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Cassell, Albert I.(1895–1969) - Architect, engineer, educator, Studies Interrupted by Military Service, Shapes Howard University Campus, Chronology

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Albert I. Cassell was a prominent mid-twentieth-century visionary architect who excelled in a field that was scarcely ready to accept African Americans early on. The structures that he designed, constructed, or altered were scattered from Richmond, Virginia, to Baltimore, Maryland, and were located as far away as Tuskegee, Alabama, where his career began. An educator as well, he set the tone for architectural training at Howard University, providing the structure for educating black youth in the field.

The third child of Albert Truman and Charlotte Cassell, Albert Irvin Cassell was born June 25, 1895 in Tow-son, Maryland. The family relocated to nearby Baltimore within a year of his birth. Cassell studied in the local segregated elementary and high schools. When he was fourteen, he studied drafting with Ralph Victor Cook, a teacher at Douglas High School. Cassell completed a four-year carpentry program and graduated from that school in 1914. His interest, however, was in architecture, the field that he pursued when he entered Cornell University in 1915. Cook, a Cornell graduate, continued his interest in Cassell as a student of architecture and helped to ensure that he had a good background in architecture before entering college. While there, Cassell helped to support himself by singing in local churches.

Studies Interrupted by Military Service

Cassell studied for two years at Cornell then joined the U.S. Army where he served in the United States and in France. After he was honorably discharged in 1919 as a second lieutenant, Cornell University conferred on him a “war degree,” a privilege for students who left school to fight in World War I and who were then exempt from returning to college to complete their studies.

After receiving his degree, Cassell joined William Augustus Hazel at Tuskegee Institute (subsequently Tuskegee University) in Alabama in designing five trade buildings. In 1920 he became chief draftsman for Howard J. Wiegner in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, designing silk mills and industrial plants. Two years later the men collaborated as architects for the Home Economics Building at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Shapes Howard University Campus

Cassell joined the Howard architectural faculty, under Hazel’s leadership, in 1920, then succeeded him in 1922 as assistant professor and head of the department. He was also named university architect. He put in place a firm foundation for developing the Department of Architecture in the School of Applied Science. Then, by 1934, he developed the School of Applied Science into the College of Engineering and Architecture.

Chronology

1895 Born in Towson, Maryland on June 25

1919 Graduates from Cornell University

1920 Joins architectural faculty at Howard University

1922 Heads Department of Architecture at Howard University and becomes university architect; begins to design campus buildings

1932 Begins Calverton development, Calvert County, Maryland

1938 Erects Founders Library, his campus masterpiece

1941 Negotiates financial settlement with Howard University; later founds architectural firm Cassell, Gray, & Sulton

1942 Begins Mayfair Mansions and other facilities

1969 Dies in Washington, D.C. on November 30

Cassell is largely responsible for developing Howard’s campus, as he created in 1920 the university’s “Twenty Year Plan” (or Master Plan) for expansion and designed most of the buildings around the quadrangle. In so doing, he transformed the school’s physical appearance, giving it an important visual order that had been lacking. He spent eighteen years there, working as surveyor and land manager, and guiding the institution in acquisition of properties adjacent to the campus. After the Home Economics Building (1922), he designed the gymnasium (1925), armory (1925), and College of Medicine (1927). Cassell supervised the construction of three women’s residence halls named for famous women: Sojourner Truth, Prudence Crandall, and Julia Caldwell Frazier. From 1930 to 1933 he was architect and engineer for the campus, leading surveys and construction of the campus heat, light, and power requirements. Cassell headed the maintenance department from 1929 to 1932 and supervised a sizeable crew in planning alterations for the Art Gallery and School of Religion.

His Jewel: Founders Library

His most durable contributions at Howard were the Chemistry Building and the classroom building, Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall (both in 1935), and Founders Library (1938). He was architect, structural designer, and supervisor of construction and interior of these buildings. Landscape architect David A. Williston (1868–1962) was in charge of landscaping. The Georgian Revival style Founder’s Library was, in fact, Cassell’s crowning glory; it is an impressive architectural and educational symbol for the university. Commenting on Howard’s hilltop campus, the document “Albert I. Cassell and The Founders Library” calls Founders Library “its jewel”; for many years it remained the most visible element on Howard’s campus. Cassell favored the Georgian style and used it in other campus buildings to create his “visual order.” He took into account Howard’s hilly terrain and worked to unify the campus and overcome the natural separation that divided the campus.

For some time, however, President Mordecai Johnson and Cassell had been at odds, a feud that included what Cassell called “personal vindictiveness,” and each asserted that the other was guilty of various improprieties. The controversy lasted until 1938, when Johnson fired Cassell. In response, Cassell took legal action against the university and the case ended in 1941 with a small, negotiated settlement.

Building Beyond Howard

While at Howard as well as after his departure, Cassell was architect and supervisor of construction for dozens of buildings in the District of Columbia and in neighboring states. These included buildings on other college campuses, such as women’s residence halls at Virginia Union University in Richmond (1923 and 1928) and the Student Christian Center (1951), women’s residence buildings (1941 and 1951), and a men’s residence building (1964) at Morgan State College in Baltimore.

Elsewhere Cassell built Masonic temples, churches, a hospital, commercial buildings, and private residences. His works included Provident Hospital and Free Dispensary (1928), the Masonic Temple (1930), Odd Fellows Temples (1925 and 1932), Maryland School for Colored Girls (1936), Sollers’ Point War Housing Development in Baltimore (for black and war workers and their families, 1942), and the George Washington Carver War Housing Building in Arlington (1942). He did alterations to Pilgrim African Methodist Church and St. Luke Episcopal Church Parish, both in Washington, D.C. Later in life he joined other black architects to form Cassell, Gray, & Sulton. His work with that firm included the U.S. Army Installation at the former National International Airport, alterations to the Pentagon building (1964), the Washington Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, and municipal buildings for the District of Columbia.

Depression Era Plans for Calvert County

Cassell’s interest lay also in providing economic opportunities and housing for African Americans during the Great Depression, especially for the period from 1932 to 1935. He purchased a 380-acre site on the Chesapeake Bay, in Calvert County, Maryland, with the idea of building a summer resort for blacks. It was to include a motel, shopping center, beach, marina, and other facilities. After constructing roads and several homes, he was unable to continue his “Calverton” development. There are claims that racial and political problems interfered.

Historic Mayfair Mansions

After that, in 1942, he bought the old Benning Race Track and began to construct in northeast Washington the Colonial-style Mayfair Mansions (or Mayfair Gardens), Mayfair Extension Housing Developments, and Mayfair Extension commercial facilities. Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux (1885–1968), who founded Washington’s Church of God, was a major investor of the affordable housing project. While the War years and other causes interfered, Cassell completed the development in 1946. Although Cassell managed Mayfair Mansions and received a sizeable income, he lost major ownership of the 594 units. In 1989 Mayfair Mansions was listed on the National Register for Historic Sites.

Married three times, Cassell had three children by his first wife and four by his second. His third wife, Flora B. McClarty, was a widow with two children. Cassell suffered a heart attack and died at his home in Washington, D.C, on November 30, 1969. After funeral services held at the Washington Cathedral on December 3, he was buried in Baltimore National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife and six children.

From the beginning of his career until he died, Cassell was one of the nation’s most prominent architects and engineers. He left his mark at Howard University, where he created a visual order for the campus and in the facilities that he designed or whose construction he oversaw elsewhere. His interest in providing upscale, affordable housing for middle-income blacks helped him to create an enduring legacy in Washington’s black community.

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