Promontory Apartments Chicago
Promontory Apartments Chicago. Mies van der Rohe designed with structural calculations from Georgia Louise Harris Brown. Photo courtesy of Teemu008/CC-by-SA 2.0.

 

Born 1918 in Topeka, Kansas, Georgia Louise Harris Brown would grow up to become only the second female African American architect. (Curious who was the first? Read about Beverly Loraine Greene here.) Brown’s distinguished career involved studying under and working with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago as well as a career designing industrial and residential projects in Brazil.

For the Love of Architecture

Georgia Louise Harris Brown
Georgia Louise Harris Brown (June 12, 1918 – September 21, 1999). Photo courtesy of Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.

When she was about 20, Georgia Louise Harris Brown visited her brother in Chicago and enrolled in a summer course taught by Mies van der Rohe. Her intelligence and imagination stimulated by the culture of Chicago (including aviation lessons), Brown enrolled in the Armory Institute of Technology that fall.

In her time at the Institute, she learned from Mies van der Rohe and others, and kept her focus on architecture and not on disparaging comments. According to Pioneering Woman, Brown “recalled being asked several times by one professor if she didn’t think she should be in home economics instead of architecture.”

After pausing her studies and marrying James A. Brown in 1941, she finished her architecture degree from Kansas in 1944.

 

Brown’s Impressive Portfolio

Brown returned to Chicago in 1945. There, she worked on structural calculations for Mies van der Rohe-designed Promonotory Apartments and for 860 Lakeshore Drive. In addition, she worked on a variety of residential, church and business projects. Taking after van der Rohe’s emphasis on method and materials, she enrolled in a Techniques of Civil Engineering program at IIT.

After her divorce in 1952, Brown set her sights to Brazil where she hoped to practice architecture with greater structural openness to her as a female Black architect. In 1953, she moved to Brazil and, while it was no utopia, she worked prolifically on a variety of industrial and private projects. She remained there until illness caused her to return to the States in 1993. She passed away in 1999 at the age of 81.

Brown’s Legacy

Georgia Louise Harris Brown
860-880 Lakeshore Drive Chicago. Mies van der Rohe designed along with Brown’s structural calculations for the 860 structure. Photo © Jeremy Atherton, 2006/CC-by-SA-2.5.

Brown wrote of herself in a letter: “I never thought of myself as been a Pioneer black female architect. I was always just an architect. . . .” Nevertheless, her commitment to and lifelong practice of architecture was a trailblazing one, navigating the complexities of practicing as a female African American architect in Brazil.

Want to see the handiwork of another female architect in Brazil? Check out Retro Road Trip: Sao Paulo Museum of Art.

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