The panel was titled, “Landscapes of Leisure” Andrew Sandoval-Strausz was the chair and my presentation, Slowly, Surely, One Plat, One Binder at a Time: Choking Out Jim Crow and Mid Twentieth-Century Real Estate Syndication on Long Island, was the feature of my program, at the Vernacular Architectural Forum Conference 2014.
The venue was Stockton-Seaview Resort, Down Jersey Shore and this was my first time attending the Vernacular Architectural Forum (VAF) conference. My brief impressions of the VAF membership collective: younger, hipper, vernacular and very interested in participating in a full analysis of the American Built Environment.
The abbreviated electronic version of my presentation follows.
LEISURE: ACT OF DEFIANCE
The discussion included 45 slides and an exploratory investigation of the significance of leisure, identity, American property ownership and community sovereignty. Through the example of Black resorts, the presentation explored the intersections of a Black Power leisure identity, real property ownership, the progression of economic agency and land development. Research focuses on Azurest North, a summer community in Sag Harbor, New York, established in 1947 and developed in the 1950s by the Azurest Syndicate Incorporated.
Sag Habor, Long Island, NY
The project traces the history and use of real estate syndicates during the mid-twentieth century as a way to circumvent the practices of Jim Crow housing discrimination. Independent mortgage financing and land development especially in the field of resort housing, also points to the emergence of what I call a Black Power leisure identity.
This study explores and argues that it is through the pursuit of leisure, that American identities are created, transformed, maintained and secured. Property ownership, consumerism and taste, all inform identity and become signifiers that communicate individual ideas about leisure. Often neglected in the scholarly treatment and analysis of the African Diaspora experience, is the significance of leisure in the lives of people of African descent. It is through this dynamic of agency and resistance to the limited bounds of personal expressions that spurs the development of the Black Power leisure identity in the post Civil War African American experience in the United States. Black Power leisure identity is defined as a transgressive platform where identity, leisure, creativity, consumerism and real estate property ownership converge to support and sustain the existence of each other. When viewed as a transformative agent, the capitalization of Black Power purposefully embraces the breadth of its restorative attributes.
Although not apolitical in nature, it is an identity that embraces, encourages and is grounded in the rewards of leisure that have been earned as a result of successfully negotiating the quagmire of subjugation in a continuously racialized American society. The evolution of American society and the struggle for African American full citizenship are directly tied to the Eleatic penalty system devised under American Slavery. Subsequently, any means of economic, political and social progression are measured in relationship to the African American legacy of forced labor.
The Azurest community is symbolic and readily demonstrates through the use of the linguistic play on words, as you rest, that the naming of Azurest was chosen to purposely communicate a designation intended for leisure, time at ease and respite from the reality of the greater society.
Photo credit: Grace Lynis
A uniquely liberatory and in deliberate contrast to any reference to the pursuit of social striving and the world of work. Azurest was created to provide a community where African American people could feel comfortable to express, establish, and maintain cross regional ties, derived from and cultivated within a personalized Black Power leisure identity.
Since the Civil War generations of African descended people have satisfied their urgency to foster, establish, and maintain a sense of place that centered upon a personalized expression of Black Power leisure identity, that can be observed in different regions nationally. Thus it is from the perspective of identity that this discussion will investigate the significance of African Diaspora landownership and the development of the Azurest community.
This research also seeks to determine how the American pursuit of leisure during the twentieth century forged identity and how real estate property ownership has been used to maintain and secure community sovereignty and individual identity. The role of leisure in the fight against Jim Crow is especially significant because the battles against segregation are frequently perpetrated on the land. Therefore as a tool of political and social analysis, this study will illustrate how Jim Crow was routinely subverted by the African American leisure and real estate consumer markets.
This thesis seeks to firmly situate Azurest Syndicate as a significant example of citizen resistance, used expertly as a form of economic empowerment. Documented evidence from the historical record supports the hypothesis that the legacy of the African American experience and housing discrimination, has made the founding of the Azurest Syndicate a probable and yet fascinating byproduct of the mid-twentieth century national real estate land development boom. Research findings identify how the American pursuit of leisure during the twentieth century forged identity and how real estate property ownership has been used to secure identity. Thus providing an examination and analysis of race and gender to identify how Azurest Syndicate operated as an economic vehicle of empowerment and agency.
HISTORY AS AN AGENT OF RESISTANCE FOR WOMEN: THE PRIVATE COLLECTION
Do you think that minutes should be kept of each meeting? In this way a complete history of the Syndicate will be recorded. I have the feeling that the organization is making history and none of it should be lost. (I fear some already is lost.)
— Amaza Lee Meredith, Azurest North Private Collection
This quote was one of many memorable and thought provoking comments that were made by Azurest co-founder, Amaza Lee Meredith, and that can be found throughout the Azurest North Private Collection. Each memorandum of meeting minutes, margin notation, or random sidebar, that when combined portray the story of the Azurest Syndicate Incorporated as a fascinating and complex business entity.
The Azurest North Private Collection was owned and compiled by Amaza Lee Meredith (1895–1984), in her capacity as co-founder, land developer and recording secretary for the Azurest North community development corporation, Azurest Syndicate Incorporated. Working with her sister and co-founder, Maude Kenney Terry, Dorothy C. Spaulding, attorney, and James P. Smith, civil engineer, the syndicate served to regulate the subdivision’s lot sales, plan infrastructural improvement projects, and guide the direction of the new resort enclave.
