Pioneering Architects: Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy (second from left) greets the delegation from Liberia to the 1939 World’s Fair.

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.

In a statement marking Juneteenth 2020, President Barack Obama described the holiday as “an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible.” It’s a sentiment Vertner Woodson Tandy would recognize. And it’s the animating spirit behind Alpha Phi Alpha, the national African-American fraternity he founded in 1906 – a legacy as enduring as his architectural contributions.

Vertner Woodson Tandy was born in 1885 to Henry Tandy and Emma Brice, native Kentuckians and formerly enslaved Americans. The story of African-Americans in the history of architecture is filled with builders and contractors who might have been architects under different circumstances, and Vertner Tandy’s life is no exception. Tandy’s father was one of Lexington’s most successful building contractors – constructing some of the commonwealth’s most significant buildings in the Reconstruction Era, such as the Lexington Opera House, completed in 1887, and the Fayette County Courthouse, completed in 1900.

Vertner learned the fundamentals of both construction and business from his father before enrolling in Tuskegee Institute in 1904 to study architectural drawing. He enrolled in Cornell University in 1905. The space between these two enrollments encompasses generations of educational barriers, Tandy’s purpose in forming Alpha Phi Alpha, and the fraternity’s ongoing mission.

“What happened during this time is that the degrees from HBCUs were not universally recognized,” says Robert L. Harris, Jr., historian for Alpha Phi Alpha.

Tandy’s experience was not uncommon among African-American men and women. As Harris points out, even the founder of American sociology, W.E.B. DuBois, confronted this bias. Before he could proceed with graduate work at Harvard College, he was required to earn a second bachelor’s degree because Harvard would not accept credits from his alma mater, Fisk University. (DuBois ultimately received his doctorate from Harvard in 1895.) “This doubt they had in him is hard to explain,” says Harris, “But DuBois’ experience is what led Tandy to Cornell to polish his credentials after Tuskegee.”

Tandy founded Alpha Phi Alpha at Cornell in 1906 with six other students -- collectively called the Seven Jewels in fraternity lore. The first and arguably most influential African-American intercollegiate fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha spawned more than 100 chapters in less than two decades at HBCUs across the country. In the decades since, the “men of black and gold” have advocated for equal rights and voter activism, served as leaders in the Civil Rights movement, and supported education through scholarships and mentoring programs like the Go to High School Go to College program. Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers include leaders of the National Urban League and the NAACP, as well as DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Duke Ellington, Walt Frazier, Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Owens, and other Black men who have influenced every corner of American society. “The members of Alpha Phi Alpha saw themselves as a different kind of fraternity beyond the social definition we use today,” says Harris. “They were involved in a social struggle, working for equal rights. That’s something that’s been very influential within the fraternity throughout the years.”

Almost immediately upon graduation from Cornell, Tandy founded his eponymous firm with George Washington Foster, who was 20 years older and connected to contractors and clients in the New York metropolitan area. Some sources list Tandy as the first African-American licensed architect in New York State, while others attribute this distinction to Foster. Either way, the firm’s achievements leave an undeniable legacy. Tandy & Foster operated for only six years and completed a handful of buildings, most notably St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem (1910), which is a designated landmark in New York City and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tandy’s star rose precipitously in the architectural world, and he was lured away from his partnership to strike out in private practice by the cosmetics and hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, who commissioned Tandy to design and build a mansion for her and her daughter, A'Lelia Walker. Tandy completed the Italianate-style Villa Lewaro in 1918, located just north of the city. Also listed on the National Register, the villa served as an important nexus for the Harlem Renaissance prior to Walker’s death in 1919.

Among Tandy’s works, Villa Lewaro stands out. Completed in 1918, it was commissioned by the first self-made African-American female millionaire Madame C.J. Walker and designed in the Italianate style.

In the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Tandy designed Small’s Paradise – a Harlem mainstay for half a century, which was completed in 1925 for club owner Ed Smalls and torn down in the 1980s. He also completed the Neo Gothic-style Mother Zion A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem in 1925 after its original designer, his former partner George Washington Foster, died in 1923. Tandy was also commissioned by the government of Liberia to design its pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, which was never completed but marks a shift toward the International Style Modernism in the last decade of his career. His final commission for the Ivey Delph Apartments in Hamilton Heights, a neighborhood just west of Harlem, was completed in 1948, a year before his death. The Ivey Delph is also listed on the National Register.

Although not all of Tandy’s buildings are still standing, Alpha Phi Alpha is standing firm. The fraternity Tandy founded when he was just 21 now counts 70,000 members in 706 chapters worldwide. Almost a decade past its 100th anniversary, chapters still carry on the purpose articulated by Tandy in a 1937 speech marking Alpha Phi Alpha’s 30th anniversary. Borrowing the 1863 words of a Union Army captain at the Battle of Bulltown, Tandy’s call still resonates: “I went through hell founding this organization and I want something done about these problems. Think of it, we have over a hundred and twenty chapters and I ask what are we doing? We must fight ‘til hell freezes over and then fight on the ice.”

Image credits

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Courtesy The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundation

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