Issue 004 Summer 2022 Features

Amaza Lee Meredith and the Art of Leisure

Well before the current emphasis on care and rest, the architect played a pivotal role in creating sites that prioritized Black reprieve.

By Jasmine Weber

“Welcome to Azurest.” 2022. 35 mm film. Photo by Jasmine Weber. Azure blue signs decorate several streets on Route 114 in Sag Harbor, New York, denoting the entrance to Azurest, a 20-acre community founded by Black families in 1947.


Amaza Lee Meredith, a trailblazer in the field of art and design, was an architect of leisure.


Though she was born at the close of the nineteenth century, her legacy operates as a precursor to rapidly expanding modern conversations about the necessity of rest.

Meredith is most known for her work at the historically Black college of Virginia State University (VSU), where she served as founding director of its art department. As a mixed-race woman born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1895, she was denied a formal education as an architect.1 Nevertheless, Meredith designed groundbreaking modernist homes, the most famous of which is Azurest South, the Virginia home she shared with her partner, Dr. Edna Meade Colson, for decades, until her death at age eighty-eight.2

But less known in Meredith’s legacy are her contributions to the formation of a unique section of Long Island—a strip of Black beach communities nestled between the bay and New York State Route 114 called Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Subdivisions (SANS). Meredith was instrumental in the development of Azurest, founded in the 1940s by her older sister Maude Terry, on the heels of the Harlem Renaissance.3 Prior to that, Sag Harbor’s Eastville had long been home to a mixed community of Black and Indigenous Shinnecock and ​​Montauk whalers; freed, formerly enslaved people; and European settlers. It was there that Terry, a Brooklyn teacher, began to envision a neighboring twenty-acre stretch of empty land as a potential idyll for a Black middle class—a seasonal, utopic reprieve. Black buyers with the means to secure second homes had been iced out of most other areas by discriminatory realty practices, but since white home buyers had seen little potential in the marshy landscape, the little plot that would become Azurest took on even greater transformative potential.


Amaza Lee Meredith. Image courtesy of Virginia State University Special Collections and Archives.

Working painstakingly to realize this goal, Terry recruited potential buyers and co-managed the Azurest Syndicate to broker sales and finance mortgages.4 Shannon Terry, great-grandson of Maude Terry and great-nephew of Meredith, recounts his great-grandmother’s efforts fondly. “The sisters were very, very close,” he explains, noting Meredith sent letters of encouragement, and occasionally funds, to help push Terry’s project forward. “Amaza was really supportive of what Ma Maude was trying to do in Sag Harbor,” he adds. “Ma Maude was expressing some doubts, some difficulties—it was hard. It was hard to acquire the land, it was hard to pay for the land, it was hard to then get the subdivision to pay for the big purchase.”5 But Terry’s efforts were ultimately fruitful, setting the stage for SANS.

My own family—from my great-grandparents to my parents—made their treks out to Sag Harbor as part of this phenomenon. Meredith’s legacy is one that feels acutely personal. She blazed a path as an artist and educator, one foreign to me until my twenties in spite of many years spent just blocks from her designs. As a girl I caught minnows, had my first real, devastating crush, and spent time there with my great-grandmother, who lived in Azurest year-round for my entire life and long before that. The neighborhood was critical to my identity formation, and my friends at home were always confused, and amazed, by this unusual paradise of Blackness. Author Colson Whitehead chronicled the neighborhood better than anyone in his 2009 novel Sag Harbor: the weird intersections of teenage hormones and privilege, the racialization in the face of the uber-wealthy surrounding Hamptons vacationers, and the deracialization in a twenty-acre radius where most folks looked like you. Its uniqueness does, however, seem to be gaining more widespread recognition, at a critical time when the very small neighborhood is being encroached on by developers, with the East End plagued by escalating housing costs. In 2020, an intimate profile of the neighborhoods by Sandra E. Garcia for the New York Times tapped into the heart of the neighborhood and its significance.


