Azurest South in southern Chesterfield County. Photo by Isaac Harrell
Amaza Lee Meredith defied conventions. In 1930s Virginia, she created one of the state's first International Style residences; Azurest South, completed in 1939, was her home and studio adjacent to Virginia State University in southern Chesterfield County. Meredith was one of only a few African-Americans — or women — in architectural practice at the time.
The clean, modern lines of the house are quite familiar to us today, but in Virginia, enthralled during the '30s by Colonial Revival architecture inspired by the Colonial Williamsburg restoration project, its curved corners and glass-block windows seemed strange. Architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson observes, "Extremely controversial because of its advanced design, it was scarcely appreciated by anybody."
Meredith, born in 1895 in Lynchburg, was the eldest daughter of Emma Pink Kenney, who was African-American, and Samuel Peter Meredith, who was white. Kenney and Meredith were forbidden from legal marriage in Virginia at the time — even traveling to their ceremony in Washington required riding in separate cars. However, their passion and courage couldn't overcome the day's racism; Samuel Meredith, a stair builder, lost clients and committed suicide in 1915. That same year, Amaza Meredith graduated from high school among the top scholars of her class. She then went to Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (now VSU).
After a stint of teaching at the 110-student Indian Rock School in Botetourt County and at a high school in Lynchburg, Meredith enrolled in the Teacher's College of Columbia University in New York City. There she majored in fine arts and graduated with honors in 1930, and later earned a master's degree in 1934.
She began teaching art classes in 1930 at her alma mater, then called the Virginia State College for Negroes. In 1935, she founded the art department and directed it until her 1958 retirement. At the same time, Meredith exhibited her artwork at galleries in Virginia, North Carolina and New York. She later focused on architecture and interior design, though she was not professionally trained in either discipline.
Azurest South is a bold declaration and metaphor of her individuality. She created it as home for herself and her companion, Edna Meade Colson, who headed the VSU School of Education.
It's a five-room, single-story, stucco-finished concrete-block dwelling nestled in a leafy dell east of campus. "The flat roof, designed as a terrace, is highlighted by plain metal coping and by steel pipe rails, all painted a bright turquoise or ‘Azurest blue,' " the national landmark documents say. The house's interior is characterized by vivid patterning of walls, floors and ceilings, and by unique lighting fixtures.
Meredith designed for friends and family in Virginia and Texas. She and her sister, Maude Kenney Meredith Terry, also built 120 vacation homes that they named "Azurest North" in a Sag Harbor, N.Y., enclave for middle-class blacks.
At her death in 1984, Meredith willed half of Azurest South to the Alumni Association. When her partner, Colson, died in 1986, the association purchased her portion. Azurest South was then used for storage.
In May 2011, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources issued its biannual report on the condition of state-owned properties. A highlight was the neglected Azurest South. "Memories fade," says Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the VDH. "Institutions forget what they have." The findings initiated a plan at VSU to restore the landmark house and give it a more active and appropriate use.