The architectural practice of Vertner W. Tandy: an evaluation of the professional and social position of a black architect

Anderson, Carson Anthony, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

An Evaluation of the Professional and Social Position of a Black Architect.

Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885-1949), a New York City architect, like the vast majority of his black contemporaries, functioned professionally in a city whose cultural and economic life was largely segregated along racial lines. In Manhattan's black community, Tandy was highly regarded and considered part of its elite. He lived with his family in the most fashionable and expensive section of Harlem, and was very well-known. His clients included black middle income professional people, fraternal organizations, societies, and churches, as well as a handful of wealthy blacks. Yet, despite the architect's popularity in social terms, and the respect he received for his professional achievements, he does not appear to have had a lucrative practice. He appears to have been at the middle of the middle class income spectrum, but his economic standing fluctuated dramatically downward at times, probably closely mirroring local and national economic trends.

This is only half of the career picture, however, for Tandy was functioning as a black in a field, and in a city, where blacks formed a fraction of one percent of the architectural profession, and he was not directing the bulk of his energies toward obtaining the patronage of the black community. Tandy appears to have overcome some of the social obstacles posed by his being black. He maintained offices on the Upper West Side outside the black neighborhoods of the borough, and seems to have had a white clientele consisting primarily of middle class businesspeople, most of whom had offices in the vicinity of Tandy's office. These clients used the architect's services almost entirely for building alterations. Tandy did not find a ready clientele among the white upper class, however. With a few noteable exceptions, Tandy's major commissions came from black clients, yet only fourteen commissions for new buildings in Manhattan were identified during the course of the architect's forty-one years of practice. These ranged from small utilitarian structures to major buildings.

In terms of professional standing Tandy seems to have been highly regarded. Yet, although he was elected to membership in the AIA, he received none of the highest forms of professional commendation. Nor was his work published in any of the major architectural publications. among the factors deemed to be important in shaping Tandy's career profile are his affinity for engineering and construction, his "non-heroic" approach to design, and apparent disinterest in professionally acceptable activities which might have helped win him a larger audience (viz., writing articles, joining or starting interest groups). Other factors discussed in this study and thought to have had important implications for Tandy are the New York economy during the 1930's and early 1940's compared to other cities where black architects mentioned in this study had practices (e.g., Los Angeles), as well as the nature of patronage coming from the black community.

Despite the unevenness of his practice, and the effect of the Great Depression on this, compared with his Cornell classmates Tandy was successful by the most general indices. None of the four men examined in this study developed practices which brought them to national prominence, though Tandy and one other classmate seem to have been well-known locally.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Tandy, Vertner W. -- 1885-1949, African American architects -- United States
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