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Pioneering architect Roger Margerum dead at 85

Roger Margerum credited his architecture career to the youthful discomfort he suffered when he was sent to room with Bob, his mother’s cranky boyfriend in California.

“An 18-year-old boy-man with no job living with some guy waiting for his lover began to get a little strained when only [Bob] was working,” Mr. Margerum said in a memoir. “It began to show that I was an annoyance and potential burden.

“Mom wrote to me, and in my response I tried to give her a picture of our circumstance — and included in the letter a diagram of the one-bedroom apartment where Bob and I stayed,” he said. “ It was at that point that Mom suggested, ‘You should be an architect.’ ’’

And he did. They wound up back in Chicago, where Mr. Margerum became an influential African-American architect who worked with modernist giants Bruce Graham, Walter Netsch and Stanley Tigerman at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

He died June 21 near Detroit, where he’d lived for years, as a result of complications from a stroke. He was 85.

Mr. Margerum was known for light-filled designs that avoided starkness by incorporating whimsy. He designed his Detroit home to perch sideways on its lot, like a nonconformist who refuses to face forward on an elevator. Mostly, he worked on residences and public buildings in Chicago and Detroit. Influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he believed that simple was beautiful.

Architect Roger Margerum’s red, black and white Detroit home, which he designed to perch sideways on the lot on a 45-degree angle.
Architect Roger Margerum’s red, black and white Detroit home, which he designed to perch sideways on the lot on a 45-degree angle.

He grew up during the Great Depression but was better off than most. His father, also named Roger, not only had a good job at the U.S. Post Office but also owned a cleaners and was a syndicated bridge writer.

But the marriage broke up, and his mother, Juanita, had to move around to find work. Young Roger attended Wendell Phillips, Medill and Crane high schools, according to Karen McElgunn, a former colleague and collaborator on his book. His mother also enrolled him in drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.

He attended DePaul University on a track scholarship and studied architecture at the University Of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

While still a student, he made a cold call to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill when he learned the firm been picked to design the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“Hired on my first day of searching,” he wrote in his memoir. “Now there was proof of the benefit of school and education.”

He was assigned to help with academy drawings, using “a fine Italian hand” he said, “and to observe a masterpiece under development.” One of his sketches, at 1/8th scale, was seven feet long.

“For an African-American man at that time in Chicago, these opportunities were amazing,” said McElgunn.

He later worked at Chicago firms including Holabird and Root. In the mid-1960s, he moved to Detroit and worked for Smith, Hyncham & Grylls before opening his own shop. In 1984, he was named president of the Michigan Society of Architects.

In Chicago, projects he worked on included Libby Elementary School, the North Austin library and a modernist home at 6500 S. Eberhart.

Out of all his designs, his favorite was a serene shelter at Riverside Park near the Ambassador Bridge that leads to Canada. With it, “He achieved something very simple, and it was beautiful in its simplicity,” McElgunn said.

Roger Margerum’s favorite design was the shelter he made in Riverside Park near the Ambassador Bridge that leads from Detroit to Windsor, Canada
Roger Margerum’s favorite design was the shelter he made in Riverside Park near the Ambassador Bridge that leads from Detroit to Windsor, Canada

He was known for his inventiveness, versatility and mastery of materials, said Detroit-based engineer Charles Scales and architect Mark English. “He’s a pioneer” in a field still lacking African-American architects, said Louis Fisher, former president of the Detroit Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

His late wife, Frances, was a renowned weaver. He is also survived by sons Michael and Kim, a brother, Charles, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. A memorial service is being planned for July in Detroit.

Roger Margerum designed this modernist home on E. 48th St.
Roger Margerum designed this modernist home on E. 48th St.
Architect Roger Margerum worked on the Libby School in Chicago.
Architect Roger Margerum worked on the Libby School in Chicago.
The home at 6500 S. Eberhart was designed by Roger Margerum.
The home at 6500 S. Eberhart was designed by Roger Margerum.