Vassar Today

Jeh Johnson, Retired Lecturer, Wins Roosevelt Medal

By Mally Anderson

The Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill honored architect and retired senior lecturer in art Jeh Johnson with an Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Award on October 18 at the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park. The award honors people and organizations who demonstrate the values that Roosevelt espoused in her public life, among them helping people in need and inspiring the next generation. Johnson taught architectural design at Vassar from 1964 to 2001. The Val-Kill Award lauded Johnson’s commitment to social awareness in architectural design and his belief that designers must recognize their social responsibilities and promote fairness and humane values through their work.

“I was very pleased to get this award. I respect the organization and many of the past award winners,” says Johnson, who looks up to Eleanor Roosevelt as an important figure of hope for black Americans during World War II. He cites her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution after that organization refused to allow African American singer Marian Anderson to perform in their concert hall as “the kind of symbol that blacks in the South needed to give us hope for future advancement.” At the ceremony, Johnson told the story of his brother Robert, who credited Roosevelt with helping him and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen when they were punished after refusing to leave their table at an officers’ club because of their race. “[Roosevelt] was more than just a mythic figure in my family. She meant a lot to us, and to get an award in her name was very moving to me,” says Johnson.

Johnson was an early pioneer of urban development, serving on President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Urban Problems in 1967. He was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1977, the highest honor awarded to practicing architects. In his private architecture practice, Johnson has designed various community and college buildings as well as numerous churches. Many of his designs can be seen around Poughkeepsie, where he resides. He designed the ALANA Center and Susan Stein Shiva Theater on Vassar’s campus as well as several buildings in the Poughkeepsie community.

The award also honored Johnson’s influence in urban development and his advocacy on behalf of young minority and female architects. He cofounded the National Organization of Minority Architects and the New York Coalition of Black Architects.

In his own practice, Johnson designed over 4,300 high-quality, low-cost housing units for underprivileged groups. “I went into the profession of architecture wanting to invest all my work with some of the understanding I’d gained through looking at groups of people in different situations in life,” says Johnson. “When I got started, I wanted to demonstrate how low-income, affordable housing financed by the government could be more than just holding pens, something that people could take pride in,” he adds.

When he began teaching at Vassar, Johnson became aware of the difficulties facing female architects, who, in the 1960s, represented only a tiny fraction of practicing architects. “I tried to encourage young women to go to graduate school, and I think I was quite successful in that,”he concludes. “Some of my students went on to be deans of schools of architecture or fellows on the Board of the American Institute of Architects. ”He still keeps in touch with some of his former students—one even attended the ceremony at Val-Kill.

Read Jeh Johnson’s memories of his teaching at Vassar.

—Mally Anderson '10

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries

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