FEMINIST ARTICULATION OF ARCHITECTURE ON THE AMERICAN LANDSCAPE
The first architectural endeavor undertaken by Meredith was Azurest South, a small one story international styled house built in 1939, that is located in Ettrick, Virginia. In the 1980s, Azurest South was donated to the Virginia State University, National Alumni Association and since then, the house has been selected as a National Register of Historic Places site. When Azurest South was the primary residence for Amaza Lee Meredith and Dr. Edna Meade Colson, it was filled with art and modern furnishings that were carefully documented in Meredith’s scrapbooks.
Upon surveying Azurest South and a review of the Homes Sweet Homes scrapbook, it became starkly evident of the importance of recording an accurate and descriptive visual record of any architectural work. In the absence of evidence in the visual landscape, the ephemeral record assures the future understanding of the intended articulation of architectural design.A thorough review of the Amaza Lee Meredith Collection and the Azurest Private Collection, provides evidentiary support that Meredith actively created, maintained and secured her own ideas about identity in everything that she conceived. Conveyed through the painting of canvases, the construction of scrapbooks, and the accumulation of a vast collection of photographs, Meredith lent significance to African American life, via the proliferation of positive visual representations of African Diaspora figures. Interpreted as a statements of the self, these artifacts demonstrate personal agency in determining one’s own representation.
AZUREST SOUTH: THE RADICAL EMBRACE OF CHANGE
Azurest South also favors the application of leisure principles that were cited earlier and served as example in the discussion about the Hampton House. Azurest South, located in Ettrick Virginia is a small one story home, which was designed by Meredith for herself and Dr. Edna Meade Colson, who headed Virginia State University’s School of Education and was also Meredith’s lifelong companion. Sited in a lush dell at the western edge of campus, the house is a bold investigation of the International style and a salient example of this trend in residential design. Considered to be one of the first modern residences of its kind to be constructed in rural Virginia, Azurest South was begun in the mid-1930s, when Meredith was in her forties. It is thought to be Meredith’s best known and earliest documented architectural effort.
Thoroughly immersed in the modernism architectural gestalt of this period, Meredith developed and implemented her ideas and communicated a total understanding of modern concepts onto the rural Virginia landscape, via the design and construction of Azurest South. The exterior has a smooth stucco finish with curved corners and industrial-type windows. Bands of glass block round the corners of the bedroom wing. The copings and rails that line the flat roof as well as the columns and carport roof are painted an eye-catching turquoise, that Meredith referred to as, Azurest Blue. The limited palette of exterior materials explodes on the interior with an unexpected mix of colors and finishes. The multicolor, metal fleck, vinyl tile; Carrara glass; acoustic tile; mosaic tiles; and tile-board finishes specified by Meredith were the most current interior finishes available.
In the scrapbook Homes Sweet Homes, which boasts a collection of photographs, Meredith clearly illustrates an allegiance for the aesthetic of leisure in the room labeled, My Lady’s Boudoir. The application of a bas relief frieze inset, created by Cecilia C. Scott, a Virginia State University graduate, class of 1940, is the structural highlight of the room. Placed prominently into the wall of the open lounge, the frieze compliments the minimal furnishings that include a chaste lounge with satin pillow, covered with alternating hued diagonal design that corresponds to the adjacent wall colors. As an example of the construction of a modern dwelling in the international style, Azurest South demonstrates a clear understanding of architectural theory and also extends the limits of the feminist articulation of architecture on the American landscape.
Furthermore by documenting her lifestyle choices on film, Meredith used photography as an empowering mode of representation. The gaze of photography provided her the opportunity to participate in the construction of self-images that recorded personal accomplishments, attitudes of self-respect and meaningful moments in time. It is through the documentation of significant family dwellings, that constituted a critical effort by Meredith, to consciously subvert and resist the prevalent negative representations of African American families by others. En total, the images captured in the Homes Sweet Homes scrapbook, situate Azurest South and the Azurest North enclave into the mainstream of the local middle class and elite visual culture. Hence feminist research becomes a political practice and herein lies the significance of identifying Azurest Syndicate Incorporated as a suitable example for feminist interpretation and historical class analysis.
Other discussion highlights included:
- Pan African community sovereignty and the development of the post Civil War African Diaspora leisure market as the African Diaspora response to Jim Crow regulations and social customs.
- The significance of earlier African Diaspora financed resort community development: Highland Beach, Maryland; Idlewild, Michigan; American Beach, Florida.
- The 17th century origins of African Diaspora property ownership in New York State were also introduced to establish the historical baseline for American property ownership for Africans living in early colonial U.S. history. Since land rights were hereditary, during the Dutch era gender based restrictions did not impede women from owning land and no less than 12 African women were the registered property owners in New Amsterdam.
Evidence of 17th century Africana property ownership in Dutch New Amsterdam
- 17th century enclaves predate by nearly two centuries, the formal marketing of the American dream. Thereby the historical baseline dispels misinformation about African Diaspora property ownership in the U.S., as a 20th century phenomenon and also establishes the African Diaspora legacy of property ownership, in early colonial U.S. history.
At the conclusion of all the panel presentations, myself and the other panelist, accepted comments and answered questions from the audience. The feedback was very positive, and I was especially grateful to enjoy the rewards of sharing new and exciting research with an interested and informed audience.
Click here to find more information about the research and images of Azurest South.
Looking forward to attending the VAF 2015 conference in Chicago.