“Azurest South.” 2012. Photo by AJ Belongia. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It is there, in Azurest, that two of Meredith’s lesser-known buildings were constructed: Terry Cottage for her family and Edendot for Dorothy C. “Dot” and James Edwin Spaulding, early participants in the Azurest Syndicate. Several blueprints for additional homes went unrealized. The actualized modernist structures were tailored for a Black middle class seeking rest on vacation. The interiors, for example, had “such detailed attention to utilitarian efficiency; they reflect an interest in standardization, typical of the modern movement, and highly appropriate for homes that would be lived in for short bursts of time,” wrote Dr. Jacqueline Susan Taylor in her dissertation on Meredith at the University of Virginia.6

Azurest’s name, born out of Maude Terry’s imagination, reveals this very notion: “This place became ‘Heavenly Peace, Blue Rest, Blue Haven, Azure Rest.’”7 (It has also been more publicly acknowledged as a contraction of “as you rest.”8) Meredith and Terry’s legacies in founding Azurest exist as a predecessor to contemporary notions of self-care and luxury, specifically the ways in which they are, or aren’t, afforded to Black women. Despite an amplified fervor in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, scholars and artists have long considered recreation and rest as they relate to race, queerness, and gender. In 2018, Angela Davis spoke about her active attempts at holistic self-preservation through rest;9 many activists similarly center “self-care,” a term most eloquently considered by Audre Lorde though often misconceived in public conversations.10

Meredith and her peers—her sister, partner, and colleagues—had unusual access to economic and educational freedom for their time. Relatedly, Azurest’s original residents were overwhelmingly light-skinned, and the privilege afforded to them through colorism and classism is crucial in understanding the means by which the neighborhood was able to take its footing. At the crux of the neighborhood exists a considerable tension between these social conditions and the discrimination and redlining they were able to overcome. It remains a site of undoubted privilege, but also one of a unique circumstance that the structures of American racism have let slip through its fingers, if only for a two-month window each year.


A day at the beach, 1920. Image courtesy of Virginia State University Special Collections and Archives.

Many of the original modest, one-story homes in Azurest are still standing. However, an explosion in the East End real estate market has seen an encroachment into the historically Black neighborhoods by developers. As mini-mansions crop up, the neighborhood’s original mid-century homes are being sold and razed to make room for a new wave of residents. Though the significance of these Black beach communities is yet to be fully realized, in 2019, SANS was added to the New York State Register of Historic Places, and the National Register of Historic Places soon after, thanks to impassioned campaigns by scholars and longtime residents, backed by state politicians.11,12 “It wasn’t until we started to create the narrative and gather the oral history of the area that people started to realize, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This is important,’” Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, executive director of Eastville Community Historical Society, says. “And so now the buildings take on the meaning . . . and the community starts to see the narrative and understand the significance of what the ancestors built. But by this time you have structures that are lost and can be rebuilt. But the land is also a part of the built environment and takes on that meaning of significance as well.”13

Decades earlier, Meredith mused about the remarkability of the project she and Terry had undertaken as sisters and collaborators. Recognizing the importance of their leisure project, as secretary and archivist of the Azurest Syndicate, Meredith asked in 1958: “Do you think that minutes should be kept of each meeting? In this way a complete history of the Syndicate will be recorded. I have the feeling that the organization is making history and none of it should be lost. (I fear some already is lost.)”14


“Beachgrass” (2022), photo by Jasmine Weber.

Likewise, Meredith voraciously recorded her own life. Most of these records are kept at the VSU library in an archive dedicated to the professor. She kept meticulous documentation: blueprints, scrapbooks, artworks, photographs, family history, and letters, including tender correspondences with her beloved, Colson. Meredith knew the worth of her work and its mighty importance in the grand scheme of history. Like Azurest, her legacy has been inching toward the spotlight, in part thanks to her rich personal archive, which allows unlikely insight into her life as a Black educator, artist, sister, colleague, and partner. She is the focus of several projects, among them art writer Jessica Lynne’s forthcoming Drafts for an Epic, and a dedicated chapter in architect Mario Gooden’s Dark Space, which calls Azurest South “simultaneously a bold statement of disbelief in the doctrines of modern architecture and a re-scripting of its masculinist codes.”14,15

