Pioneering Architects: The Cassell Family
Fewer than one in five new architects identify as racial or ethnic minorities, and just about two in five are women, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. As we work to achieve a future of greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession, we can learn important lessons in reckoning with the past. The Pioneering Architects series celebrates the legacy of architects who overcame unimaginable obstacles. In sharing their stories, we aim to pay overdue tribute to their talents, honor their courage, and learn from their experiences.
Albert Cassell transformed Howard University’s campus and curriculum, impacting generations of architecture students – including his own children.
In 1930, at the peak of his influence as University Architect at Howard University, Albert Cassell, AIA, received a letter from W.E.B. DuBois. In it, DuBois solicited an article for the NAACP’s quarterly magazine The Crisis to be titled “Architecture as a Career for Young Colored People.” He asked Cassell to reflect on what he called the “difficulties of choice” and share his own experiences as a Black architect in America “for the guidance of colored youth.”
If Cassell completed the article, we have no record of it. But a pair of his projects provides poignant testimony about the prejudice he must have encountered and serves as an instructive backdrop to his better-known, celebrated tenure at Howard.
The more ambitious of the two projects was never realized. In the 1930s, Cassell acquired 500 acres of land on Maryland’s Western Shore to develop Chesapeake Heights on the Bay. The speculative community was meant to be a place where African Americans could “live and labor without being constrained by racial discrimination,” according to architectural historian Sally Berk. As his son Charles put it, Cassell’s dream was to make Chesapeake Heights "a new city where African Americans had no prejudice, where they could succeed based on their talents.” The project never got off the ground, but his plans for Chesapeake Heights remain at Howard University’s archives.
With D.C.’s Mayfair Mansions, Cassell succeeded in implementing this same vision on a smaller scale. Completed in 1946, the Mayfair Mansions complex is one of the first federally subsidized housing projects for African Americans in the United States. Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, an African American radio evangelist, provided seed money and secured support from political leaders, including Eleanor Roosevelt.
But the project was conceived and designed by Cassell. Cassell planned Mayfair as a “city within a city” – an oasis from a D.C. environment a 1991 Washington Post profile described as “a deeply segregated city, when poor blacks lived in crowded, substandard alley tenements and even those who could afford to do better faced a severe housing shortage because of discriminatory covenants.”
Cassell himself lived in Mayfair with his family until the late 1950s and “often could be spotted picking up bits of trash around the complex.” For his son Charles, his father’s vision was a success. "At Mayfair, we weren't subject to a lot of the problems that the majority society created for blacks in other parts of the city," Cassell told the Washington Post.
Original residents Montroe Dunlap, a post office worker, and his wife Ethel, a nursing supervisor, agreed. "Everybody who was anybody lived at the Mayfair," said Ethel at a 1991 reunion. “[When] you lived at the Mayfair, you were really doing something," Montroe concurred.
The safe harbor Cassell sought for others through Chesapeake Heights and Mayfair was surely informed by his own experiences growing up in segregated Baltimore, the son of a coal truck driver and a laundress.
In a 2012 interview published by Cornell’s Ezra Magazine, Charles describes his father’s journey to become Cornell’s second Black architecture graduate:
"His [high school] counselors advised him to change his plans [to attend Cornell]. His mother encouraged him to follow his desire. He borrowed money from [her] meager savings – she took in washing – moved to Ithaca, and spent a year there repeating his high school work. There was no question of his qualifying to be admitted."
Cassell’s education was interrupted by his WWI service in France, after which he received his B.Arch. degree.
In a long and varied career, Cassell completed dozens of buildings, two of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places—Mayfair Mansions and Washington’s Prince Hall Masonic Temple. Independently and through his firm Cassell, Gray, and Sulton, Cassell also designed five buildings for Morgan State University in Baltimore, all of which are still standing, and consulted for the DC government and the local Catholic Archdiocese.
But, for many, he is remembered for his leadership at Howard University.
It’s common for architecture school faculty to advise on their university’s expansions, serve on selection committees, and even participate in client-side review of outside firms from the bidding process through the final punch list. But Cassell achieved a rare and singular influence over the architecture, design, and development of one of the preeminent universities in the nation’s capital.
Joining the faculty in 1920 and serving as University Architect from 1922 to his departure in 1938, it’s hard to overstate Cassell’s legacy at Howard.
As architecture’s curricular champion at the university, Cassell elevated architecture from a subject taught in a department of the College of Applied Sciences to the foundation of its own School of Engineering and Architecture in 1934. Additionally, he was the author of Howard’s pre-World War II “Twenty Year” expansion plan, as well as the architect for the signature buildings that comprise its historic campus.
Cassell’s design vision, executed with landscape architect David Williston, unified the school in plan and in section, so to speak, atop challenging terrain. The Georgian Revival buildings he designed and constructed continue to form the nucleus of the school. Although some of his contributions have been demolished (such as the armory and gym, both completed in 1925) a dozen remain, including the 1927 College of Medicine, the 1935 Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, and the iconic Founders Library. “In one building, he created an architectural and educational symbol for the university,” wrote William Lebovich in Dreck Spurlock Wilson’s seminal dictionary of African American architects, “and in the larger scheme of his work at Howard University, he created a unified whole of which Founders Library was the most visible element.” Confirming Cassell’s lasting impact on Howard’s identity, the library’s clock tower is featured in the university’s logo.
While leaving his mark on Howard University’s campus and curriculum, Albert Cassell had his eye on another educational legacy. "My father decided that all four of his children were going to be architects, and would go to his alma mater," said Charles Cassell, FAIA. Indeed, Cassell raised four Cornell graduates – all but one of whom became an architect.
Cassell’s daughters Martha and Alberta were the first African American women to receive a B.Arch. from Cornell (graduating in 1948 and ’49, respectively). Martha served as chief restoration architect for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., from 1959 until her death in 1968. Alberta forged a career as a naval architect, first with the Naval Research Laboratory and ultimately with the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).
Mirroring his sister’s experiences, Charles Cassell designed a number of buildings for the U.S. Navy through the Bureau of Yards and Docks in the 1950s. But the parallels to his father’s life and career are even more striking. Like his father, Charles Cassell’s time at Cornell was interrupted by war. Leaving his studies in 1944, Charles trained as a Tuskegee Airman before before returning in 1946 and earning a degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1951.
As his father did for Howard, Charles oversaw the design and construction of nine buildings for the new University of the District of Columbia (UDC) between 1976 and 1986. Both Cassells shaped the physical plants of the only two historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the nation’s capital, in turn, shaping their future growth. Echoing his father’s commitment to serve his community as a citizen architect, Charles served on D.C.’s School Board, served as a vice president of the D.C. Historic Preservation League, and founded the D.C. Council of Black Architects “to address a lack of equity in building projects funded by (mostly black) district taxpayers.”
Through this work, Cassell and allies “put pressure on the government,” Cassell told Ezra Magazine, “and things got better and better.”
The drive to improve, to make the built environment “better and better” typifies the legacy of the Cassell family of architects. Albert Cassell’s vision of communities where African Americans “could succeed based on their talents” was undoubtedly inspired by his own experiences and his dreams for his children. In pursuing that vision, his work helped not just his own family but generations of African American families and students.
Cornell University Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection
Ezra Magazine, Cornell University