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Death of African-American architect Jeffrey Robinson leaves a void in Atlanta

Maria Saporta

By Maria Saporta

An important link to Atlanta’s architectural history has died.

Architect Jeffrey L. Robinson, 58, died suddenly on Nov. 30. Robinson was president of J.W. Robinson & Associates – the oldest African-American architectural firm in the state of Georgia. It was founded by his late father – Joseph W. Robinson Sr. – in 1970.

Jeffrey L. Robinson (1961 to 2019)

The Robinson legacy was clearly apparent at both the wake on Friday night at the Murray Brothers Funeral Home and at the memorial service at Big Bethel AME Church on Auburn Avenue on Saturday afternoon.

A large number of African-American architects came to show their respect for both the father and son.

“I remember Jeffrey in high school when I was working for his dad in 1957,” said Carl Trimble, an Atlanta architect. “Joe didn’t have his (architectural) license at the time.”

Trimble remembered how J.W. Robinson Sr. was the first African-American architect to get a project from the City of Atlanta – thanks to then Alderman H.D. Dodson.

“It’s a tremendous loss,” said retired Atlanta architect Oscar Harris, who now describes himself as a painter.  “It is an iconic firm. In the early 1970s, it was one of only two African-American architectural firms in Atlanta. Today there aren’t that many more.”

Jeffrey Robinson had actually gone to work for Harris’ firm – Turner Associates – for a brief stint before rejoining his father’s firm.

The younger Robinson (born on Nov. 18, 1961), was well aware of his firm’s historic legacy.

He worked tirelessly to preserve the physical history of black Atlanta, writing a provocative column in Creative Loafing in 2015: “Opinion – Do Atlanta’s African-American landmarks really matter? The Herndon House. Paschal’s. Atlanta Life Building. These buildings and more need to be saved.”

Celebration of Life for Jeffrey Robinson at the Big Bethel AME Church on Dec. 7 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

His firm actually was involved in the renovation of many landmarks, including his family’s church – Big Bethel.

“I worked with Jeffrey 20 years ago,” Atlanta architect Melody Harclerode said. “He was always that voice for preservation. “He knew about every building on the westside, and he was so jovial. I called him a cheerful warrior.”

Several of the architects present bemoaned the scarcity of African-American architects in Atlanta and nationally. That made the passing of Jeffrey Robinson feel even more significant.

Robinson was a member of the Design Review Committee for the Atlanta BeltLine. He has served on the board of the Historic Wren’s Nest, and he was a past president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). He also was an active member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

David Southerland, executive director of both AIA Atlanta and AIA Georgia, recalled when the association held its first Open House Architecture Festival in 2017, it included Big Bethel as one of its destinations.

“Jeffrey Robinson, who was the architect of the most recent renovation of the 150-year-old church, was there during (the Open House) to give personal tours – and he did so all day,” Southerland wrote in an email. “More than 400 people came to the church that day. When we compiled the reviews of the 50 or so sites from (the Open House) that year, Big Bethel was tied for favorite site with the Federal Reserve building.  And the comments all cited Jeffrey Robinson’s architectural knowledge and passion for a beautiful building.”

Robinson attended Frank L. Stanton Elementary School and Booker T. Washington High School. According to the “Jeffrey’s Journey” program handed out at the Celebration of Life at Big Bethel, Robinson followed his father’s footsteps and graduated from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) receiving a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1984.

J.W. Robinson & Associates had designed dozens of homes in the historic Collier Heights community, where many prominent African-Americans lived, including Ralph David Abernathy and his wife, Juanita Abernathy.

A photo of the Robinson family that appeared in the Celebration of Life program passed out on Dec. 7. Seated L-R: Joseph W. Robinson Sr. and his wife – Willie Louise Robinson, and his daughter – Janice Burns. Standing: Joseph W. Robinson Jr. and Jeffrey L. Robinson (Special)

One of the more prominent homes Joseph Robinson designed was a 10,000 square foot ranch that he designed in 1963 for Herman J. Russell, the late construction mogul. The design included an indoor swimming pool, a recreation room with a dance floor, a bar, a wine cellar that doubled as a fallout shelter and a terrace that opened onto tennis courts and a basketball court.

Robinson also boasted that Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. had been his clients. Among his other projects were the 1974 restoration of the King birth home on Auburn Avenue as well as the modern Atlanta Life Insurance building (now part of Georgia State University).

The elder Robinson was also the first African-American architect in Georgia to become a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1995, recognized for his role in restoring historic buildings and designing new ones.

The death of Jeffrey Robinson leaves a hole for those fighting for the preservation of African-American treasures in Atlanta.

Robinson leaves behind his wife, Clarissa Jones Robinson; three daughters – Chantia, Janae and Ciera; a brother – Joseph Robinson Jr.; and a sister – Janice Burns.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to Hampton University Department of Architecture for the J.W. Robinson Sr. Architectural Scholarship Fund.

A personal note:

My father – I.E. “Ike” Saporta – worked with J.W. Robinson Sr. in 1958. J.W. needed to work with a registered architect before he could get his license. My father opened up an office on Auburn Avenue so he, Robinson and another African-American architect – Charles Bryant – could seek business.

Before he passed away in 2008, J.W. Robinson told me: “The office only stayed open about six months. We could not get enough business to support the office. It was very difficult because most white architects were afraid they would lose their white clientele if they did business with African-Americans. It was just a little too early.”

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Maria Saporta
Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Max Leventhal December 10, 2019 10:52 am

    Thank you for this article. I had two opportunities to work with Jeff and his office, for which I feel lucky to have played a small part. He was a great collaborator; generous and kind in spirit. Peace and love.

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    jay scott December 10, 2019 7:01 pm

    Jeff’s passing is a great loss. We have been working with him and his team on the restoration of the Historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church, which was the church home of Dr. Ralph David Abernathy during the key years of the civil rights movement. Not only was Jeff knowledgeable about architecture and the NPS process, but he was a true gentleman and a joy to be around. He always had interesting stories, important information and a great perspective to share. He is missed already.

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    Eeich Swett December 17, 2019 9:00 am

    I worked with Jeff when he was at Turner Associates in 1990. HE was a very good architect. I’m sorry he passed away so young.

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    Melody Harclerode December 17, 2019 4:25 pm

    Thank you for such an eloquent tribute to Jeffrey. Although I left his father’s firm twenty years ago, Jeffrey remained a friendly source for more information about African-American landmarks, Atlanta communities, and the architectural profession. I will miss his insight, encouragement, can-do spirit, and wonderful chuckle.

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    Melody Harclerode December 17, 2019 4:40 pm

    Thank you for capturing Jeffrey’s personal and professional impact on the architectural community with such eloquence. I will sorely miss his insight, encouragement, and can-do spirit.

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