn’t know was how amazingly intelligent he was, and more importantly how driven he was to succeed. They finally rushed him through the program just to get him off of the campus, with one professor telling him upon graduation, “Now you can go get a job at a lumberyard.”
The racist knew that no white architectural firm in Cleveland would hire a black. But what he didn’t know was that Bob Madison wasn’t counting on white folks — he was going to start his own firm, which he did. At one point Madison and Madison International had 150 employees.
But Bob Madison was only doing what his mother told him to do: At age six she said he would become a great architect, and he did, earning the highest honor of his professional organization, being elected the chairman of the Jury Board of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a feat only three percent of the architects in the country manage to accomplish.
The life and times of Robert P. Madison make for an amazing journey; indeed, his story serves as a snapshot of the challenges blacks faced in this country as we fought to overcome the obstacles that were meant to impede our progress. But more importantly, the work serves as a blueprint on how to overcome them.
The last line in the book reads, “In the end, the long game is the only one worth playing.” Hush, truth.
Available in bookstores everywhere, or on Amazon.
From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.