Johnson, Jeh Vincent 1931–
Jeh Vincent Johnson 1931–
In a career spanning over forty years Jeh Vincent Johnson has remained committed to the idea that designers should take account of their social responsibilities and attempt to provide buildings that respond to “human emotional needs,” as he told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). He has followed this principle both as a teacher at Vassar College and in his private architecture practice. Besides numerous churches, colleges, and community buildings he is responsible for designing over 4,300 housing units, many of which were developed under government programs during the 1960s to provide good-quality, low-cost housing for underprivileged groups. He is known as a thoughtful designer, an inspirational teacher, and a forceful, untiring advocate for female and minority architects.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, on July 8, 1931, Johnson was the youngest of five children, though his twin sister died soon after birth. He grew up on and around the campus of Fisk University, where his father, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, was professor of sociology and later the university’s president. Johnson’s mother presided over a home that welcomed visitors and was always busy with guests, boarders, and family members. Although his parents were Baptist and Methodist, Johnson first attended the St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School and then Pearl High School in Nashville. Though segregated, St. Vincent’s in particular had an enviable academic record and provided Johnson with a good early education.
Johnson was a bright student in high school. When he graduated, the Dean of Columbia College at Columbia University invited him to apply for the Columbia College National Scholarship for 1953. The advantage of studying there was that he could begin his professional studies in architecture a year early, in his senior year. He entered the School of Architecture, where he became President of the Student Body.
In between his first and second years at graduate school, Johnson was drafted into the Army, rising to the rank of sergeant during his twenty-two months’ service. He returned to Columbia where his architectural heroes were Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Johnson was later influenced by Albert Mayer and Clarence Stein. He had a summer job working for black architect Paul R. Williams in Los Angeles. Williams was known as “the architect to the stars” and Johnson felt that the experience of working for him not only made him a better designer, but also gave him a new perspective on architecture itself. He told CBB that “My work with him and his easy going, eclectic way of doing things stood in striking contrast to the rather rigid functionalism that was current in the eastern schools.”
After graduating in 1958, Johnson won the William Kinne Fellows Fellowship for travel. He was already interested in designing multi-family housing and Europe
At a Glance…
Born on July 8, 1931, in Nashville, TN; married Norma, 1956; children: Jeh Charles, Marguerite Marie. Education: Columbia College, AB, 1953; Columbia University, MA, architecture, 1958. Military Service; United States Army, 1953-54.
Career: Paul R. Williams, architect and designer, 1956; Adams and Woodbridge, Architects, architect and designer, 1958-62; Gindele and Johnson, architect and designer, 1962-80; Vassar College, lecturer in art and design, 1964-2001; LeGendre, Johnson, McNeil Architects, partner, 1980-90; Jeh V. Johnson, FAIA, architect, 1990-.
Memberships: National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), co-founder, 1971.
Awards: AIA, Students Medal, 1958; William Kinne Fellowship, 1959; Fellowship of American Institute of Architects, 1977; New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, special citation, 1997.
was at the cutting edge of that kind of work. While still a graduate student Johnson had met and married Norma Edelin and she accompanied him for the first few months of his trip. In all, Johnson and his used VW covered 10,000 miles in the eight months of his stay in Europe, visiting countries as far apart as Italy and Sweden.
Johnson has said that his studies of group housing projects and his talks with European planners served him well in his later professional career. He was particularly impressed by the Stockholm New Town Hall, which he thought had managed to “incorporate vernacular traditions and patterns into a major public structure that has importance and dignity, while retaining a tactility and humane scale that is most appealing.”
On his return to the United States in 1959 Johnson entered private practice in Hudson Valley, New York, with his college friend William Gindele. Most of their work was on community buildings: multi-family housing, community centers, churches, schools, and singlefamily homes. By 1967 Johnson had become so successful in the field of multi-family housing that he was contacted by the White House to serve on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Commission on Urban Problems. At the time many American cities were suffering the after-effects of rioting and looting and minority groups were deeply resentful of the conditions they felt were forced upon them by local governments. The Douglas Commission, as it was known, met in eighteen urban locations over the course of two years. So dangerous was the atmosphere that there were often offered a police escort, though they rarely accepted. As Johnson has noted the work of the commission was received without fanfare, but most of its recommendations for ways of rationalizing taxation, construction processes, and alleviating segregation have since been adopted.
The Douglas Commission led Johnson to involvement with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), where he became chair of the National Committee on Housing. He served on numerous committees and eventually became chair of the committee for the 1974 national convention. He declined the nomination for national director of the AIA because he felt it would interfere with his other work. In 1977 he was elected to the AIA’s college of fellows, the highest honor for any practicing American architect.
Much of Johnson’s work centered on Poughkeepsie and the area around Vassar College in New York, where he taught for thirty-seven years. It includes the former Poughkeepsie Day School building, the Susan Stein Shiva Theater, the Poughkeepsie Catharine Street Center and Library, and the ALANA Center on the Vassar campus. In the late 1990s he converted the Poughkeepsie Day School building, one of his own designs on the Vassar campus from 1963, into a college office, lab, and classroom block.
In 1964 Johnson began teaching at Vassar College, where he had a studio in architectural drawing and design, and where he encouraged students not only to learn draftsmanship, but to think about the human value of their designs. Johnson was always been committed to the idea that thought and reflection are a crucial part of the design process and he inspired his students to be conscious of what they were trying to do in their designs.
Johnson’s work at Vassar was also instrumental in encouraging women into architecture. In 1964 very few women entered the profession, yet by the end of the twentieth century many graduate schools had equal numbers of men and women. Johnson’s approach to encouraging female architects was characteristically pragmatic and generous. He told CBB that “We had a lot to do with changing that, I think, partly through personal contacts, partly by pushing students to reach beyond their expectations of acceptance, and partly by involving them in the dynamics of my own practice.”
In 1971 Johnson and four male colleagues at the AIA national convention in Detroit formed the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) because they felt that minority architects were unknown to the American public. They were especially keen to publicize the profession to young black and Latino students. By 2003 NOMA represented hundreds of minority men and women, with chapters in all the major architecture schools in America. In 1997 Johnson was awarded a special citation from the New York chapter of the AIA for his advocacy on behalf of equal opportunity and housing issues.
Johnson’s influence on urban development, on young minority and female architects, and on the profession as a whole, is substantial. As a teacher he has inspired hundreds of students to go on to successful careers as architects and as teachers in design schools around the country, while his commitment to fairness and humane values in architecture and urban design has improved the quality of the lives of thousands of Americans.
New York Times, September 11, 1949; December 29, 1956; November 4, 1973.
“Jeh Vincent Johnson.” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (February 3, 2004).
National Organization of Minority Architects, www.noma.net (March 1, 2004).
“Three Faculty Members Retire,” Vassar Today: The Alumni Quarterly, www.aavc.vassar.edu/vq/fall2001/articles/today/faculty_retire.html (March 1, 2004).
Additional material for this profile was obtained through a written interview with Jeh V. Johnson on February 3, 2004, and from documents he kindly supplied.