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Edward Loewenstein: Making way for minority architects

The early Greensboro modernist made an impact with how he built, not just what he built

The 1958 Commencement Home in Greensboro, designed by Edward Lowenstein’s all-female design class
Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, UNCG University Libraries

Known as “Big Ed” by his neighbors on account of his 6-foot-4 frame and gentle demeanor, Edward Loewenstein made a big impact on the then-sleepy Southern town of Greensboro, North Carolina. During a postwar career that spanned nearly 25 years, his firm would complete more than 1,600 commissions, including 500 homes, 50 of which showcased his refined take on modernist design. His own home, comfortable and contemporary, even made the pages of the New York Times magazine, which celebrated the way it blended modern and the region’s traditional styles so well it looked “just as appropriate as a white-columned mansion.”

But buildings weren’t the most lasting impact the architect had on his community. A diverse college town, Greensboro was more progressive than many Southern cities at the time, but it was still a Southern city. Loewenstein’s decision to buck customs and employ African-American architects in the early 1950s was unheard of at the time, and helped establish the careers of many modernist designers such as W.E. Jenkins, Major Sanders, and Clinton Gravely.

“Not only was he talented with his design, but he worked with a conscience within the American South,” says Benjamin Briggs, the executive director of Preservation Greensboro. “The rules were changing below everyone’s feet, and he was out there helping to change the rules.”

Biography

A budding romance drove Loewenstein to Greensboro. Born in Chicago, where he would design some early traditional homes for family members, he studied architecture at MIT before serving in the Navy during World War II. There, he met his wife Frances Stern, who convinced him to move to her hometown in North Carolina.

Stern was part of the Cone family, which owned a local textile mill and was well known within Greensboro’s Jewish community. This tight-knit group was the foundation of Loewenstein’s client roster for years, beginning when the ambitious young architect opened his own firm in 1946. This remained true even when when he partnered with Robert A. Atkinson Jr. in 1953 and the name on the door became Loewenstein-Atkinson.

One of Loewenstein’s first projects after he arrived in Greensboro was to devise a new precast concrete prefab, a job that further cemented his passion for modern design and progressive architecture. Though he would design more than 50 modern homes during his career, that wasn’t the firm’s real focus, and the team grew to to employ dozens of architects who worked on traditional homes, shopping centers, and commercial developments.

Loewenstein’s hiring practices were just as important as his designs. He gave dozens of African-American designers a chance to establish their careers in the South by working in architecture without having to leave Greensboro. He also offered head starts to architects by sending them a few clients when they established their own practices. His daughter Jane Levy, told an interviewer he was polite but firm when clients challenged the makeup of his firm. "My father just respected everyone,” she said. “When confronted by white architects who had a problem with black co-workers, he told them they were welcome to leave."

Students with blueprints outside the Commencement Home under construction. This house, built in 1958, was located at 2207 North Elm Street. It was part of a unique Woman’s College classroom experience where 23 art and home-economics majors designed and supervised the building of a house.
Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Arc

Buildings to know

Throughout his career, Loewenstein blended the traditional and the modern, but rarely did it as well as when he designed his own home in 1954. The exterior, with large walls of slanted windows to reduce the glare, had the angles and profile of a midcentury beauty. But Loewenstein’s choice of materials—cypress wood, bricks fashioned from local red clay, and Carolina fieldstone and slate—added a rustic warmth to the interior that wasn’t always present in modernist homes.

One of Loewenstein’s other notable and unique projects, the Commencement House, speaks more to his role as a teacher than an architect. In 1958, he was teaching at UNC-Greensboro, and had an all-female class learning how to design interiors. He believed that it wasn’t an effective course if they didn’t get hands-on experience, so he had them build their own home. Recruiting contractors with whom he’d worked, Loewenstein helped his 23 students see their ideas come to life, and gave them real-world experience. Written up in McCall’s magazine, the home was "as modern as tomorrow," according to the local paper.

Legacy and reputation today

At 57, Loewenstein died suddenly of a heart attack. He once said that "dedicated architects die unhappy. They never get to unleash creative juices because of pressure to please clients." That sounds tragic, but Loewenstein’s career, for all its commercial pressures, was anything but.

“His greater legacy is training the next generation of architects in his firm and school,” says Patrick Lee Lucas, director of the School of Interiors at the University of Kentucky.

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