Featured Member - Sandra Madison, AIA

As the CEO and chairperson of a Cleveland firm started by her uncle-in-law, and with a daughter pursuing licensure in New York City, Sandra Madison is part of an architectural legacy.

Like many others, Sandra Madison, AIA, started training for being an architect as a child, without even knowing what one was. Now, she’s the CEO and chairperson of Robert P Madison International in Cleveland, a firm founded by her uncle-in-law. Robert Madison started the firm in 1954 when few would hire a black architect; Sandra now carries on his legacy by striving to make the world a better place for all through design.

I grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Baltimore. There was poverty, boarded-up houses, and asphalt and concrete paving, but all I could see was what the neighborhood could be versus what it was. My mom was very active in the community, trying to raise money to beautify our surroundings. I was always there with her, ready to paint and plant flowers; the housing department would always give us free paint. Even though the paint was the wrong color, it was free and we made it work.

Designing was always a passion of mine. I had little sisters and I would design Barbie houses out of cardboard boxes or I was sketching or redesigning my clothing—anything creative. In my final year of high school, my counselor asked what major I wanted to pursue in college. I replied, as many students do, “I don’t know.” She said, “You excel in math, you’re great at art; why don’t you try architecture?” I asked, “What do architects do?” I had never in my life met one.

When I went to the University of Maryland, College Park in the mid-1970s, there was not a lot of diversity. Out of the 80 students entering the School of Architecture in my sophomore class, there were five black students that I could remember—three females and two males. By the end of my third year, I was the only one remaining. I personally never felt any outward discrimination. My goal was to keep moving forward and get where I wanted to be.

Find out more about AIA's efforts to broaden equity, diversity, and inclusion and create a stronger profession.

Growing up in an impoverished neighborhood made me want to be that person that made a difference. I wanted to connect to the community, to design, to make things better for the people around me. My mom was amazing in that regard; she would say, “All of you [referring to my five siblings and me] are going to get your college degrees and become contributing members of society.” And we all got our degrees, and we’re all in professions that serve our community.

My daughter is now pursuing licensure in New York City, but she didn’t leap into architecture. She saw the hours my husband and I both worked as architects and doubted if she would have the same passion. But she has a natural ability inherited from her parents, her grandfather, and granduncle – all architects. I said to her, “You have a gift. I can’t guarantee that you will like architecture, but I guarantee you will know by the end of your first year, because you won’t want to pull the all-nighters.”

She didn’t quite understand what I meant at the time, but of course she loved it. I didn’t say “I told you so,” but I knew she would. Even though she didn’t grow up in the same environment as I did, she has the same sense of wanting to help others. She’s now mentoring students in New York; it makes me proud to see her accomplishments.

To any aspiring minority female or male architect, don’t let the lack of diversity deter you. Stay positive and never give up. It’s all about what you want and who you are; you have the power to accomplish your goals despite any obstacles that may arise. Acknowledge the obstacles and find a way to conquer them. —As told to Steve Cimino

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Image credits

Sandra Madison, AIA

Sandra Madison, AIA

H. Barbara Booker PK-8 School - Sandra Madison

Robert P Madison International

Hilton Hotel in Cleveland - Sandra Madison

Robert P Madison International

Lakewood High School - Sandra Madison

Robert P Madison International