Meet John W. Moutoussamy, the first black architect to design a high-rise building in Chicago

Stephen Nartey June 15, 2023
John attained his American dream when he became the first black architect to design a high-rise building in Chicago. Photo credit: Docomomo-Chicago

When he aspired to run his own firm in 1965, John Warren Moutoussamy did not envisage the color of his skin could be an impediment to his career growth as an architect. Despite working with several architectural firms, his track record did not guarantee easy access to credit.

Banks were not willing to grant him a loan even though he had secured a contract to construct middle-income housing. This was to complement funds he had accessed from the National Housing Act. It was even more challenging when he was awarded a contract to erect an 11-story headquarters for Johnson Publishing, which was the publisher of iconic titles such as Ebony and Jet.

His dream could only be possible if he partnered with an established architectural company; despite being a graduate of the prestigious Illinois Institute of Technology and understudying the best architect of the time, Mies van der Roche.

His predicament compelled him to join Dubin, Dubin, and Black as an Associate to execute his project. However, the firm made him a partner some years later, making John the first African American to occupy such a top-rank position in Chicago.

John worked at the firm, which later became Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy, from 1965 to 1978, according to the IIT College of Architecture.

Even decades after this feat, only two percent of all licensed architects in the US are black out of a staggering 116,242 practitioners. The stark reality is jaw-dropping, particularly in a nation of over 330 million people, where only 2,325 blacks have the power to physically design structures.

Perhaps, some may argue the numbers are not so outrageous; it took over 20 years to get the first black architect, Paul Revere Williams, licensed after the licensure exams were instituted in 1897. This may be the reason why the industry is still dominated by the white majority, according to cultured mag.

Though it might have been an isolated success at the time, John attained his American dream when he became the first black architect to design a high-rise building in Chicago. The 11-story house was the headquarters for Johnson Publishing, the influential publisher of Ebony and Jet magazine.

In 2018, the building attained a national historic landmark status to protect it from possible demolition. He later designed other iconic buildings like the Richard J. Daley College, Olive Harvey College, Harry S. Truman College, and the Chicago Urban League Building. John is considered the godfather of black architects in Chicago for his many signature buildings before his retirement.  

His most prized achievement was designing a house for himself at 361 East 89th Place, just south of Chatham, Chicago. In 1978, the American Institute of Architects honored Moutoussamy by naming him a Fellow; a testament to his commitment to excellence and perseverance in breaking down barriers to pave the way for the next generation of black architects.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: June 15, 2023


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