Plainly influenced by the work of International Style architects like Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, the concrete home’s curvatures stood plainly at odds with the Colonial Revival architecture decorating VSU’s campus. According to Gooden, “Amaza Lee Meredith’s Azurest South also works to confound the hierarchical male gaze and its subject and object relationships. However, the house subverts these relationships through the masculine guises of modernism while never yielding the agency of the Black female bodies of its inhabitants—Ms. Meredith and Dr. Edna Meade Colson.”16 Azurest South also operated as a stomping grounds for faculty and students at VSU and is now owned by the school’s alumni association. The “intellectual courage exemplified in the design of her groundbreaking house cannot be overstated,” says the biographer Dreck Spurlock Wilson.17 This was affirmed by its addition to the National Register of Historical Places in 1993.

Meredith, an undersung figure of Black history, left a legacy that shapes new possibilities for rest and Black recreation. Azurest subverted traditional ideals of homemaking in Black communities, allowing African Americans to construct a unique form of community. Meredith’s legacy also offers a framework for the subversion of homemaking. With Colson at her side, the two upended heteropatriarchal expectations of marriage and built their home together, figuratively and physically. Meredith’s name may not be household, but she offers a quintessential example of Black Southern artistry and feminist possibility.


Footnotes:

1. Meredith’s mother, Emma Pink Kenney, was Black, and her father, Samuel Peter Meredith, was white. Her father died by suicide during Amaza’s adolescence; scholars have cited his failing business, which was affected by his eventual marriage to Kenney, as a motivation.

2. Colson was dean of the VSU School of Education.

3. The Sag Harbor community is sometimes referred to as “Azurest North” by scholars to avoid confusion.

4. Sarah Kautz, “The Founding and Future of Sag Harbor’s Azurest Subdivision,” Preservation Long Island, February 2019, https://preservationlongisland.org/the-founding-and-future-of-sag-harbors-azurest-subdivision/.

5. Shannon Terry in discussion with Jasmine Weber, January 21, 2022.

6. Jacqueline Taylor, “Designing Progress: Race, Gender and Modernism in Early 20th-Century America” (thesis, Online Archive of University of Virginia Scholarship, 2014).

7. Taylor, “Designing Progress: Race, Gender and Modernism in Early 20th-Century America.”

8. Jim Merritt, “Hidden Figures: These African-Americans with Long Island Ties Made History,” Newsday, February 25, 2019, https://www.newsday.com/long-island/long-islanders-celebrate-black-history-month-f66366.

9. Afropunk. “Radical Self Care: Angela Davis.” YouTube video. December 17, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1cHoL4vaBs.

10. “Politics for the Mass Market,” The Guardian, August 21, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/21/self-care-radical-feminist-idea-mass-market.

11. Vera Chinese, “Push to Preserve Sag Harbor’s Historic African American District,” Newsday, June 17, 2019, https://www.newsday.com/long-island/suffolk/sag-harbor-historic-district-x84556.

12. Vera Chinese, “Sag Harbor African American Resorts Added to National Historic List,” Newsday, July 17, 2019, https://www.newsday.com/long-island/sag-harbor-african-american-historic-places-a55796.

13. Jasmine Weber and Georgette Grier-Key. Interview, January 19, 2022.

14. GraceLynis Dubinson, “Slowly, Surely, One Plat, One Binder at a Time: Choking out Jim Crow and the Development of the Azurest Syndicate Incorporated” (thesis, Georgia State University, 2012).

15. Mario Gooden, “(Black) Sexuality and Space: the Body and the Gaze,” in Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity (New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2016), 121-136.

16. “Graham Foundation, Grantees – Jessica Lynne,” Graham Foundation, http://grahamfoundation.org/grantees/6111-drafts-for-an-epic.

17. Gooden, “(Black) Sexuality and Space.

18. Dreck Spurlock Wilson, African-American Architects: a Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945 (New York: Routledge, 2004).